Thirty-two minutes into the third debate sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, it was hard to escape the conclusion that even the high-ego, high-energy candidates on stage were at least a little bit tired of saying what they've been saying for, well, months.
High ambition, however, is a powerful aphrodisiac. As the gang of ten caught their second wind, there were moments when you wished the moderator would shout, "Slow down. Normal humans can't follow along if you keep talking with such speed."
It's unclear how many normal humans watched this political spectacle. But we did. Here are some things to think about:
Obama is back. In previous debates the former president took a lot of heat from candidates who seemed to equate knocking Barack Obama with denigrating his vice president, Joe Biden. It didn't fly with many Democrats, and it was largely absent in the Houston debate. The lack of Obama bashing didn't help Biden, but it did cushion his front runner status.
We saw a higher caliber of performance. Unkind as it may be to say, the deadwood was gone. And even the comic relief in the form of smarty pants Andrew Yang seemed to shine a bit brighter. Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders came in as leaders of the pack, and they left that way. Sen. Kamala Harris didn't exactly stage a comeback, but she demonstrated that she is capable of one.
Brace yourself for the Beto-for-VP boomlet. Nearly every other candidate on the stage rushed to praise Beto O’Rourke for the way he’s responded to the recent mass shooting in his home town of El Paso. (Yes, the debate took place in Texas; The intensity of the collective homage was still striking.) For his part, O’Rourke offered a full-throated endorsement of a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, saying, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.” On social media, that line got a rapturous reception from the Democratic faithful. So, for that matter, did O’Rourke’s take on race relations in America, which included a reference to the New York Time’s 1619 Project and an endorsement of reparations for African Americans. The last few months have shown that O’Rourke, contra what he told Vanity Fair, may not actually be “born for this.” But as a VP candidate, he could bring enthusiasm and eloquence to an undercard match up with current Vice President Mike Pence — unless the ticket’s topped by another white male, in which case Beto for Veep wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
Julian Castro was spoiling for a fight — maybe too much. First, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development accused Biden of contradicting himself on who’d have to buy into his healthcare plan, asking incredulously, “Are you forgetting what you just said two minutes ago?” The subtext was obvious: Biden, Castro was essentially telling voters, is an doddering old dude who’s no longer ready for prime time. After wrapping up that exchange by saying that he, not Biden, is Obama’s heir when it comes to healthcare policy, Castro then accused Biden of trying to strategically appropriate Obama’s broader legacy, glomming onto the good stuff, but trying to wash his hands of the bad (for example, in this case, an aggressive deportation policy that Biden couldn’t quite bring himself to defend). Memorable, yes, but will it actually help Castro’s chances? Or will Democratic voters — many of whom are older! — see, instead, a candidate whose aggressive targeting of the frontrunner was borderline unseemly? One thing is certain: If Castro was on Biden’s list of possible running mates heading into the night, he isn’t anymore.
There was Afghanistan fatigue. A three-hour gabfest with ten candidates is no place to settle on how to withdraw from Afghanistan. No one disgraced themselves. And many had things to say that ranged from the reasonable to the wise. The cold fact of the matter is that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's iron law of small wars will govern U.S. withdrawal: Big powers that don't win small wars lose; small powers that don't loose small wars win. When it comes — to withdrawal, that is — it will nevertheless be a tough moment for the American public.