John Podhoretz of the New York Post thought Wednesday’s Democratic caucus debate in Nevada was the best debate in human history. It’s a sign of something that I’m inclined to agree with him, even if it’s probably for different reasons.
I think Podhoretz just enjoyed watching the Democrats fight, especially because they were landing haymakers against each other. For him, it’s the guilty pleasure of an anti-Trump conservative. I agree that the entertainment value was sky high, but the worth I got out of it was more cathartic.
It really exposed my feelings about these candidates, all of whom displease or disappoint me to a degree I hadn’t fully understood until I saw how much I enjoyed watching them be pummeled.
But it was deeper than that. As much as I enjoyed watching Michael Bloomberg get carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey or Sanders take incoming over the behavior of his supporters and staff, and as satisfying as it was for Buttigieg and Klobuchar to drop their Mr. and Mrs. Nice act and let their raw ambition shine, what I really enjoyed was seeing the candidates let their emotions and values drive their performance.
Like most everyone else, I’ve grown tired of watching Sanders deliver the same old lines in debate after debate, but having Bloomberg beside him as the personification of everything he loathes really brought out a fresh passion in him and let us see how deeply he believes in what he’s saying. Bloomberg’s presence did much the same thing for Warren, who unleashed every bit of bottled-up outrage she had in her reservoir. And she spared no one on the stage. Podhoretz compared her performance to Machine Gun Kelly, and that’s pretty accurate. However, her aim was excellent.
She brought immediate energy to the stage, which rubbed off on Joe Biden. He appeared fully awake for this debate for the first time and was much more assertive and confident in making a case for himself. Having Bloomberg as a foil seemed to finally give him the focus to explain his candidacy’s rationale with convincing passion.
The constant bloodletting on the stage was ill-suited for Buttigieg, who has been making progress by sounding nice and reasonable compared to his opponents. But he evidently blames Klobuchar’s surge in New Hampshire for denying him a victory there and he went after her without mercy. At one point, she turned to him and asked, “Are you mocking me here, Pete?” He most certainly was, and it was more revealing than another night of the scripted platitudes he usually provides.
Klobuchar was thrown badly off-script, and the result was that people got a much clearer picture of what she’s like in real life. Her temper flared as she struggled to explain why she couldn’t name the president of Mexico, which isn’t surprising given what her staff has said about her insecurities.
Ms. Klobuchar’s exasperation often appeared connected to two factors: an abiding fear of being embarrassed in front of colleagues or in the press and the conviction that she works harder than her staff.
Having her intelligence and base of knowledge mocked on national television caused her to drop her mask, and it basically killed the credibility of her scripted closing argument about more uniting the Democrats than dividing them.
A lot of the commentariat was somewhere between disconcerted and horrified by the overall incivility of the debate, but I thought it was tremendously revealing. More than any debate I can remember watching, we got to see behind all the posturing and strategizing that usually makes debates nothing more than performative art. It takes a monumental amount of ambition and self-conceit to think you should be president and it’s a good thing to see people drop the nice act and bring out the knives in an effort to win. But it was more than just seeing the candidates act like they really care about their campaigns. When they let their emotions rule them for a change, they gave us a better picture of the kind of issues and values that drive them.
Telling politicians to “just be yourself” is rarely the best advice, and several of the candidates on the stage Wednesday night did themselves no favors. But the voters got more than they bargained for, and they’re better equipped to make a decision on whom they want to support.
Isn’t that best outcome from a presidential debate?