Mark Penn: Democrats' debate was a panderfest

The second night of the second round of the Democrats’ presidential debates was no eloquent dialogue between moderates and the left. It was an all-out panderfest and, at times, an old-fashioned slugfest.

By the end of this endless debate, spooned out in one-minute dollops, I walked out with a $1,000-a-month check, an extra grand if I’m a female, untold reparations dollars if I am African American, Medicare from birth covering everything I’ll ever need until death, and the right to cross the border without any real penalty if I’m from another country. Prosecuting criminals of any kind generally got a thumbs-down, while white privilege made me immune from racist police who were painted as villains. And there will be no more pointless wars, carbon emissions will be zero by 2030, and it may take 10 years, but the government will run almost all health care.

While these same candidates earlier this week expressed outrage at President TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE for tweeting that Baltimore was a rat-infested mess, they all seemed to portray our entire country as in far worse shape than that Maryland oasis. America, it seems, is not the land of full employment, rising wages and decreased poverty. It’s not a country in which 90 percent have health insurance, almost everyone has a smartphone, and 64 percent own their home. It’s at heart a racist, misogynistic country dominated by fat cats and big corporations sucking the life out of us all. According to these candidates it’s a dark, dark place and, unless we usher them into office and save it through these programs and policies that start at a mere $30 trillion, America will continue to be a lost country.


Nearly every one of the candidates called for the impeachment of President Trump, and yet none of them called out a specific act that the president did to merit impeachment. They just said that former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal MORE outlined 10 of them and left it at that, ignoring that the Justice Department declared that these actions did not rise to obstruction of justice. Russia collusion as a theory has been abandoned.

When not pandering to gender, racial or ethnic groups with offers of cash, the candidates attacked each other. They took turns trying to knock Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: NY Times story sparks new firestorm over Kavanaugh Top Sanders adviser: 'He is a little bit angry' Working Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 MORE off his front-runner pedestal and, while the former vice president was at times wobbly, the consensus is that he held his own this time. He did, and he deserves some courage points for standing up for his record and releasing a health care plan based on expanding ObamaCare. And yet, one wonders how he will fare in a smaller group of candidates with Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: NY Times story sparks new firestorm over Kavanaugh Working Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 Warren proposes new restrictions, taxes on lobbying MORE (D-Mass.) in the mix, in later debates. Over the two nights of debating in Detroit, she probably did the best job of combining policy with a strong sense of activism.

There was no holding back on blue vs. blue or in attacking former President Obama’s policies. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisChamber of Commerce argues against Democratic proposals for financial transaction taxes Warren proposes new restrictions, taxes on lobbying Five top 2020 Democrats haven't committed to MSNBC climate forum MORE (D-Calif.) was attacked for being a prosecutor, Biden for saying some time ago (in an op-ed he would just as soon forget) that, in essence, a woman’s place was in the home. He squirmed a bit on that one but shrugged it off as a long time ago.

The candidates’ views on trade were largely incomprehensible. Democrats used to be the party of protectionism, working to stop the theft of jobs by low-wage workers in places like China. Yet, they all opposed the Trump tariffs while pledging to have labor and environmentalists at the table for future trade deals, whatever that means.

None of the candidates had any kind of vision of the future of the country or of the world. Andrew YangAndrew YangFive top 2020 Democrats haven't committed to MSNBC climate forum This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election Yang campaign says it received 450K entries for 'Freedom Dividend' contest MORE came the closest to mentioning how technology is changing the world, but he referenced it only as eating up jobs, not as creating a new world driven by AI. There simply was no view of how to advance America’s role in a world driven by the twin forces of technology and globalization while separated by religion, ethnicity and nationality.


The debate’s format promoted an almost comic-strip view of the world with rapid-fire questions and responses. Generally, all of the questions were softballs that allowed the candidates to repeat their favorite stump-speech lines, or lines they crafted for the debate — and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAt debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR Trump court pick sparks frustration for refusing to answer questions Klobuchar, Buttigieg find themselves accidentally flying to debate together MORE (D-N.Y.) clearly was waiting to get in her line about using Clorox at the White House on the first day if she is elected.

I think you can tell that there was little I liked about this debate and the direction the major candidates for the Democratic nomination are taking to make it through the early rounds of “Survivor.” I felt quite differently after the Tuesday debate, when moderates fairly challenged the left on policies that would cost trillions — that night lacked fireworks but showed the Democrats as a serious party having a substantive debate. Even the policies I didn’t agree with came off as smart and worth at least considering.

But the Wednesday night debate was quite different, as the candidates reeled off prepared lines geared toward putting identity- and class-politics at the heart of the revival of the party and their advancement to the next round. This approach was discarded in the ’90s, only to return bigger than ever today, as each candidate sought to outdo the other with outlandish promises and oppo-research attacks.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.