Witcover: Cattle call debates do little for Dems as they seek to replace Trump

The barely digestible second round of Democratic 2020 presidential candidate debates on CNN in Detroit was like the feeding of 20 hogs at an open trough, each candidate jostling to get his or her share of the publicity swill.

In the process, some light but more heat was cast on the personal and political strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. The spectacle aired on two successive nights by CNN turned our quadrennial exercise in self-government into a reality show.


However, at this point in the presidential campaign only one of our great political parties is being subjected to this indignity, as the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, himself virtually unchallenged, and at this point unlikely to be impeached, can comment from his perch on Twitter.

The marathon of televised debates, which started out to be a contest among Democrats to see who offers the best chance to deny Mr. Trump a second term, seems already to be turning into an intramural cat-fight over such issues as health care, climate change, immigration reform and the like.


So far, former Vice President Joe Biden has been bruised but unbroken as the frontrunner. He is now offering himself as co-author and defender of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, a policy that is now widely popular.

But it is still under Republican fire as a “socialist” scheme and imperiled by the Democratic progressive wing advocating Medicare For All. Mr. Biden has embraced the concept of a “public option” that would furnish Americans with an economical health care insurance plan if private industry options are inadequate or too expensive. Meanwhile employers and trade unions could continue using private plans to cover their workers.

To date, the principal political beneficiary of the Democrats’ intra-party combat is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her crisp and confident challenge to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as leader on the Medicare For All proposal in their debate may cut into his standing in the polls behind Mr. Biden, though Tuesday night’s Sanders-Warren faceoff avoided sharp elbows.

The Wednesday night debate brought much criticism of the former vice president from two black Democratic senators, Kamala Harris of California, who had challenged him on his past busing votes in their first debate, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who brought up Mr. Biden’s past Senate record on criminal incarceration.

Mr. Biden hit back at both on their own records — Ms. Harris as a prosecutor and state attorney general and Mr. Booker as former mayor of Newark. Mr. Biden may have slowed Ms. Harris’s rise in the polls, while Mr. Booker elevated his own stature as a contender.

Overall, however, the two night’s debates served to highlight the Democratic in-fighting at a time when the party needs unity and resolve to remove Mr. Trump from the Oval Office. Mr. Biden went to the heart of it, summing up: “I’m running for president to restore the soul of this country. ... We have a president (who) every day is ripping at the social fabric of this country ... but no one man has the capacity to rip it apart.”

Referring to Mr. Trump’s assault on four congresswomen of color and his rally cries of “Send her back!” Mr. Biden had this to say about the United States: “So, Mr. President, let’s set one thing straight. We love it. We are not leaving it. We are here to stay. And we’re certainly not going to leave it to you.”

At one point, Mr. Booker broke in, reminding his colleagues that “one person enjoying this debate right now is Donald Trump, as we pit Democrats against each other, while he is working right now to take away Americans’ health care.” But that didn’t stop Mr. Booker himself from making his points against Mr. Biden to get himself more prominently into contention. Nor did that observation stop other candidates on the stage from wandering into the weeds explaining their particular variations of the health care public option.


The next televised debates in September will have fewer players, as the DNC qualifications of poll numbers and donor support are doubled, thinning down the field. It should be met with public relief, for the sanity of the rest of us.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power” (Smithsonian Books). His email is