There was a remarkable moment in Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate, and it happened so quickly that if you blinked, you’d miss it: Ashley Parker, an actual reporter for the Washington Post who had been deputized as MSNBC-moderator-for-a-night (one of a cadre that qualifies as the best ever, if you buy into Brian Williams’ post-debate superlatives, which…be careful), was addressing Elizabeth Warren on the topic of Trump’s wall, and chose to frame her question like so:
PARKER: Senator Warren, back to you. You’ve said that the border wall that President Trump has proposed is, quote, “a monument to hate and division.” Would you ask taxpayers to pay to take down any part of the wall on the nation’s southern border?
I sat there, gobsmacked, as I considered the implications of this question. I was expecting the usual absurdist framing from the moderators, designed to bolster centrist candidates—you know the old standbys by now, from “Do you want to give the sons and daughters of rich people free college education and/or debt relief?” to “Do you want to kick 160 million Americans off their beloved private insurance?” But this was truly a step beyond. Near as I could tell, Parker was taking the prospect of Trump’s wasteful, racist wall, putting the financial responsibility for its hypothetical future destruction on Warren, and literally accusing her by implication of taking Americans’ money for a rabid ideological mission to erase the last vestiges of Trump’s influence.
It takes, I have to say, a truly broken brain to devise this question. It involves skipping right past the monstrosity of the wall itself and somehow putting the blame on Elizabeth Warren (by extending the argument into a future that does not currently seem at all likely to transpire), who hasn’t been particularly outspoken about the wall in relation to the other candidates on stage, and who, as far as I can tell, has never mentioned bulldozing a structure that has not yet been erected!
What do you possibly say to this? How can you possibly evaluate a televised spectacle that includes an exchange of this sort? What can you think about a moderator who would ask this, and isn’t even on MSNBC’s regular roster of Russia paranoiacs?
If you’re Warren, you brush it aside as quickly as possible in an attempt to move the conversation to something—anything—substantial:
WARREN: If there are parts of the wall that are not useful in our defense, of course we should do it. The real point here is that we need to stop this manmade crisis at the border.
But Parker’s question, like Trump himself, was not a puzzling one-off; it was a symptom of a much larger problem, which is that the moderators at this year’s debates, along with many of the candidates, seem to view it as their job to attack any candidate not named Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris with cutting questions designed to sow doubt and even insult the candidate in the asking. And if they were just “tough questions,” that would be fine, but almost every time they are based on smokescreen logic like Parker’s example above. As mentioned earlier, the stupidity of asking leftist candidates about “kicking 160 million people off their health insurance” has become so normal as to be a debate ritual at this point, despite the fact that it’s deliberately misleading and anyone with a brain knows it: a Medicare-for-all system covers everyone, bar none, making private insurance (mostly) redundant. Nobody would lose insurance, but the question seeks to imply exactly that. It’s the same with the “rich people’s children!” scare tactic when it comes to student debt or free tuition at public colleges; something that would be massively helpful to millions of people is attacked with a financially irrelevant side effect in an attempt to smear it with bad optics.
And all of this comes from an allegedly left-wing press!
The candidates, or at least most of them, have learned the lesson, and true to form they spent most of the debate attempting to score a zinger or reciting pre-written speeches. One of the funniest things I saw all night came in the introduction to an otherwise moving statement by Cory Booker about John Lewis, one of the most inspiring men in America’s history who fought at great personal cost during the civil rights movement. Here’s how Booker started that closing statement:
I had a closing statement prepared, but I saw in the audience during the break a man named John Lewis. And perhaps it’s interesting and important for me to mention why I’m so grateful to him.
What followed was a two-minute speech that was so well-written, and so perfectly memorized and recited, that it absolutely could not have been invented on the fly “during the break,” as Booker claimed. Which raises the question, why lie?? Why not just give the nice John Lewis speech that you clearly prepared ahead of time without doing the cinematic “rip up the prepared speech” move?
I can’t answer for Booker, except to say that most of these candidates strive for the appearance of authenticity in the most inauthentic ways.
