Blandness Takes Center Stage

While the also-rans spice up the wings.

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren at their podiums.
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren onstage during Thursday night’s debate in Houston. Win McNamee/Getty Images

With all the hype heading into this first, consolidated presidential debate with all of the front-runners, it was almost possible to believe the Democratic presidential nomination was set to be determined in this one “debate cage” in Houston in the September prior to the election year. For the first time, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders were all in the same “rumble dome” together, ready to tango and mess one another up.

Would Warren, the most consistent overall performer over the course of the first two debates, deliver the fatal blow to Biden? Would Sanders, uh, also deliver the fatal blow to Biden? Or would Biden take both of those commies out?

As it turned out, the biggest fireworks of the night came from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, seemingly out of nowhere and directed toward Biden. Castro, getting instantaneously personal toward Biden over, of all things, whether his health care plan included automatic enrollment into a public insurance option, accused the former vice president of changing his position … perhaps because he is old?

“Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” Castro said, to a gasping crowd. (Biden, having just been accused of losing his marbles, did have to ask Bernie Sanders what Castro said).

“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not,” Castro concluded.

The reason Castro was the only candidate who delivered a shot this hard toward the front-runner was directly related to his position on the stage: at the far-left dais, representing the lowest average polling position of the 10 candidates participating. Seventy-one percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, have a favorable opinion of Biden. Only 56 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have even heard of Julián Castro.

Now this relative unknown was suggesting, on live television, that a very popular, well-known Democrat was senile. It will get Castro more attention, but maybe not in the way he wants—especially since he didn’t nail Biden directly on the underlying issue.

This danger of going negative early—and it is still early—is probably why Biden, Warren, and Sanders barely sparred with each other on Thursday night. Warren, in that same poll, is viewed favorably by 75 percent of Democrats and leaners, Sanders by 66. Most Democrats, by wide margins, really like all three of the top contenders at this stage. With the first votes still five months away, there is no reason for these candidates to risk the positive impressions they have with voters, who are still mostly making up their minds, by trying to eliminate a leading rival.

It was just a couple of days ago that Bloomberg reported that Biden was going to use the debate to “question Warren’s corporate work” as a lawyer. This raised a couple of red flags. First, why would Biden telegraph that in the press days before the debate? Also, why would Biden say it at all? The only way he would say it was as a counterpunch to some oppo-research assault from Warren, and Warren wouldn’t be reckless enough to initiate an oppo-research assault on Biden, unprompted, this early in the process. She, along with Sanders, is within striking distance of Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire. There is no reason for either of them, months before those events, to pull a Castro-esque kamikaze move now.

To the extent that Biden, Warren, and Sanders did debate, it was over already well-trod policy grounds: a public health care option versus a single-payer system. Their statements, though, were mostly directed toward repeating well-known positions to the crowd rather than challenging each other.

And so, in the debate that was billed for having all of the front-runners on stage together, it was the non-front-runners who put in some of the most memorable performances. Beto O’Rourke brought the house down with a heartfelt and uncompromising position on assault weapons. When pressed by moderators about withdrawing from Afghanistan against the warnings of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pete Buttigieg mentioned that he served in Afghanistan under that very chairman, and nevertheless believed that the war had gone on too long. Cory Booker, once again, did just about nothing wrong, and had a particularly strong moment in observing that “gun violence” isn’t just a phenomenon associated with nationally covered mass shootings.

As we look ahead to the October debate in Ohio, when once again the three front-runners will meet on the “battle stage,” we should expect more of the same. If Warren has some fatal file on Biden, or vice versa, it will be saved for early next year. Warren, Biden, and Sanders are in this for the duration, and risking their popularities in an attempt to tear down others’ is not something they will try. The question in these fall debates is: Will anyone rise up to join them?