by Rich Smith
Only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, CNN treated the good people of Des Moines (and anyone with a CNNgo account, or a Twitter feed) to a dull, disingenuous debate on several policy issues the Democratic candidates have more or less already discussed. Even the six candidates who made the cut—Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer—looked tired of saying the same shit over and over again. And that’s a shame. Though viewership has steadily declined over the last million or so Democratic debates, these evenings don’t have to be so bad. Given the toss-up status of the races in the early states, the country could have used a substantive, robust conversation that drew clear contrasts between the candidates.
But that didn’t happen. And yet, the show went on! Some fun stuff was said, and some fun stuff was not said. Any of it consequential? Not likely! But it’s worth a little walk through the highlights and lowlights of the worst debate yet.
The best moment: I chef-kissed my fingers for a solid minute watching Sen. Amy Klobuchar attempting to give a shoutout to Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, a person Klobuchar claimed she was “proud to know.” But instead of demonstrating that pride by remembering the governor’s name, she struggled to recall it: “Her name is, um, uh, Governor Kell…thank you.” After the schadenfreude wore off, I felt sorry for her. I blank on names all the time, as we all do. But half of Klobuchar’s debate strategy relied on pandering to midwestern farmers as if they were all on her Christmas card list, and the Rick Perry moment revealed her bullshit for what it was. Perry went on to head the agency he forgot he wanted to cut, so maybe this will all work out for Klobuchar.
The refs sucked: Normally I roll my eyes when people yell at the moderators during debates, but, holy shit. The underlying assumptions beneath nearly every question CNN anchors asked painted Sanders as a lying, socialist, misogynist who plans to bankrupt the country and betray our troops. Though they didn’t seem too concerned about the costs of keeping soldiers fighting forever-wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were happy to implicitly accuse Sanders of “bankrupting the country” with his Medicare for All plan, which, as Sanders pointed out, would not happen.
Slate has a good round-up of all the loaded questions CNN lobbed Sanders’s way: But it’s worth highlighting another particularly bad call. When CNN asked Sanders if he told Warren that a woman couldn’t beat Trump, Sanders said he did not. The moderator then asked Warren what she said when Sanders told her a woman couldn’t beat Trump, and then un-silenced the audience mic to allow applause to ring out. If you hadn’t been following the dismal controversy on Twitter —that is, if you were one of Klobuchar’s Iowan farmers—you’d be rightfully confused. Why did CNN assume Sanders was lying, immediately take Warren’s side, and then congratulate themselves for doing it? Why not ask which of the two was lying and then attempt to get to the bottom of it? Because, well, the moderators didn’t like Sanders.
People also made a big deal out of Warren refusing Sanders’s handshake. Gasp:
WATCH: As they walked off of the #DemDebate stage — Elizabeth Warren rejected Bernie Sanders’s handshake and they exchanged words https://t.co/1Sglwm1S1X pic.twitter.com/sEHeEJ2gOC
— Bloomberg (@business) January 15, 2020
Warren made a somewhat strong electability case: Warren effectively used the beef with Bernie to pivot into her own electability argument:
Keep in mind that the men on this stage have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every race are the women—Amy and me. #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/K4aMQ3VB6d
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) January 15, 2020
This line went over particularly well, especially given that later Sanders demonstrated his inability to listen to women by fact-checking a claim that Warren got right. However, while it’s true that Warren was the only person onstage who has defeated a Republican in the last 30 years, beating a Republican in Massachusetts is a little different than defeating Trump in the 2020 swing states.
Bernie on climate: During the conversation on whether the candidates support Trump’s United States–Mexico–Canada trade agreement, Sanders’s opposition on climate grounds stood out from the pack. He flexed his Sunrise Movement endorsement and refused to pander to Iowa farmers who may like the short-term relief the new deal may provide, but who will not like floods wiping out more of their fields every year.
Nobody attacked Biden: Though he’s currently enjoying a little surge in early state polling, Biden’s brainworms rested easy as the moderators focused their questions on the dangers of progressive legislation and the wisdom of incremental change. Though Warren’s newly released bankruptcy plan set her up to nail the former Vice President for fighting against her on reforms back in 2005, and though the recent threat of open war with Iran gave Sanders an opportunity to hit Biden for his Iraq war vote, Biden largely skated by unscathed, thanks in part to moderators muddying the waters on the Iraq war vote and not bringing up Biden’s cozy relationship with credit card companies.
Tom Steyer owes Gov. Jay Inslee money: Throughout the debate, Steyer kept saying he was the “only candidate who will make climate change his number one priority,” despite the fact that Sanders has said that the first thing he’ll do in office is use executive orders to ban offshore drilling, pull pipeline permits, and investigate fossil fuel companies. Regardless, Steyer straight up stole Inslee’s line, and he needs to pay royalties. Lord knows he’s got the money for it.