Mayor Pete, for instance: How anybody can watch his prepared rhetoric, full of Obama-style soaring paeans to American values that are simultaneously devoid of any substance, and consider him anything other than a phony is beyond me. As an example, read what he said after Andrea Mitchell served him up the “why should Americans take a chance on you?” softball:
Because I have the right experience to take on Donald Trump. I get that it’s not traditional establishment Washington experience, but I would argue we need something very different right now.
In order to defeat this president, we need somebody who can go toe-to-toe who actually comes from the kinds of communities that he’s been appealing to. I don’t talk a big game about helping the working class while helicoptering between golf courses with my name on them. I don’t even golf.
As a matter of fact, I never thought I’d be on a Forbes magazine list, but they did one of all the candidates by wealth, and I am literally the least wealthy person on this stage.
I also wore the uniform of this country and know what is at stake in the decisions that are made in the Oval Office and in the Situation Room. And I know how to bring people together to get things done. I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small. The usual way of doing business in Washington is what looks small.
NONE OF THIS MEANS A F*$%$#ING THING. It’s all pre-written rhetorical fluff, right down to the laugh lines, and can frankly only appeal to people who do not care at all about actual policy and view politics as nothing more than a mechanism for feeling good.
Almost everything he said was similarly empty, unless he was telling the audience why they couldn’t have Medicare for All even though, sure, he supports it, in theory, kinda. And yet, to watch the pundits on MSNBC afterward, he was the big winner! This, of course, was predictable, as I tweeted before the debate:
His other “big moment” came in a back-and-forth with Tulsi Gabbard about her meeting with Bashar al-Assad, and though Gabbard is despised by huge swaths of the Democratic electorate, particularly the centrists, and though judging by audience reaction Mayor Pete got the best of her, what it boiled down to on his side was arguing that it's bad for American leaders to meet with foreign leaders that are not already our friends. But as the old quote goes, you don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies, and what Buttigieg was advocating was an ultimately close-minded stance that falls right in line with the Hillary Clinton/George W. Bush school of foreign policy—one that always seems to lead to war. As long as you don't care about the actual implications of the words, though, this was a gotcha moment.
I wrote in June that modern debates are superficial theater, and Wednesday night proved the point. The moments we'll retain are the least substantive: Booker making his “you were high!” joke about Biden; Klobuchar pretending the perpetually terrified Nancy Pelosi “beats” Donald Trump every day or vaunting her ability to raise money from ex-boyfriends; Yang doing live-action memes; Bernie's “other than that, you like him” line.
There's a chance some of this could be different if the DNC could remove its head from the nether regions to realize that having ten people on stage is self-defeating, but maybe that's their best way in 2019 of trying to protect Biden. Isolate him within a group of five, and the fact that he can barely keep his eyes open or string a coherent sentence together would become painfully evident. Instead, he gets to talk marginally less while any interesting exchange is inevitably interrupted by a moderator who wants to hear what Tom Steyer has to say. If the Dems had any sense, they would immediately remove everyone but Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, and maybe Harris. (They won't: True to form, the next debate already has six qualifiers, with more likely to come.)
Which brings us to Biden. The funniest part of the entire debate came afterward, when MSNBC's pundits bent over backward to pretend that Biden was actually good, rather than embarrassing, before Lawrence O'Donnell delicately brought up the fact that he had the worst moment possible when he erased a woman of color who was literally standing on stage with him:
You could almost see the energy seeping from him at various points during the debate, and though that last moment made me feel sorry for him, the whole spectacle also gave me nightmares about how he would fare in a one-on-one debate with Trump.
As usual, none of this will affect any polls. I used to believe that was sad, that people weren’t paying attention, but the state of the primary debates is so superficial, and so hollow, that maybe the lack of post-debate movement speaks highly of the American people. Even as the pundits proclaim victory for Buttigieg, Biden, and even Klobuchar, it’s possible that the wisdom of the crowds will recognize the banality at the heart of Wednesday night’s endless grating farce.