If there’s any lesson to take away from the second Democratic presidential primary debate, it’s that CNN really ought to tweak its format and consider producing something less superficial and insufferable in the future. While one imagines treating political debates like it’s Wrestlemania is good for the cable news network’s bottom line, it isn’t good for the Democratic Party to allow CNN moderators ask questions about Democratic policies that too often sound as if they were framed by aspiring Fox News employees. And if the questions weren’t right-leaning in their phrasing, they were strawman inquiries designed to stir a fight between the candidates. 

In terms of those who performed best on this game show-like format, Cory Booker managed to sound less like a Care Bear and more like a candidate actually interested in garnering greater support for his campaign. He skillfully attacked Joe Biden on his lengthy criminal justice record while shimmying right on by returned criticism about his inability to deal with his own troubled police force when he served as mayor of Newark. Now, with respect to Booker telling Biden “you’re dipping in the Kool-Aid and don’t know the flavor,” all I have to say about that is I wish he hadn’t said it. Bless his heart. 

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But slow clap for Booker for acknowledging the role voter suppression of Black voters played in Donald Trump’s win in 2016 — a fun fact not enough people in media or in the campaign discuss.

And one for Kirsten Gillibrand whose dig at Biden over a 1981 op-ed in which he argued the expansion of the childcare tax credit and allowing more women to work would subsidize “the deterioration of the family” may have garnered her a lot of criticism from Biden cheerleaders, but if you read the op-ed in full, you can understand Gillibrand’s point. (Kamala Harris tagging herself in to note Biden has only very recently changed his position to support the Hyde Amendment lent credence to that.)  Gillibrand performed well overall and though I’m not one for applauding white people for admitting the obvious, her acknowledgment of white privilege is important because it’s a conversation white people need to have with other white folks.

Julián Castro continues to be a vital but still largely unappreciated voice in the campaign. I especially appreciated Castro’s rightful challenge to Biden about the high level of deportations under the Obama administration. “One of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t. … What we need are politicians that actually have some guts on this issue,” Castro explained to Biden.

Meanwhile, Jay Inslee continues to do an amazing job of trying to stop ourselves from impending doom due to climate change while Andrew Yang managed to explain the benefits of Medicare For All better than any of its proponents on stage that night. Yang, in particular, demonstrates a discipline when it comes to his messaging, i.e. giving every American $1000 a month.

As for Kamala Harris, she was fine at best, but she should have been better prepared to handle Tulsi Gabbard’s critique of her record as attorney general of California. I suppose Harris’ logic was to not look so far down that she trips over herself looking down a candidate polling less than 1%. Still, she should have been better prepared to be attacked given Gabbard has been taking shots at the California senator for a week now.

Harris’ best response to Gabbard’s attacks came after the debate when it didn’t matter as much. Fortunately for Harris, Gabbard, whose fans include Russian bots and white nationalists like Steve Bannon, will be a nonfactor come September. Good riddance.

Finally, Joe Biden, who is likely to continue to get far more credit from pundits than he deserves. Was Joe Biden more alert than the last time? Yes. Was he better prepared to be attacked? For the most part sans his exchanges with Booker and Castro. But, did you leave with the impression that Biden is the only candidate who can take on Trump as his campaign has been premised on? Absolutely not.

Joe Biden will get a lot of credit for showing up and not falling asleep on stage, but he was not his sharpest. He tripped over his words in some instances, and in others, managed to complete his sentences without saying much of anything. And by the end of the night, he struggled to recall the number he wanted supporters to use to keep up with and donate to the campaign. Biden was shrewd in speaking to the severity of the situation at hand:  noting four years of Sweet Potato Saddam is an aberration but a fundamental shift in American politics with two. But, he has a ways to go with respect to proving he alone is the best chance at defeating Trump next November. He comes across as old in ways Bernie Sanders does not. 

It was not a great night for him, but fortunately for Biden, last month was far worse, and as it stands now, not enough people are paying close enough attention yet so he’ll likely remain on top of the polls. He cannot ride Obama’s coattails forever, however. Moreover, as Cory Booker made it clear to him, he can’t attach himself to Obama when discussing the good aspects of their administration and then place distance between the former president when the optics aren’t as favorable. 

All and all, the top tier candidates slipped in stature to their competitors in the second tier, so if there’s any winner to be declared of the second debate, I’d go with Elizabeth Warren. And if I were Joe Biden, I’d be more worried than ever about debating her at the next debate in September — where I hope questions about the LGBTQ community might come up for a change.

P.S. Go home to New York City, Bill De Blasio, and go fix something. 


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