Biden Didn’t Dodder, and Other Observations

 

Paul Sancya/AP Photo

Joe Biden was considerably more caffeinated this time than in his first go-round.

Wednesday’s debate having proceeded in minute-length chunks, I’ll try to convey my reactions with similar brevity.

First, Joe Biden was considerably more caffeinated this time than in his first go-round. He passed the normal candidate test, which is the ability to answer questions about (in his case, the many) questionable positions he’s taken by changing the subject. Far from the best debater on stage, he was nonetheless wide awake and not notably doddering. Fending off more progressive proposals, though, he did occasionally call to mind Alexander Pope’s sometimes-reassuring, sometimes-not line, “Whatever is, is right.”

Second, Kirsten Gillibrand managed in her closing statement to claim that she was both a liberal and a moderate. Why, though, did she stop there? Why not also a conservative, a libertarian, a Trotskyite, or a longtime auto mechanic from Salt Lake City?

Third, what was Tulsi Gabbard up to? After Joe Biden made his one (because unavoidable) admission that, yes, he once made a huge mistake—voting in 2002 for the war in Iraq—the moderator asked Gabbard, who is running as the anti-war candidate and who was also the one Iraq War veteran on the stage, to respond. Jaw-droppingly, she let Biden totally off the hook, not so much as mentioning him in her response, rather saying only that George W. Bush had deceived everyone. Actually, he didn’t. A sizable majority of House Democrats and a number of Senate Democrats, too, voted no on the authorization on which Biden voted yes. The candidate on stage whom Gabbard did go after was Kamala Harris, excoriating her record as a lock-’em-up prosecutor. Harris, of course, came into the evening as Biden’s designated rival. Is Gabbard looking for an appointment in the Biden administration? Just wonderin’.

Fourth, Harris actually wasn’t Biden’s chief rival on the stage in this debate; almost everyone (except Tulsi the Reticent) went after him for something or other—perhaps Julián Castro, who challenged Biden on the criminalization of the undocumented, most effectively.

Fifth, Harris has backed off her initial Medicare for All endorsement, but was pummeled anyway by Medicare-for-All foe Biden for backing off, for extending Medicare for All’s four-year phase-in to ten years. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Sixth, absent the dynamic duo of Bernie and Elizabeth, there really wasn’t much if any discussion of structural changes to the economy, though Bill de Blasio got in a few zingers on the subject. For what it may be worth, structural changes like the wealth tax and dividing corporate boards between shareholder and employee representatives, which are genuinely more radical than Medicare for All, are also genuinely more popular.

Seventh, most of the candidates actually acquitted themselves fairly well. Jay Inslee, who was all but silent in the first debate, piped up effectively; even Michael Bennet, who gives the impression he doesn’t particularly like speaking in public, had his moments. Cory Booker, by contrast, clearly relishes speaking in public; he’s good at it.

Eighth, what is Tulsi up to?

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