Deconstructing the “Woodstock Debates”

Timothy Philen is an opinion writer, award-winning advertising creative director, and author of Harper&Row/Lippincott’s “You CAN Run Away From It!,” a satirical indictment of American pop psychology.  Email:

Timothy Philen is an opinion writer, award-winning advertising creative director, and author of Harper&Row/Lippincott’s “You CAN Run Away From It!,” a satirical indictment of American pop psychology.


The Democratic Party has finally let its freak flag fly.

As if in homage to the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the visions voiced and vows taken at the first presidential debates not only sanctified the countercultural canon of the hippie generation, they may have changed our political center of gravity forever.

To the triangulators in the DNC establishment, of course, the widespread embrace of socialist policies by their presidential hopefuls was electoral insanity, but to the Left’s libertine pilgrims -- the energized base of the Democratic Party -- the journey from capitalism to socialism seems as natural a progression as firing up a doobie and then devouring a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Or any other flavor -- the candidates made sure to bring them all to the Arsht Center last week.

There were promises of bottomless goody bags with cradle-to-grave giveaways, none so righteous as Andrew Yang’s call for a no-strings-attached government gift of $1,000 cash every month to every American over the age of 18 for life, with Yang’s yin provided by New Age oracle Marianne Williamson, who insisted, when pressed on specifics, that all you need is love.

The hard truth is that the Democratic debates were no more a love-in than the 1968 Democratic convention was. The long knives were out and tolerance for the back-slapping, compromising ethos of the martini generation was officially over.

It was painful to watch. Former vice president Biden seemed flummoxed, at times living up to President’s Trump’s characterization of him as “Sleepy Joe.” He drifted in and out of “wokeness” in his policy prescriptions, he was unprepared for Kamala Harris’s and Michael Bennett’s prosecutorial assaults on his record, and he appeared thin to the point of frailty, with a look of almost taxidermic tidiness.

At times he also seemed irritated that he needed to be there at all, given his legacy stature within the party. I half expected him to make the Bush ‘41 mistake of looking at his watch to see how much longer he would have to suffer these lilliputian indignities.

Fortunately for Biden, he had a serviceable closing statement, but the lingering image of him as a venerable but vulnerable relic is sure to haunt him on the campaign trail. Even worse, he’s allowed himself to be bullied further to the left by a new generation of zealots for whom “electability” and “bipartisanship” are fighting words.

By contrast, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democrats’ resident curmudgeon, has never stopped spoiling for a fight, taking on every issue, including his rivals’ relative youth, with characteristic crustiness. When asked about “generational change” in a post-debate interview, he bristled, calling any such suggestion “ageism.”

He’s right, but in our telegenic culture, he’s simply the wrong candidate. His disheveled appearance and angry old professor persona are wearing thin, as his plummeting favorability numbers attest. This time around, Bernie seems little more than a caricature of himself. It’s a shame, really, considering that he was the brave explorer who took that one small step for liberalkind in 2016 that became the giant leap toward socialism we’re witnessing today.

But, as Jimmy Carter reminded us, life isn’t fair.

And often it’s not even comprehensible, as when one ponders the unbearable lightness of being Beto O’Rourke. I’m not sure what this fidgety fellow can do at this point to get attention other than to stand on a table at the El Paso border, arms flailing, and demand, “Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!”

Then again, compared to New Jersey’s Cory Booker, O’Rourke looks like Grant at Appomattox.

From the first day Senator Booker appeared on the national scene, he’s acted like a candidate created by Google techs and programmed with logarithms that are continually being retested and refined. His educational pedigree, his ethnicity, his hipster grooming, his fabricated memories of a hard-scrabble street life and his passionately glib answers to policy questions come together in a way that was supposed to have made him the perfect political candidate.

Instead, they’ve made him the perfect parody of a candidate -- a grandstanding embarrassment who is significantly less than the sum of his parts and who has zero chance of passing the authenticity test so vital to Democrats these days, especially in light of the Clinton debacle.

That leaves three high-flying hopefuls with any chance of landing on the Democratic ticket:

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has an impressive resume: Harvard, Oxford, and US Naval Intelligence. He’s smart, articulate, thoughtful and virtually unflappable. Unfortunately, though, he’s also 37 years old, slender and 5-feet-eight inches in height.

It doesn’t take an Einstein-level thought experiment to picture him in next year’s October debates looking like a nerdy brainiac running for student body president against the towering chancellor of the university. The optics would scream “Michael Dukakis squared.”

California Senator Kamala Harris showed herself more than up to the challenge of Biden and Sanders during the Thursday night debate and at least a lock for vice president. Unfortunately, though, her strengths are also her weaknesses. She spans her party’s troubled waters with both gender and racial diversity, but today that “two-fer” may still be a bridge too far for any presidential candidate in a general election.

Finally, there’s Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She’s what Hillary was supposed to be: a brilliant policy mind and a vigorous, engaged campaigner who works hard for every vote, takes no segment of the population for granted, and speaks truth to power every day on the stump. She’s also a skilled Washington operative who would have the chance to leverage her executive powers to gain maximum advantage for the Democratic party in Congress.

Unfortunately, though, she won’t have that chance, at least not in 2020, thanks to her Wednesday night proclamation that, if elected, she’ll dedicate herself to abolishing all private health insurance in the United States and forcing the 67% of Americans who have it to submit to a federal government single-payer system.

It was a mind-bending moment in debates that had so many mind-bending moments, I kept waiting for a Political Suicide Hotline number to flash at the bottom of the screen.

Of course it’s hard to say, this early in the campaign, who'll be the Democratic Party’s two nominees, but given the number of serious candidates who touched the third rail of socialism and hung on tight, it’s easy to say who was the clear winner in these "Woodstock debates” — the 45th, and next, President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

I can hear Country Joe McDonald crying now: “Gimme an F!”