Critic's Notebook: Not Even Candidates' Quips Can Enliven Epically Long Democratic Debate

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From "Houston, we have a problem" to "I'm Asian, so I know a lot about doctors," the Democratic candidates seemed to be developing material for their stand-up acts — but the length of the event was punishing.

Anyone tuning into the Democratic debate Thursday night could be forgiven if they mistakenly thought they were watching a pilot for ABC's new comedy series. The one-liners were flying fast and furious among the 10 candidates who have either gotten more comfortable on the campaign trail or are simply giddy from exhaustion.

At times it was hard to tell whether the candidates were running for president or auditioning for their own Netflix stand-up comedy special. This was particularly true of Kamala Harris, although she made the classic mistake of laughing too hard at her own jokes. She did get off a good one, however, when she said about Trump, "He reminds me of that guy in The Wizard of Oz. When you pull back the curtain, he's a really small dude."

But it was Cory Booker who got the biggest laugh of the evening when asked whether Americans should adopt his vegan diet (yes, that was a real question). Booker, looking as flummoxed as surely everyone watching, replied, "First of all, I want to say no. And I want to translate that into Spanish: No." You had to hand it to him for simultaneously letting meat-eaters off the hook and not too subtly poking fun at Democratic debates apparently having to be bilingual.

Everyone was breathlessly anticipating the event because it would represent the first head-to-head match-up between frontrunners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. They certainly had the opportunity to go at each other in the lengthy first segment, which was devoted to health care and essentially featured only those two and Bernie Sanders. Warren and Sanders argued for Medicare for All, while Biden defended his position advocating for improving Obamacare (stop me if you've heard any of this before).

It was a heated discussion, but it didn't get ugly until Julián Castro stepped in. Like several other candidates doing poorly in the polls, he's adopted a debate strategy of attacking the frontrunners. Castro pointed out that Biden's plan wouldn't automatically enroll people, and when Biden claimed that it would, Castro snapped, "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Whether intentional or not, it came across as a below-the-belt dig at Biden's age.

Another big question was whether Biden would improve on his previous, shaky debate performances. He certainly did, having apparently taken a long nap and then ingested a lot of caffeine before going on. Biden was strong and articulate in his answers, and seemed very presidential. Or at least, vice-presidential. And unlike before, he didn't constantly cut himself off. When a moderator attempted to tell him his time was up, Biden actually became defiant. "I'm going to go like the rest of 'em do," he declared. "Twice over."

Unfortunately, that was during his response to a question about his past stance on segregation. It came late in a evening, and Biden, apparently tired by that point, delivered a rambling, incoherent answer that included this statement about childhood education: "Make sure you have the record player on at night." You can expect plenty of internet memes on that one. (In Biden's defense, the debate ran nearly a butt-numbing three hours, and by then we were all exhausted. Why the DNC feels it's a good idea that these things go on longer than a Ken Burns documentary is anyone's guess.)

Biden was also interrupted at one point by loud protesters shouting something that no on watching on television could make out. (Memo to future protesters: If you're going to the trouble of interrupting democracy in action, at least try to make yourselves understood).  

Andrew Yang made some news during his opening statement. He promised to give $12,000 to 10 randomly chosen American families over the next year, for a total of $120,000 in all. Later, he advocated giving every citizen 100 "democracy dollars" to donate to the candidate of their choice. (He didn't say whose face would adorn the bills, but you can draw your own conclusions.)

Pete Buttigieg, who had the misfortune of delivering his opening remarks immediately afterward, seemed befuddled. "It's original, I'll give you that," Mayor Pete finally stammered. Yang has progressed from merely promising to give people money if they vote for him to actually providing an advance. He must have gotten his lessons on entrepreneurship from Willy Wonka.

This third debate was different from the others in several ways, such as the fact that most of the people onstage actually deserved to be there. The candidates also seemed to have learned their lesson about attacking Barack Obama's legacy. Suddenly, they all loved him again. Indeed, Obama got so many positive shout-outs from the stage that you could imagine him and Michelle happily watching the event on television while sipping champagne in a hot tub.

The candidates were also fulsome in their praise for Beto O'Rourke, who thankfully managed to refrain from dropping any F-bombs during the evening. O'Rourke's campaign has taken on new energy with his angry response to the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, and he's tackled the issue of gun control with a vengeance. This evening, he even declared that he was in favor of confiscating assault weapons. "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47!" he promised. No wonder he's running for president. He clearly can't live in Texas anymore.

The evening featured no real defining moments, and will probably not dramatically alter the trajectory of any of the candidates. Even those who had a good night, such as Buttigieg, who somehow manages to always speak in complete, perfectly formed paragraphs, or Harris, who made a series of pointed attacks on Trump ("You can go back to watching Fox News," she sneered at one point), are unlikely to see much of a bump.

It's become very clear that this political race is a marathon, not a sprint. And it makes you wonder how many more times we need to see the Democratic candidates repeat positions they've espoused countless times before. The real excitement will come when one of them snags the nomination and we get to see him or her debate Trump. Assuming, of course, that the whiner-in-chief has the guts to show up.