Democratic Debate #4 Review: Elizabeth Warren Holds Court On A Night Of Missed Opportunity On CNN As More Of The Same Old Same Old Endures

If there are two things that we learned tonight from the fourth Democratic debate of this primary season it is that Senator Elizabeth Warren is the frontrunner now and these double-digit candidates and multi-hours yak fest make the Academy Awards look like the Indianapolis 500.

The former may be a true upturning of conventional wisdom but the latter is becoming mind numbingly irrelevant.

Yes, a thankful Senator Bernie Sanders may be “feeling great” in his first return to the campaign trail since suffering a heart attack two week ago today but most of the rest of the contenders right now look like they are slow walking themselves to potential cabinet gigs in a Warren or Joe Biden cabinet.

By the last half hour of the three-hour affair tonight, the CNN and New York Times hosted debate seemed to exhaust the participants, the moderators and the relatively quiet audience – which is likely not how FDR or JFK would have played it. By the time it got to the imaginary friends question launching off the recently in the news relationship between Ellen DeGeneres and the once toxically unpopular George W. Bush, late night hosts must have been screaming at their writers for not thinking of that for their monologues.

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Even small screen addict Donald Trump must have zoned out and decided tonight to center his Twitter ire on House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff instead of those out for his job.

In case you didn’t know, appearing tonight at Ohio’s Otterbein University were, in alphabetical order, ex-VP Biden, Senator Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind, ex-HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, ex-Congressman and Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, Vermont’s Sanders, long time impeachment advocating businessman Tom Steyer, Sen. Warren and former tech executive Andrew Yang.

Following an anti-climactic Capitol Hill press conference from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and another fiery prologue by DNC boss Tom Perez, Elizabeth Warren came on stage to the largest applause of the 12 contenders. In a tightly run show on the Jeff Zucker-run outlet, only Mayor Pete garnered a similar roar, which may tell you a lot of how enthusiastic Democrats are about their own candidates.

Familiar domestic policy for Democrats like healthcare, taxing the rich, damning Amazon and Facebook, reproductive rights were on the agenda from CNN moderators Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and the NYT’s National Editor Marc Lacey as was a dollop of foreign policy. Still, with a new face like the soon forgotten Steyer and the absence of hecklers for once, fundamentally this debate was like every other debate the Democrats have had this year. The wannabes tried to punch up and Warren, Sanders, and ex-Vice-President Biden held the top spots – which to quote Johnny Rotten was just boring.

It was also a truly kamikaze outcome in fast moving times and a failure of the format, once again.

On a stage stuffed with more candidates that any previous debate, the rules gave each participant 75 seconds to answer questions, 45 seconds for their responses and rebuttals and a swift 15 seconds for clarification – which is not a debate by any measure. It’s a slug match of pitches looking for cracks to shine some policy or personality sunshine through or to paraphrase, Sen. Sanders, it is “the same old same old.”

The fact is America and the world right now are not the same old same old.

Since the last time the contenders to replace Trump gathered on September 24 the incumbent has been tangled in an impeachment inquiry after leaning on the Ukrainian leadership to dig up dirt on Biden and his family.

Add to the pedal to the speed metal of American politics in 2019, the blast radius from Trump’s heavy handedness has permeated almost every aspect of the Executive branch, the Massachusetts Senator has taken the lead in the polls and in fundraising. Also, 78-year old Sen. Sanders had that health scare two week ago, the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host dropped the Kurds into the jaws of Erdogan’s Turkey and upended the Middle East, and a trade deal with China may or may not be happening.

Even with Tuesday’s debate dragging out, the volcanic nature of those occurrences received relatively short shrift. It is not hyperbole to say that America is in the cultural equivalent of Stranger Things’ Upside Down. Yet, tonight’s grouping skipped along like it was just another laugh track filled sitcom, if you know what I mean?

Here’s a couple of suggestions – Three hours should be one so America will truly tune in and what candidates say will have urgency. Secondly, the leashes need to be removed so people who want to be the Commander-in-chief can show if they are truly leaders or if they are just looking for a promotion.

Yes, peppered with promos for the new season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan and a pharmacy full of medical ads, many railing against Democrats’ various healthcare plans, tonight’s occasionally awkward event had a nice moment or two like when Bernie Sanders jokingly asking Joe Biden “are you suggesting I’m Vladimir Putin?” The two old warriors laughed and hugged it, but for the most part, this was tightly scripted knife fighting with what have become blunt blades.

Even the jousting competition that served as the takeaway from previous loyal opposition shindigs didn’t really see anyone land a blow that mattered this time. Though he put his foot in his far from withering mouth telling Warren she did “a good job doing your job” running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Biden stayed out of trouble on his son Hunter’s big board membership in Ukraine when his Dad was VP. On that front, Warren never really had to do any math for her many plans despite everyone trying to whip out their calculators.

Or as one veteran Presidential debate watcher noted:

It’s a moment he knew was coming. Did Biden’s answer to the question about his son strike you as defensive or strong?

— Dan Rather (@DanRather) October 16, 2019

Additionally, Cory Booker reminded us he was a vegan, Kamala Harris reminded us she was a prosecutor and a lot of the gang took politically naïve turns reminding us that Warren’s clearly popular desire to enact medicare for all and hobble Wall Street won’t work … well, that didn’t work.

In that vein, my colleague Ted Johnson notes that: O’Rourke had perhaps the sharpest criticism of Warren, calling her policies “punitive.” She said that she is “really shocked by the idea that someone thinks I’m punitive.” I’m wondering if she’s suggesting that this is a form of sexism – she sounds scolding because she is a woman.

A big favorite with both Silicon Valley and Hollywood, California’s junior Senator sought to cut her colleague Warren on “holding big tech accountable.” It was a noble lunge for a breakout but shut down fairly fast by Warren, who recently pulled a fast one on Facebook and its policy of letting ads full of clear untruths go online by posting an ad of her own nakedly full of untruths

It’s rare for a leading candidate to have a breakout moment but Warren got very close tonight in denying the single digit polling Harris the spotlight.

Without naming Harris or Biden directly, Senator Warren rhetorically proclaimed “if people are taking money from the big tech executives, if we are going to talk seriously about breaking up big drug companies, we should ask if people are financing their campaigns by taking money from big drug executives. In full flight, Warren added: “if we are going to talk about Wall Street and having serious regulations over Wall Street, we should ask if people are funding their campaigns by taking money from those executives.”

That was kind of it for Kamala Harris tonight, who is beyond waning in this race.

The next time the Democrats debate on November 20 at a MSNBC and Washington Post hosted event, the pack will be sliced down. Losing one or two faint hopers won’t make the outcome any more unwieldy and increasingly unwatchable – AKA, more of the same old same old, which is what Donald Trump swarmed in 2016 and could again next year at this low voltage rate.

As for the rest of tonight, well Sen Warren is adding on to those 70,000 selfies that she says many be the new measure of democracy. Hopefully the pics will be better than that canned line:

I just got off the #DemDebate stage and I’m ready to celebrate with @TeamWarren, taking selfies with the people building our grassroots movement. https://t.co/i22cdgJ1ko

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 16, 2019

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