For two long nights, America watched a stage crowded with 10 lecterns and maybe four recognizable faces.
Some, but not all, of the 24 Democrats who would be president took to that stage and made their case. They stumped and squabbled and occasionally said something so interesting or odd that America leaned in to give that candidate a closer look.
What did we learn?
For starters, we learned that a dozen candidates could drop out of the race tomorrow — say, everyone NBC pointedly assigned to the three most distant podiums on either side of the stage — and we’d still have too many people running for president.
Twenty Democrats had something to say Wednesday and Thursday night. They had ideas about how to make health care and college more affordable and how to make immigration policy more humane. They wanted to talk about climate change and tax policy and how to save American farmers teetering on the brink of ruin. They had things to say about race relations and gun violence and election security.
Few of them got more than 5 or 10 minutes to say it.
For candidates such as Kamala Harris or Julián Castro, it was time enough.
“Hey guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight,” Harris said, silencing the cross-talk of an auditorium full of big egos and launching her standout performance on a Thursday night stage crowded with bigger names with bigger leads in the polls. “They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
Castro broke from the back of the pack Wednesday to bring raw grief and urgency to the immigration debate as he blamed the Trump administration’s restrictive asylum policies for the deaths of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, who drowned with his 23-month-old daughter in the Rio Grande trying to reach our shore.
“They have been playing games with people who are coming and trying to seek asylum at our ports of entry,” Castro said. “Óscar and Valeria went to a port of entry, and they were denied the ability to make an asylum claim, so they got frustrated and they tried to cross the river, and they died because of that.”
Front-runner Joe Biden spoke for 13 minutes and 19 seconds Thursday, the New York Times reported. By the time Harris finished batting him around like a tetherball — a tetherball on the wrong side of history and the school desegregation debate — he probably wished he could have swapped with tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who got less than 3 minutes.
Then again, the last time Biden ran for president, he spent most of his 2007 campaign kickoff trying to explain why he’d just described Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean.” A year later, they were on the same ticket, on their way to the White House.
Everything matters and nothing matters this early in the campaign.
Four years before that, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was barnstorming through Iowa on her way to victory in the straw poll.
Hillary Clinton shellacked Obama in the polls all the way through 2007.
So if you heard someone or something you liked on stage last week and you want to hear more, just wait.
We’ll get two more nights of Democratic debates next month, and the month after that, and on and on until we either run out of candidates or run out the year.
The Iowa caucuses are seven months away. Minnesota and the rest of the Super Tuesday states won’t vote for another eight months.
We’re a year from the party nominating conventions and 16 months from Election Day 2020.
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