New Republic - September 13, 2019

"More than four months before the Iowa caucuses, too many reporters and political junkies misunderstand the purpose of these early debates. The goal is not to tote up the winners based on their ability to gin up scathing attacks and YouTube moments. At this stage in the race, the point is to allow Democratic primary voters to grow comfortable with their favored candidates as they watch the contenders spar repeatedly over the course of the fall."

The morning following a Democratic debate is like waking up after a loud cocktail party and trying to piece together the discordant images from a long night.

You recall Bernie Sanders, true to form, saying, with literally his four opening words, “Let me be blunt.” There is the weird memory of a tieless Andrew Yang morphing into a 1950s game show host as he promised to award $1,000 a month to whichever ten voters submit the most heart-rending essays on why they need the money. There was the moment when a laughing Kamala Harris likened Donald Trump to the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. (“You know, when you pull back the curtain, he’s a really small dude.”) And, of course, who can forget when Joe Biden said “record player” instead of that poetic phrase “MP3 download”?

Was that Julian Castro who spilled a drink on Biden? No, wait, it wasn’t a drink. Castro embarrassed himself by attacking Biden for supposedly not remembering what he said on health care two minutes earlier, when, in truth, the former vice president had been mostly consistent.

The heavy-handed implication that the 76-year-old Biden is facing cognitive decline may prove to be Castro’s most viral moment from this race. When, barring a miracle, he eventually withdraws, his failed takedown of Biden will probably be in the opening paragraphs of his political obituaries.

More than four months before the Iowa caucuses, too many reporters and political junkies misunderstand the purpose of these early debates. The goal is not to tote up the winners based on their ability to gin up scathing attacks and YouTube moments. At this stage in the race, the point is to allow Democratic primary voters to grow comfortable with their favored candidates as they watch the contenders spar repeatedly over the course of the fall.

Amy Klobuchar, in interviews in New Hampshire last weekend, touched on something important about debates: “You know, people keep saying you have to have this viral moment. And I point out that’s what they are. Those are just moments and they help people with fundraising for one day.” A ten-candidate primary debate will never produce canonical moments of the sort that, say, Ronald Reagan had in 1984, when he deflected concerns about his age in a general-election debate against Walter Mondale by cracking, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” ...
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