The Democratic debate actually began at 7 a.m. Tuesday, when Hunter Biden was on “GMA” admitting to a mistake—but nothing “unethical,” of course—to blunt the attacks on his father.
Given Joe Biden’s refusal to do any interviews since impeachment cast a spotlight on his family’s conduct, it was striking that he handed the ball to his son before the one forum where he couldn’t duck questions: the CNN/New York Times marathon.
And 17 minutes into the Ohio debate, when Anderson Cooper asked Biden the question, he retreated to “my son’s statement speaks for itself”—precisely the point of orchestrating the ABC interview.
Cooper asked a key question: If Hunter Biden now says he won’t do any foreign work if his dad becomes president, why was it okay when Joe was vice president?
Biden ignored that, saying “my son did nothing wrong, I did nothing wrong,” then pivoted to denouncing Rudy Giuliani, President Trump and his “thugs” as liars. He would not acknowledge the lousy optics that even Hunter conceded.
The striking aftermath: None of the other Democrats on the stage said a negative word about Biden or his son’s lucrative deal in Ukraine. They deemed it off limits. Cory Booker defended Biden, saying no one should be “attacking a statesman.”
But Cooper also softened the question by saying “the president has made false accusations against your son” and “there is no evidence of wrongdoing by you and your son.” Why not let Biden make that case? Why appear to take sides? And is there absolutely no wrongdoing by Hunter, who was unqualified for the Ukrainian gas gig, as opposed to no evidence of criminal wrongdoing?
The only real action was on health care, though it wasn’t as exciting as the Washington Nationals scoring seven first-inning runs on their way to the World Series. In fact, that part of the debate seemed more like an old replay.
Once again, a journalist—in this case Marc Lacey of the Times—asked Elizabeth Warren if the middle class would pay more under the Medicare for All measure she is pushing.
Once again, Warren rolled out her standard response: The rich and big corporations will pay more, the middle class will pay less.
Lacey followed up—will you raise middle-class taxes?—and once again, the Massachusetts senator sidestepped: “I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families.” Notice she said costs, not taxes. (Bernie Sanders, who wrote the damn bill, admits middle-class taxes will rise.)
Pete Buttigieg was more blunt, saying Warren had failed to answer a yes or no question. She dodged it again.
Amy Klobuchar, showing unusual aggressiveness, said Warren would kick 150 million Americans off their private insurance. I don’t know why the debate questioners don’t focus on this rather crucial point.
Biden said what he said in the last debate, that Medicare for All would cost $30 trillion over a decade and taxes would go up, but his rejoinder had less force.
After that, the debate settled into something of a wonkfest. What about auto jobs? Should there be a wealth tax? Can gun buybacks work? CNN’s practice of usually letting each of the 12 candidates answer the same question added to the drone factor.
Something else was at work. It’s now clear that the race has settled into a contest between Biden and Warren, with Sanders (looking vigorous despite his heart attack) continuing to slip. Everyone else has been mired in single digits for many months. So there’s far less media excitement if Kamala Harris has a strong moment or Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke get into a spat on gun control. Impeachment dominated the pregame programming, with the debate a secondary story.
The moderators, who included Erin Burnett, were fine, but could have done far more to sharpen the contrasts between the contenders.
On Trump’s pullout from northern Syria, Biden was strikingly emotional, saying of the Kurds: “They lost their lives. This is shameful, shameful, what this man has done!” Warren accused Trump of giving ISIS a new lease on life. Buttigieg called it a “betrayal.” The only dissenter was Tulsi Gabbard, who wants to end the "endless war" and accused CNN and the Times of smearing her.
But such brief fireworks were the exception, and that was the weakness of the debate. Far too much time was spent on the candidates denouncing Trump in unison, sometimes just changing the adjectives. That undoubtedly made Democratic viewers feel good, but did little to distinguish among the contenders.
That pattern began at the outset, when Cooper asked about impeachment. While he tried mixing up the questions—why not let the voters evict Trump instead, is impeachment a distraction?—every Democrat on the stage competed to castigate the president in stronger terms (Bernie won with “most corrupt in history"). Biden and Warren talked about the Mueller report, making clear that they were primed for impeachment before the Ukraine mess surfaced.
The only real change from the last three debates was that Biden briefly had to defend his son’s buckraking in Ukraine. Impeachment has frozen the race, and that’s bad news for anyone not named Joe or Elizabeth.