Notepads out, pencils in-hand, and water at the ready, a pack of Democratic presidential candidates did battle last night in the first nationally televised debate of the primary.
There were no mentions of little hands, no personal insults, and not much entertainment (Donald Trump after all wasn’t part of the show), but there were plenty of generalities, talking points, and soliloquies. The two-hour debate was quite frankly a boring affair, with the more low-profile, desperate candidates trying to get the attention of the moderators like an elementary school student tries to impress the teacher.
There was Elizabeth Warren at centre stage, the professor with a plan for every single problem America faces. There was Cory Booker, the senator from New Jersey who tried throughout the night to get Americans to remember their better angels. Beto O’Rourke, the hot-shot former congressman from Texas who nearly won a Senate seat against the reviled Ted Cruz, was all hair and no action. When he wasn’t being cut off by the moderators, former Maryland congressman John Delaney tried to portray himself as the common-sense entrepreneur with practical solutions. And there were a few like Tulsi Gabbard, another congresswoman, who attempted to brandish their commander-in-chief credentials by talking about national security.
The debate was a placid and largely civil affair. The only time it got heated was when Rep. Tim Ryan suggested that U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan, which earned him a quick and forceful rebuke from Gabbard, who reminded her colleague that American soldiers have been fighting and dying in the country for a generation with little to show for it.
Other than that exchange, the two hours were like watching paint dry. There were more similarities than differences. Everyone on stage thinks Trump is a goon who is a danger to the American Republic. All of them want to reform the country's immigration system to make it more generous and humane to those immigrants seeking asylum. Each one of them spoke about a highly unequal economy that privileged the few at the expense of the many. And to a tee, each described climate change as an existential threat to the planet.
While it’s always silly to rate candidates after one debate (add up the commercial breaks, the moderators asking questions, and the applause, and candidates are lucky if they get ten minutes to speak), naming and shaming is part of the horserace. Former San Antonio Mayor and Barack Obama cabinet secretary Julián Castro was the winner of the night, polished, eloquent, and substantive enough to get a real look from primary voters searching for a youthful alternative. Warren was solid, even if her answers were a little too antiseptic in some areas. Ryan showed some potential until he mentioned staying involved in Afghanistan, an idea most Americans—and certainly Americans registered as Democrats—find repugnant.
O’Rourke, the Texan who resembles Bobby Kennedy, was the loser. He talked without really saying anything and appeared unprepared when asked for specifics. For small-dollar donors who were already second guessing their support for Beto, Wednesday night’s debate may be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Luckily for O’Rourke and the other candidates who had a rough or less-than-memorable night, this was the first audition. There will be many opportunities between now and the first voting in Iowa. And Trump will be watching like the rest of us, lying in bed, tweeting his thoughts, and waiting for the Democrats to pick a nominee.