The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The brawl in the wine cave

In the smallest 2020 primary debate yet, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and four other Democratic presidential candidates competed on Dec. 19. (Video: The Washington Post)
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LOS ANGELES — Laboring under the misapprehension that it might be warmer here, I decided to cover this debate in person. I once naively thought that covering a debate in person meant that you actually got to go to the debate and watch it, in person. This shows what I knew! What it in fact means is that you get to go and sit in what appears to be a gymnasium — almost but not quite where the debate is — and watch it on a series of television screens, while journalists mill around you with cheese plates and a fire alarm goes off in the middle distance. It is this kind of ritual that makes me deeply worried for our broken system! Anyway, I am sitting in a gymnasium in a winter coat trying and failing to open a banana.

We are in California. And already the stage is littered with ghosts. Sen. Kamala Harris’s “voice will continue to be heard,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez says, as he welcomes attendees to Thursday night’s debate. Yes, on nights like this, you can almost hear her, just over the sound of Tom Steyer’s money gently rustling. Indeed, if you listen closely enough, you can almost hear all of them, all the people missing from the stage. Some are gone, but not forgotten (Beto O’Rourke and Harris); others, forgotten, but not gone (John Delaney — sorry, John Delaney — and Michael Bennet); others, both forgotten and gone (Seth ... Moulton, maybe a man named Tim?); others, neither forgotten nor gone (Julián Castro, Marianne Williamson), but no longer visible on the debate stage. I hope they got to do something entertaining with their time, like see “Cats" or vote “Present.”

At first we thought maybe the debate would be mild and pleasant, characterized by more agreement than not. The first question was about why Americans did not support impeachment, and the candidates responded as one by ignoring the question and explaining why they were the perfect candidate to beat President Trump, except for Andrew Yang who answered the question and then explained why he was the perfect candidate to beat Trump. Mayor Pete Buttigieg said something critical about corporations; Sen. Elizabeth Warren expressed gratitude that other people onstage thought corporations were bad. Buttigieg hinted delicately that ideas ought not to be judged by how many they alienated — and then we took a break.

We continued to agree after the break. Asked what possible basis he had for persisting in thinking that at some point the Republicans would just snap out of it and return to normal, Joe Biden replied that just returning to normal would not be good enough. Asked about climate change, Warren said that it was not an insurmountable problem — all you had to do was fix what was broken in Washington. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that she would solve it because, as a Midwesterner, she was from flyover country and did not fly over that country, which saved a lot on carbon. They agreed that the president was wrong about China. They might have started to argue about who cared more for the free press — eventually, Klobuchar (her father was a journalist) and Buttigieg (the First Amendment is in the Constitution, which he vowed his life to defend) would go head to head on this subject.

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But then the subject turned to wine caves. Warren mentioned that Buttigieg had held a high-dollar fundraiser in a wine cave. Just as she hoped that the president would not be selected by high-dollar donors in smoke-filled rooms, so, too, she hoped that they would not be chosen by high-dollar donors in wine caves.

Steyer later complained that only Trump would be made happy by the exchange that followed, but I disagree. I loved the wine cave fight. I just wish it had been longer.

Buttigieg replied that he was the only person onstage who was not a millionaire or billionaire, and that if he were to avoid contact from billionaires and millionaires, he would have to leave the stage right now. He said that if one of them were moved to give him money, he would not say no to it. He also pointed out that Warren used to have large-dollar fundraisers, and he would never have said it had corrupted her, so why would she insinuate that it was corrupting him?

If you will CAVE to have WINE with donors in a CAVE, Warren retorted, to what will you NOT cave?

It was at this point that Klobuchar interjected, “I did not come here to listen to this argument! ... I have never even been to a wine cave!”

Sadly they stopped after this, although Klobuchar did take another shot at Buttigieg on the grounds that he had not won any very important elections.

The question of age also came up, sort of awkwardly: President Barack Obama, the moderators informed us, had said that old men who refused to get out of the way were causing lots of problems in politics. Sen. Sanders, would you care to comment? Both Sanders and Biden said they were confident that Obama did not mean them.

But this raises a larger question for voters, to which I will devote the rest of this recap. What candidate would voters most like to have wine in a cave with? What kind of wine? How dark of a cave? Who else would be in the cave? Would the cave be a metaphor? Can you truly see the wine, or only the image of the wine? If the candidate gave you a cap with bells on it and told you the amontillado was deeper in the cave, which candidate would you follow?

The conclusion of the debate was that all the candidates were asked what they would give one another, or from whom they would ask forgiveness. Steyer said that he would give away his money to a more useful cause. Just kidding! He said: teamwork.

I think he should consider the wine cave thing.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: The debate reminds us that only way to remove Trump from office is at the ballot box

Jennifer Rubin: Biden had his best debate yet. The wine cave business lost.

Stephen Stromberg: The Democratic race has shifted toward the realists

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Read a transcript of Petri’s Dec. 17 live chat

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