The Democratic primary is now a sideshow

True enough for Congress, perhaps, but the candidates are in a tougher spot. All of them support at least an impeachment inquiry, but there’s not much else they can say. They are all trying to beat him in an election that would moot an impeachment. Yet any impeachment proceedings will conclude by the time the presidential election happens, and if Trump were to be removed from office, which still seems very unlikely, it would be outside the candidates’ control.

Impeachment isn’t the only reason that tonight’s debate was a bit of a bust. First, there are simply too many candidates. People moan about two-night debates, and they groan about not having the leading trifecta of Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders together onstage. But this meeting showed how pointless it is to cram all 12 candidates into one night. The moderators were reasonably effective within the bounds they were given, but no debate this large is structured to allow meaningful debate or exchanges. Even middle-tier candidates got lost for long stretches at a time. Tom Steyer, in his first appearance, found that money could buy him onto the debate stage, but it couldn’t buy him questions or attention.

Second, the candidates agree on most issues. Remember the old line about how academic debates are so bitter because the stakes are so low? The few moments of drama in this debate were high because the policy differences are so narrow.