To paraphrase Shakespeare, Washington is empty and all the devils are in Detroit. Motor City played host to the second round of debates in the Democratic primary. During the two final nights of July, there were 20 presidential candidates on a stage in Michigan.
That leaves only one presidential candidate in the District of Columbia, and he’s sitting somewhere in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You imagine him with the remote in one hand and a phone in the other. You imagine him grumbling beside an abandoned and wrinkled McDonald’s hamburger wrapper, and maybe there’s a pad and a sharpie somewhere nearby where he’s scribbling down nicknames for those bodies on the stage. You wonder if he participates in this alone.
A few hours before the first debate, I texted campaign staffers asking what I should use as drinking cues for the night as their bosses squared off. One wrote back “impossible promises” but I wasn’t trying to crawl out of the bar and another wrote “the system is working for the top corporations and banks.” Again, that’s the sort of language that would leave you gripping the spine of a streetlamp outside a Washington hotel bar and heaving into a gutter. Perhaps the best answer came from a fire-breathing staffer, who told me “I’m not previewing shit.”
The top wizards—Aaron Blake at The Washington Post and Chris Cillizza at CNN—figure that Warren and Sanders carried the first night. Sanders’ highlight came when he was asked about his Medicare-for-All plan, and he snapped “I wrote the damn bill.” An hour later, his campaign was peddling stickers with that tagline across them. The first night was the largest split so far between the progressives and the moderates running for the Oval Office. The trio of CNN talking heads were hell-bent on getting the candidates to stare into that divide. Some of them, like Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke, tried to straddle or dodge and ended up setting themselves on fire. Blake and Cillizza both crowned Beto as one of their losers. It may be time for the Texan to start selling his yard signs shaped as tombstones.
There were a few other figures on that stage who should be mentioned, Marianne Williamson, the California queen of absurdity who earned frequent applause and warned us about a “dark psychic force.” Pete Buttigieg was there too and he did about as well as we expected, and you just figure the young Kennedyesque mayor is hedging on the long game because he’s no hero on a debate stage. There were a few governors but you’ve already forgotten their names and states. Only that they were interchangeable white men put in the line-up because apparently that’s something they’re worried the Democrats might be short on.
I thought I saw, over the last two days, a president, a vice president and half a dozen cabinet secretaries. But not if they continue to beat each other up.
During that first night, most of Washington wandered into dive bars where young crowds cheered on Bernie Sanders but the second night promised something more serious—Harris vs. Biden. The Harris-Biden battle wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to watch at a bar if you’re a political junkie in the same way that bloodthirsty football fans stay away from the bars during the Super Bowl. And CNN did their best to make it a Super Bowl event, with sizzle reels so intense we expected the candidates to emerge on the stage through columns of smoke with ‘Eye of the Tiger’ howling through the entire city of Detroit.
The press gave Joe Biden a handicap on that second night. The wisdom being that as long as the 76-year-old didn’t accidentally endorse something as bizarre as reinstating prohibition, he made out alright. Biden fielded Harris’ attacks better than he did during the first debate in Miami; he looked a bit more prepared. The former veep made a few nods to his old boss but shied away when asked about controversial Obama policies, leaving Sen. Cory Booker to tell him “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.” Eager for blood, the CNN moderators gave Biden and Harris frequent opportunities to shoot at each other.
The other notables on that stage included Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet. Booker, a former tight end at Stanford, managed to land a few hits at Biden, who was forced to defend Obamacare, once saying “Obamacare is working.” In fact, health care ate up much of the debates on both nights, so much that you almost forgot these politicians had lengthy climate change platforms.
In the end, it was just an exhausting spectacle and we all slept until noon on Thursday. If you had a candidate, you said that your candidate did a great job but it’s nearly impossible to imagine anybody changing their mind about the direction of the race after those two brutal nights in Detroit. On the day after the second debate, I called DNC Executive Committeewoman Christine Pelosi to see if the entire exercise had been worth it. She said “I think our candidates are all better, or most of them anyway, are better than that format,” adding later, “I thought I saw, over the last two days, a president, a vice president and half a dozen cabinet secretaries. But not if they continue to beat each other up.”
The candidates won’t climb on the debate stage again until September, and there are likely to be a few less of them on that night. As July shed itself to August, only seven had qualified for the next debate. With luck, we will have a narrower field and a more chiseled set of talking points. If not, that Twitter junkie padding around on Pennsylvania Avenue is almost certainly in for another term.