And finally it was time for another debate to help America choose the Democratic presidential nominee for next year’s election.  I’m never sure who sets each debate up—The network?  The party?  Some nonpartisan commission of wise men?—but this time the debate moved networks, to CNN.  This time they modified the drawing procedure to ‘seed’ the top four candidates so that two would be on each night, and—surprise, surprise—Joseph Biden ended up onstage with tormenter Kamala Harris and the two leading progressives, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were on together the first night. 

There wasn’t much change in the stage order, save for the candidates onstage being a little different and that Montana governor Steve Bullock replaced Voice of a Generation Eric Swalwell, who left the race, which somebody somewhere noticed.  Poll leaders Warren and Sanders were in the middle, flanked by Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, with John Delaney and Bullock at one end and Amy Klobuchar, Ohio’s Tim Ryan and author Marianne Williamson at the other.  And after the party proved their patriotism by having a national anthem ceremony (Mad once made fun of Barry Goldwater’s conservatism by saying that the speech would begin after the national anthem, but this, I guess, is what it’s come to), off we went, beginning with the reassuring tedium of opening statements, skipped last time.

And where we were going was pretty obvious when mine host asked Sanders what he thought of Delaney’s stated opinion that his Medicare For All sentiment was political suicide.  And this was the pattern all night: one of the progressive candidates would be asked to comment on a criticism from a moderate or vice versa.  Which was great news for end-of-the-stager Delaney, who got to jump right in and rebut Sanders’ rebuttal.  And so it went, with Delaney, Ryan, Bullock, and Hickenlooper serving as designated foils to progressives Warren and Sanders.  On the whole, this was good news for the end-of-the-benchers, but not so much for the more difficult to pigeonhole Buttigieg, Williamson, and O’Rourke.

The debate bogged down (40 minutes) on initial topic health care, moved on to immigration and gun violence (11 minutes each), electability (13 minutes, though that ended up being more about health care than anything having remotely to do with defeating the incumbent).  Climate change (12 minutes) gave way to a false start on infrastructure (2 minutes), racial division (10 minutes), the economy (15 minutes, 20 if you count five minutes ostensibly on college costs but mostly more about the economy).  Nobody, including moderators, ever cares much about foreign policy, but it got 12 minutes, and after the youngest, Buttigieg, conveniently standing next to the oldest, Sanders, spurned the chance to comment on each other’s age, we moved ahead to closing statements, which were divided between storytellers (Klobuchar, Sanders), reminiscers (Delaney, Bullock),  resume guys (Hickenlooper, Warren), and philosophers (Williamson, Buttigieg, Ryan, O’Rourke).

In general, the technique of sticking two people in the pit to have a fight seemed to work pretty well.Ryan and Delaney, last month’s bovver boys, were much better behaved, probably because they didn’t have so much time on their hands, Delaney even demonstrating a rare comedic side by challenging Sanders to an arm-waving contest.O’Rourke distinguished himself, slightly, in my mind at least, when, being the seventh candidate to be asked a question about health care, he became the first to actually answer it, as did Williamson, who premiered a rather charming Leslie Caron-cum-Rosalynn Carter accent and actually said things that were a little more substantive than the late-night scoffers give her credit for. As far as anybody, especially the frontrunners, doing much to change their popularity one way or another, that was difficult for me to see, though with the standards being tightened to be included in the September debates, probably candidates such as O’Rourke and Klobuchar who are perceived by the punditry as having lost whatever momentum they ever had, were, de facto, the losers.The big winners were probably America’s snack food manufacturers, since the evening expanded by a third to almost three hours—now I know why daytime CNN promised a segment on chip-and-dip recommendations.