If you remember Tuesday night’s Democratic debate at all, it will probably be for the moment after it ended, when an amiable Tom Steyer drifts into the Sanders-Warren tête-à-tête post-possible handshake refusal, registers its tension and gently panics. That’s not because the debate was bad. It was fine. But the problem is obvious: You can tell we’re beyond “diminishing returns” when petty over-analysis of body language has taken over. When we say that the primary is too long, what we mean is that it’s so long that contempt can start to overtake enthusiasm for the principals. That’s somewhat understandable; primaries often capture a collapse of political ambition. Remember in June when eight out of 10 candidates supported decriminalizing the border? (“That criminalization is the basis for family separation,” a young man named Pete Buttigieg said then, proudly raising his hand. “You do away with that, it’s no longer possible.” By December, he was saying, “we should still have criminal penalties” for people who “willfully evade immigration laws.”) This election is unusual in that certain candidates have stuck to their ambitious positions—Sanders even more than Warren—but repetition can get irksome too. When a restless public seems to resent candidates a little bit both when they “pivot” and when they repeat, that means—in this marvelous political machine we’ve designed—that it’s time.
It’s time to vote.
Look, the debate was fine. Even Steyer, a businessman trying to buy his way into politics, had a good night up until he realized all anyone wanted to ask him was what Sanders and Warren said. He spoke with passion about climate change—he said he’d declare a climate emergency on the first day of his presidency—and the need to rethink the way funds are distributed across school districts. When asked whether his history investing in coal makes his message now a little suspect, his answer put enough space between the question and his more recent environmentalism that no one could quite be bothered to listen to the end. Amy Klobuchar nailed her spot as the centrist’s centrist, offering to fix a deficit the billionaire president has now blown to a trillion. Yes, she forgot the name of a governor she claimed she was “proud to know,” but she more than made up for it with a story I will remember for as long as I live about a plant inhabited by only one worker who wept over a rack full of uniforms that still bore his former co-workers’ names, his friends that he explained didn’t work there anymore. Pete Buttigieg managed some good moments in an otherwise lackluster night—the only veteran onstage, he emphasized the psychic cost of wars to troops—and he and his sometime-nemesis Klobuchar jointly called Bernie Sander’s “Medicare for All” plan unworkable in a bid to portray themselves as the pragmatic adults in the room. (Buttigieg speaks well and it’s not really his fault—just the affected empathy of his “I’m listening” face, which makes the adult he most unhappily resembles Rowan Atkinson but solemn.) Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren brought their usual conviction and eloquence, pausing only to sublimate the ugliest conflict between their campaigns into a freighted and technical disagreement over whether 1990 was 30 years ago. (Though their supporters are continuing the debate on Twitter as I write and likely still are as you read.)
But here’s where it really became clear to me that this has all gone on too long: I observed to some colleagues that this might have been Joe Biden’s best performance yet—he didn’t fade out halfway through, as he sometimes does, and he got in a great line about being the object of Trump’s affection (before ruining it with a cringing allusion to his support from the black community). He wasn’t as fuzzy and diffuse; only once did he do the thing where he says he’s out of time when he really just wants to stop talking about the question. When my colleague disagreed with me, suggesting that his L.A. performance was better, I realized I couldn’t even call it to mind. The stages have become a smear, the podiums luminous blue blurs.
I blame the length of the primary, but of course this numb weariness is structural too: Primaries are engineered to grind political enthusiasm down into a sense of testy constriction. The stakes get higher, everyone gets more insistent, and knives come out for fights that no one really wants. The weirdest part of an election is the bit where everyone on one side (more or less) has to do just enough damage to everyone else to get elected—but not so much that their supporters can’t patch things up (one hopes). That moment is here. What last night really showed—beyond the hands not shaken and the fact that they’ve all said all they’re going to—is that the fighting has stopped being fun. Time to pick.