AND BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON WE WEPT: NIGHT TWO OF THE DEMOCRATIC DEBATES
My great question going in was: Who is Marianne Williamson? Apparently America joined me, for in the runup to the great event, Mine Host introduced a reporter who had been assigned to research the very question. Now, let me begin by saying that I thought I knew who Marianne Williamson was not: I thought I remembered that Barack H. Obama’s favorite novelist was a woman with a similar name, a novelist with a New Age bent who doubtless held herself far above the hurly-burly of politics. But no: this indeed was one and the same woman as the one whom Barack H. Obama had come to fancy.
And, in the fulness of time, out she came to take her place at the end of the stage, where the trailing candidates in the polls are assigned, her counterpoint at the opposite fringe spot being a congressman from Cali named Eric Swalwell. Front and center, of course, was frontrunner Lunchpail Joe Biden, flanked by Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, who in turn were flanked by Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang, who were flanked by John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
On the night the question distribution turned out to be a rather lumpier bell curve than the night before; Biden with eight questions and Sanders with six indeed led the way, and Buttigieg got five, but next to them Harris and Yang each got two. Harris still managed to get into the mix as often as anybody, while Yang seemed to accept his fate with the same sort of stoic, too-cool-for-school savoir-faire that led him to dress down for the evening (quoth Mine Host: ‘Would it kill ya to put on a tie?’) and, though he abjured his standard F-bombs, he did manage to inject a bit of ribaldry into the evening (‘they’re laughing their asses off’) that was picked up, at least slightly, by the usually buttoned-down Buttigieg, whose jape, alas, was not quite barnyard enough for me to remember it. Meanwhile, Bennet, from his corner, got five questions, for no apparent reason, and even a couple of the placeholders on the ends merited three.
So off we went. Again the evening began with pocketbook issues, which this time were not met with the same sort of discursive quasi-opening statements as the previous night. In other words, they mostly answered the questions they were given, yet another minor miracle in American politics. They all pretty much agreed on this, as they did on health care, though this night said topic, instead of morphing into a discussion of abortion, stayed, roughly, on topic. A show of hands of those who wished to abolish private health insurance got two takers, Sanders and Harris, but everybody raised their hands for covering illegal (or, as Democrats insist on saying, ‘undocumented’) immigrants.
But enmity was brewing. In a foretaste of what was to come, Swalwell, who was an exception to what I just said about people starting off by keeping on topic and related a rambling epic about going to see a politician speak when he was a tyke and being told that it was time to pass the torch to the rising generation. Said politician was, unsurprisingly, Joseph Biden, who rolled with the punch and grinned and laughed his way through a rejoinder which tried to set a tone of geniality which was echoed by Bennet’s continual name-checking of other people on stage who had great ideas and were brilliant thinkers.
Yet the quotient of yelling was crescendoing, led by Gillibrand, who had apparently been anointed the night’s buttinsky, but the whole group was eventually (and mercifully, for at least this viewer) chastened into relative order by Harris’ schoolmarmish “America didn’t tune in to see a food fight!” Chastened, that is, except for Gillibrand, who persisted in interrupting for a few minutes until she tried to pick a shouting match with Sanders; she would have done better to have started a shouting match with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and retreated into her relatively demure Hillary-lite persona for the rest of the evening.
The volume dropped, but not the controversy. Once we had skated past immigration and trade and got to civil rights, the moderators, inevitably, asked Buttigieg about his administration of his police department, which has been beset by every concern of the Black Lives Matter people and then some. Given his propensity to try and bland his way through everything, I was not surprised that his answer to being asked why he didn’t fix it was to simply say, “Because I couldn’t” and smile, a technique well-known to generations of misbehaving children who recognize the approach’s strength as appearing to be forthright and frank whilst in actuality saying absolutely nothing. This didn’t wash with Swalwell, who shouted from the wings, “Fire the police chief!” which in turn evoked the similarly monosyllabic, “I can’t do that”, this time accompanied with a determined scowl rather than a smile. But that worked no better. Next on the pile was Hickenlooper, followed by Williamson, who at least ended her spiel by changing the subject enough to get him off the hook.
We weren’t done, though. Indeed we had barely started. Harris started in on an indictment of Biden for his civil rights record which eventually turned quite weepy, and managed to briefly upset the air of geniality which otherwise ruled Lunchpail Joe’s night. His rote response seemed mostly designed to calm the embarrased room; he was playing defense, as he was all night. Harris’ tears probably struck many as a refreshing sign of authenticity, but it also killed any chance she had of winning one of my bullyproofed Biglys: if Lunchbox Joe can make you cry, the Orange Windbag is probably going to send you to that land we heard about in the sixties song Rivers of Salt.
