The first Democratic debate started out like a cotillion with overly polite boys and girls trying not to step on each other’s patent leather shoes. It soon devolved into Bill de Blasio screaming shrilly that his opponents weren’t liberal enough. In fact, there were a lot of moments where smart women waited patiently for white men to stop lecturing them. By trying to make everyone happy, the Democrats succeeded in making everyone miserable.
It was like Donald Trump was working behind the scenes. There were problems with the mics that forced an early break; the TV picture kept cutting in and out; and the backdrop evoked a Mad Max dystopian hellscape. Did I mention those white men blowing past their time limits and bulldozing the moderators struggling to tell them their time was up? It was a bad night and a bad format. And why is Mayor de Blasio yelling at me?
There were so many people on the stage in need of name tags, and the whole thing felt needlessly chaotic. Why did co-moderator Chuck Todd need a “lightning round”? In a debate with 10 people, every round is a lightning round.
Winners did emerge from this mess: the smart and organized Julian Castro, finally making the case for himself as the Texas politician who belongs in this race; the plucky and charming Amy Klobuchar; and frontrunner Elizabeth Warren, who managed to maintain her big ideas in a tiny talking time and her stature on a crowded stage.
But let’s start with the losers, like Tulsi Gabbard yelling that she doesn’t like war or her sister tweeting out from the campaign account that MSNBC was fixing things for Warren by giving her all the speaking time (in fact, Cory Booker got the most time, followed by Beto O’Rourke and then Warren). There was Gabbard embarrassing Tim Ryan after he said that the Taliban flew planes into buildings, not al Qaeda. And, again, de Blasio yelling over everyone. At one point, he got cut off, mid-interruption, so NBC could go to commercial. And it’s probably not a great sign for the NBC/MSNBC sound people that they got a presidential tweet mocking the technical problems.
Perhaps the biggest downer of the night, though, was the competitive Spanish speaking. It started with O’Rourke on the very first question. Then Booker chimed in, and O’Rourke doubled down. Castro kept everyone in suspense until his closing statement when he said he was running por presidente de los Estados Unidos.” (Or is that vice presidente?)
There were some great moments, like the Great Texas Smackdown, when Castro owned tall, handsome, and lost-looking O’Rourke. Castro cleanly summed up the lethal Trump-manufactured crisis on the border: “The reason that they are separating these little children from their families is that they are using Section 1325 of that act which criminalizes coming across the border to incarcerate the parents and then separate them.”
Klobuchar cutting off Jay Inslee when he boasted he was the “only candidate” who’d signed a law protecting women’s right to an abortion: “I just want to say there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose, I’ll start with that.” And Rachel Maddow gracefully and thoughtfully doing what she could to enable all of the candidates to speak.
When they had finished speaking, Warren walked away with her frontrunner status unchanged after a historic night—the first presidential debate stage with multiple women on it, and it was clear that those women are as competent if not more so than their male counterparts. It’s possible that those pictures of women standing on stage staring at white men, waiting for them to stop talking, will be what’s remembered from an otherwise forgettable night.