With ten candidates on stage and at least two more in the wings the fifth Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta, Georgia, was as relevant as rain in Seattle.
Billionaire Tom Steyer made his pitch as the climate-change candidate and Joe Biden took a swipe at him for making his fortune on dirty energy. Kamala Harris threw a punch at Tulsi Gabbard, suggesting that the Hawaiian congresswoman was a Russian asset and a Republican plant. Responding to criticism of his lack of foreign-policy experience, Mayor Pete attacked Gabbard for meeting with "murderous dictator" and Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Cory Booker took on Biden for allegedly opposing the legalization of marijuana and Amy Klobuchar made a play at becoming the woman's candidate. Harris and Booker noted that Buttigieg lacked support in the black community.
Overall it was very civil and incredibly forgettable event. With the exception of Representative Gabbard, no one had cause to walk away from this debate with a grudge. It's as if every candidate was content with their current standing. No one was willing to make a serious move on the top-tier candidates.
As a result, the rise of Mayor Pete continued in the post-debate polling. The South Bend mayor now leads the pack in Iowa and is either leading or close to it in New Hampshire. If that is not enough to trigger the attack dogs, what is?
Is it that the mayor is beyond criticism? Certainly not. His experience as the chief executive of a midwestern city would surely rank him second to Donald Trump in presidential qualifications. His difficulty with black voters begins in South Bend where he fired a black chief-of-police and failed to recruit minority officers.
Of equal or greater importance, his stance on healthcare is opportunistic in that he seeks to satisfy both sides of the issue. That is, he advocates Medicare for All to please the progressives but adds "Who Want It" for the moderates. In truth, his stance is not substantially different than that of Joe Biden's Obamacare with a public option or anyone else in the field with the exception of the true progressives: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
When Sanders and Warren are criticized for their healthcare programs they both fall back to their standard speeches about the uninsured and the rising costs of prescription drugs, the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and the guts to take on the insurance industry. It's all very true and undisputed on the Democratic side of the political ledger. It does not however distinguish the universal-healthcare approach from the public-option approach.
There is a distinction and it is a substantial one. While progressive Democrats clamored for the public option back in the days of Obamacare, we failed to dig deeper into how such an option would work. The digger you deep, the less it appeals.