“It’s picking up here!” Chuck Todd exclaimed, 14 minutes before the end of the show Wednesday night in Miami. And all I could think was: “Really? This is what ‘picking up’ looks like?”
Because if a little bit of brittle crosstalk between a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii and a Democratic congressman from Ohio gave Todd the idea that things were finally starting to get going up there on the stage in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, well, I have a five-hour drama about the writing of the North Dakota state constitution I want to invite the “Meet the Press” moderator to see.
No, the tepid opening night performance of “We Will Eventually Choose a President” — a marathon production that will lumber across the country, in various permutations, for the next 17 desultory months — was not a barn burner. Billed officially as the first Democratic presidential debate of Campaign 2020, it didn’t even put the barn on a low simmer.
What was missing from the debate among 10 Democratic candidates — stationed at 10 identical lecterns before a giant video screen depicting the house on Pennsylvania Avenue they are all vying to occupy — was a debate. Part of this was just a basic issue of crowd control. You could sense the quintet of NBC and MSNBC moderators (yes, there were five moderators, or one for every two candidates) struggling to find a compelling rhetorical rhythm for the evening. And it just never happened.
There have to be ways to infuse more narrative oomph into a cliffhanger story that has some two dozen people auditioning for a job, 10 of whom came face to face in this round. Heck, “A Chorus Line” did it, and won a Pulitzer Prize in the process. But the format proved unwieldy in this case, and that basic element of drama — conflict — was simply in too short supply. For this initial performance, the cast included Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. And it seemed as if an agreement had been reached among them to engage one another as little as possible. (Castro did call out O’Rourke on immigration at one point, and their dueling displays of Spanish proficiency provided at least a modicum of tense one-upsmanship.)
Maybe Act 2 of this continuing story, on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern and featuring 10 other aspirants, including former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, will scare up a little more friction. It’s not merely that an audience wants a fight; many of us by now are anesthetized by the gratuitous spewing of invective in our culture. We’re all looking for a new plot. But only when the players go at it a bit, as when Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio did, over the continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, is it possible for those seeking our votes to clearly define their differences. The synonyms for “debate,” after all, include “argue about,” “thrash out” and “wrangle over.”
Not much wrangling occurred Wednesday. Onstage, the red, white and blue digital graphics gave the production — beamed out live on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo with some recurring sound and transmission screw-ups — an invitingly crisp, telegenic look. Once the debate’s seven men and three women finished shaking hands and went to their posts, though, for long stretches you would have thought each of the contenders was answering questions from individual soundproof booths. The setting felt more like a PTA candidates’ night than a real debate.
Warren was accorded a central perch, flanked by Booker and O’Rourke, and as the first question at the top of each hour of the two-hour event went to her, the impression created was that she was first among equals — the evening’s lead. (Although timekeepers revealed that Booker and O’Rourke actually spoke for a minute longer.) She is a fluid and compelling orator, with a knack for allowing emotion to rise along with her words. When, in answering a question about gun violence, she declared: “We need to treat them like a virus that is killing our children!” she generated real passion; if only Todd had not cut her off as the audience was reacting. A good director would know better how to let a moment happen.
Todd’s fellow moderators were “Today” co-host Savannah Guthrie, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and NBC and Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart. Of all the questioners, Maddow seemed the most at ease with the impossible mechanics of the evening. She even tried to inject a tone that was otherwise missing from the proceedings: levity.
In other individual turns, Booker, with his intense gaze and penchant for projecting empathy, came across as strong and sympathetic; Castro sounded particularly forceful, a commander of a battalion of ideas; and while Klobuchar got a bit lost in the crowd, she conveyed a secure sense of how she would handle the nation’s top political job. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, on the other hand, appeared to cast himself in the role of scold, the character you hope disappears before intermission. And though Gabbard established herself as a confident speaker, she, Ryan, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington and former congressman John Delaney of Maryland could not escape the sense that they were only being considered in the category of supporting actor.
Still, one visual element of this erratic opening night had ineluctable power. And that was the character of the tableau on the stage. Three women were up there, one of whom is a Samoan American, and so were a Latino man and an African American man. To illustrate this profoundly encouraging development in America, no casting director could have done a better job.