the national circus

The Democratic Debates Were Built to Fail

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the Democratic debates, Donald Trump’s racist attacks on members of Congress, and Democrats coming out for impeachment.

This week’s Democratic debates gave a different mix of candidates a chance to challenge each other directly. How much will their performances reshape the field?

If little else, this week’s debates produced an avalanche of premature adjudication by politicos and the press, a harmless diversion as we slide into the dog days. If you boil all the prognostication down to a single sentence, it would yield the answer to your question: Nothing has changed. Joe Biden is still shakily in the lead for the nomination, and no single candidate is yet poised to knock him off. In the end, perhaps the most salient fact to be taken away from the debates is the collapse in viewership: 8.7 million viewers tuned in the first night (second-night figures are not yet available as I write this), as opposed to 15.3 million viewers for the first Democratic debate a month ago and 18.1 million for the second. We’re down to the hard-core, highly engaged base of Democratic voters who probably are the least in need of the debates to make up their minds, plus Trump campaign strategists and scattered hate-watchers from the other side. It’s not hard to see why other viewers are staying away. The election is more than a year away. There are too many people onstage. The format is both counterproductive and actively annoying. There is no new face or new story that the broader public is thus far panting to see — and no new one emerged. Alas, the disposability of these debates sets the table for the star of The Apprentice to swoop in and reclaim the national stage and news cycle with some new horror at his rally in Cincinnati tonight.

Here are the few stray scraps I have to toss on the pile of punditry: After his previous appearance, the bar was so low for Biden that he would have had to have a major senior moment to not be seen as making some kind of comeback. (He did flirt with disaster at the final moment, when he seemed to conflate his campaign’s text address with a website.) Beto O’Rourke’s devolution into the Incredible Shrinking Man is almost poignant and verging on the troubling. Pete Buttigieg must stop reminding everyone how young he is, especially when it takes the form of a humblebrag that he was still in high school himself when high-school students were slaughtered at Columbine. With an assist by CNN moderators, the unemployed John Delaney, who has zero chance of ending up on the ticket, grabbed the role of centrist challenger to the party’s left on night one, effectively ending what was likely Amy Klobuchar’s last shot at mounting a challenge to Biden for that slot. A wish list: (1) Candidates with no wit resist delivering scripted lines that aren’t clever in the first place — “You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump” (John Hickenlooper); “The first thing that I’m going to do when I’m president is I am going to Clorox the Oval Office” (Kirsten Gillibrand). (2) Everyone stops telling patronizing and pandering anecdotes about “everyday Americans” (as the Hillary Clinton campaign at one point labeled them) they meet on the campaign trail. (3) Marianne Williamson usurps Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York.

What’s obvious to all is that the field cannot be winnowed down a minute too soon. The time has come for the week’s best debaters, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, to stop acting like a tag team and start drawing sharp distinctions (besides personality) between themselves. One or both of them must face off with the last centrists or sort-of centrists standing: most likely, Biden, Kamala Harris, Buttigieg, and (possibly) Cory Booker. Until then, we can discount most of the noise, including the swelling pundit chorus whining, “OMG, the Democrats don’t have a candidate who can take out Trump!” Reality check: It is August 2019. 

Donald Trump’s racist attacks on Representative Elijah Cummings and other members of Congress inspired an unprecedented response from the clergy at Washington National Cathedral — “When will Americans have enough?” they ask — and have reportedly raised reelection concerns among his advisers. Will Trump’s racism cost him political support?

Not in the GOP. In the new Quinnipiac poll, a majority (51 percent) of voters say that Trump is a racist, but 91 percent of Republicans say he is not. Some estranged and/or former Republicans who are now NeverTrumpers are suggesting that the party’s turn toward racism is a Trump-created phenomenon and that the refusal of any GOP leaders to disown his series of vile racist outbursts is, as Max Boot of the Washington Post put it, “the Republican party’s most ignoble hour.” I’d argue once again that Trump is merely capitalizing on what was there long before he ran for president. After all, Republican leaders also failed to disown Nixon’s southern strategy in the late 1960s, or Reagan’s 1980 “states’ rights” campaign speech delivered adjacent to the Mississippi site where three civil-rights workers had been murdered in 1964, or George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton campaign, or, for a long time, the Obama birtherism slur that Trump amplified but did not invent. The point of Trump’s racist attacks — beyond a venting of his undisguised loathing of all minorities, and particularly people of color — is to build his political support, and build it by making sure that the Republican base turns out on Election Day.

Will these tirades cost him among those Trump voters who are now on the fence about him — e.g., the 9 percent of Republicans who do think he’s a racist? Everyone can speculate, but no one knows. A more important question may be: Will Trump’s hatred motivate Democratic voters to rally in record numbers in 2020 or (as he intends) depress their turnout? And a still more important question is this: If the president of the United States starts a race war and keeps escalating it, is the nation at risk of suffering more literal casualties tantamount to those of Mississippi 1964?

Despite widespread pans for the bad “optics” of Robert Mueller’s testimony, nearly two dozen House Democrats have come out in support of an impeachment inquiry in just the week since the hearing, bringing the total to roughly a majority of the Democratic House caucus. Has the press misjudged Mueller’s appearance?

There’s been a lot of debate about whether talking heads functioned too much as “drama critics” (what could be more despicable, really?) in panning Mueller’s just-the-facts-ma’am testimony. James Poniewozik, the Times television critic who always offers a refreshing point of view on politics, got it right when he wrote on Twitter that “the problem — in my very biased opinion — is when pundits do ‘theater criticism’ glibly, or as a way to get to a safe space where you analyze only superficial detail, without examining the message, the substance, the rightness or wrongness of a thing. That’s not good criticism!”

In the case of Mueller, the buildup to his testimony was ridiculous, especially among Democratic politicians and cable talking heads who were loudly anticipating the “movie” version of the Mueller report. The guy was always clear that he didn’t want to testify, promised he wouldn’t go beyond the “four corners” of his report, and delivered accordingly. That some two dozen more Democrats have since signed on for impeachment has nothing to do with Mueller’s testimony, even if some of them claim so. There was no new eureka moment. Manifold evidence to impeach Trump was already in the report itself.

Led by Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee is fielding an assiduous impeachment investigation, whether officially labeled so or not. It and other congressional committees charged with oversight, like Elijah Cummings’s, will and must persist with every weapon at their disposal. But I continue to believe that actually having an impeachment vote, however worthy as a civic gesture asserting the rule of law over a gangster president, is for now a dead end. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. If you add the number of Democratic members currently backing impeachment — 116, in the Post’s running tally — to the one Republican apostate (Justin Amash), that means impeachment will lose 318 to 117. Trump will claim — falsely, as usual, but what does he care — that he has been exonerated by a Democratic House, much as he claims to have been exonerated by Mueller. I have yet to hear an explanation as to what such a House vote will accomplish, beyond virtue signaling, on the eve of an election year.

Frank Rich: The Democratic Debates Were Built to Fail