After yesternight’s relative success with the ‘lightning round’ of one-word answers which at least kept the candidates down to one sentence for the most part, the moderators tried again with “If you had to pick one issue to focus on, which one would it be?” Hickenlooper and Bennet united as Coloradans on climate change, though Bennet managed to end by mumbling on about economic inequality. Williamson wanted the USA to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up. Yang woke up long enough to plug his pet plan of giving everybody a thousand dollars a year. Buttigieg wanted to fix democracy. Tonight’s crowd-pleaser/Trump-basher was Biden, who just wanted to ‘defeat Donald Trump’. Sanders, as always, wanted to start a revolution. The moderators stopped Harris after she got to four issues. Gillibrand wanted a family bill of rights, necessarily, because of time limits, leaving the world in suspense as to what that might mean, and Swalwell was back on his nextgen pony.
There were further less than interesting jousts on gridlock, climate, and guns, and a question or two from the audience, and then the moderators decided to try another ‘lightning round’, this time flipping yesternight’s question about America’s greatest enemy to with whom they would first repair our relationship broken by The Donald. We had a lot of multilateralists. Swalwell, Biden, Williamson, Harris, and Bennet all went for NATO (though Bennet, who seems to not understand the concept ‘one’, tried to change his mind to Latin America at some point during his ramble through the dictionary). Less militaristic but still multilateralist were Williamson’s European Union and Sanders’ United Nations, leaving Gillibrand with Iran and Yang and Hickenlooper with China, and Buttigieg’s unusually combative stance of refusing to answer probably the most important, and certainly easiest, question he was asked all night.
And so it was time for closing statements. I had been waiting for a burst of New Ageism from Williamson all night, and still didn’t get it, as she vented her high level of disappointment that nobody but her seemed to be paying attention to the urgency of defeating Trump. Swalwell—guess what—wanted Americans to get the message that it was time to put Millenials in charge of things. Bennet also focused on the rising generation, but he wants to lead them gently along the path to a better life his ownself. Hickenlooper and Gillibrand both went with resume, his conciliatory, hers truculent. Perhaps trying to resolve Williamson’s misgivings about the combativeness of the lot, Yang said he had the coalition-building skills to defeat Trump, whilst Harris said she would prosecute Trump in the court of public opinion just as she had prosecuted many a criminal in Alameda County. Sanders brought out his stump speech about how nothing will change until people demand it forcefully enough, and Lunchpail Joe closed the show by impugning Trump for draining America of its soul by embracing racists and despots. And into the night they went. Biden and Sanders shook hands. Bennet shook every hand he could find. In general, they milled around the stage somewhat longer than last night’s group, who all seemed to have dinner plans. And it was time for me to award the night’s Biglys.
These were a lot less straightforward than the night before.As far as who did well, I don’t think anybody hurt themselves, though at the same time the only one I saw perhaps winning some converts was Harris, though I also remember the quick downfall of the last lachrymose Democrat I can remember, Maine’s Edmund Muskie, who cried his way into oblivion when somebody said something he didn’t like about his wife in the runup to 1972.As for somebody I liked better at the end of the night than the beginning (as well as a favorite no-hoper), that would be Yang, less for anything he said (which, after his first question evoked a torrent of statistics about value added taxes which wouldn’t have interested Robert Novak, amounted to nothing since he was never called on again) than for his indifference to his mistreatment at the hands of entertainment-obsessed moderators.My Bullyproofed Bigly’s went to all of the Big Four except for Harris (who is now, as mentioned, permanently eliminated from bullyproofed consideration); Biden because, after a third of the century in the Senate, he’s probably seen as bad as The Donald, and Sanders and Buttigieg, if only because they seem to rarely notice that there’s anybody else on the stage.And, off to the side, Swalwell probably has done in his share of bullies, so he gets one too.Unlike last night, when everybody I ended up disliking I had disliked to begin with, Gillibrand took a tumble in my regard, but since she was never going to be my favorite candidate anyway, I’m sure that she cares not.And in a general observation, I wondered at the disappearance of all the radicalism that had led Barack H. Obama (and many a pundit) to speculate that the Democrats were pretty far along organizing the circular firing squad that seems to be a quadrennial feature of their politics.And so I retired, wondering “Where did ‘Abolish ICE’ go? Where did ‘Abolish private health insurance go?’”And then I slept, and as I slept I dreamt that Joe Biden picked me to have his baby.