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ABC News’ Democratic Debate Lacked Energy and Purpose

At long last, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren were on the same stage. And the result was a long and fairly dull evening.

After two Democratic Party debate stages in which the field of candidates had been bifurcated — splitting, in both cases, the perceived frontrunners from the establishment and insurgent camps into massive, unruly groups of ten apiece — the field was winnowed to a single night. But Biden and Warren appeared to be on good behavior, during an evening that felt odd and structureless, meandering on with some disagreement but few meaningful points of interest.

Happily for voters seeking party unity but unfortunately for viewers seeking drama, candidates tended to differ in degree but not in substance, rendering this meeting of the poll-tested top ten contenders for the Democratic nomination somewhat neutered. The stakes seemed realer for candidates, it appeared, that open warfare would not fit the moment ahead of the first primary.

It’s worth noting that such tactics hadn’t worked so far. Senator Kamala Harris, an able campaigner, openly took on Biden in her last debate appearance; it was a buoying moment that provided her a momentary boost in polls but has seemingly failed to hurt the notionally vulnerable former Vice President. With the race’s front runner seemingly vincible — only (maybe) by his own errors — other candidates seemed to focus their energies on clarifying their own positions.

And they met little resistance from the moderators. It was an airy evening, ruled by the candidates’ own self-governance more than by an iron fist of ABC News personalities — so much so that the moderators’ most forceful presence seemed at times to be their occasional burbling interruptions via what seemed to be an occasionally malfunctioning audio grid. Otherwise, conversations wore on with what seemed to the casual viewer to be absent consequence or meaningful incident; even the end of the debate arrived with a whimper, with a question about examples of the candidates’ resilience serving as a closing statement even if it didn’t seem at first to be one. 

It was almost enough to make one wistful for the rowdier evenings of debates divided at random, sorting together candidates who were carefully stewarding their reputations and those with nothing to lose. Of course, as those played out, they seemed unduly messy, so much so that this writer wished at the time for the field to be condensed.

Perhaps the issue is that television seems to demand a certain number of debates before the field has naturally narrowed — a demand no candidate can refuse — but there is only so much each candidate can say while still seeming like a refreshing television personality. Not every lesson from Trump needs to be learned. But casual TV viewers tuned into his debates and found him a compelling personality. Who besides a die-hard would have found anything of note in this three-hour gabfest, uninterrupted either by moderators or, that much, by any candidate with a forceful point of view?

That this Democratic field contains no candidate as endlessly TV-ready as our current president is its strength or its weakness, but it is a fact. The case seems proven by now that little more of value is to be gained through extremely-early-stage gazing at their cordial interactions. Of course, those won’t be allowed to play out; the next debates, in October, will be split into two nights, with at least one total newcomer.

A liberal viewer inclined to defeat Trump in November 2020 could be forgiven a brief moment of excitement, at least based on what had been broadcast on ABC for three hours on Thursday night: The appearance of Tom Steyer at least promises a new dynamic. And, while it presents several compelling candidates for those choosing among them, little about this one is working for the uninitiated.

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