My new favorite sport is watching the Democratic Presidential Debates. Who needs the Stanley Cup or the World Cup when you can tip up your cup while watching your team try to save your country from the worst president ever?
The Democratic Debates unfolded over two nights, with enough players to field a team in literally any professional sport. In Philadelphia, a city that votes 80% Democratic, watch parties dotted the landscape like Eagles fans climbing poles after a Super Bowl win. While the press has spent the last two days trying to parse winners and losers, what’s remarkable is how much it was like a sporting event. We gathered collectively to cheer our team, and appreciated good plays by opposing players.
The night of the first debate, Philly for Warren packed the cavernous Field House sports bar. Familiar faces from City Hall and progressive organizations dotted the crowd while the bartenders seemed overwhelmed by so many wonks in one place.
The crowd was hyped for Warren, cheering from her first moment onscreen. Warren delivered, raising her hand like a woman who has a long lifetime of being the first in the class with the answer to the teacher’s question. Her Hermione Granger dynamic reminded everyone that Harry Potter’s ass would have been toast in the first book without a competent friend backing him up. She was unruffled and solid on answers, a veteran player who has yet to capture a championship ring.
The early winners of the evening were the group of young teachers in the corner who had devised a drinking game where they would drink every time Beto spoke in Spanish or with an accent. The game expanded to encompass all the Duolingo-accented attempts by various candidates, and woe unto that group’s livers if some candidates don’t drop out of the race before too long.
Strong plays from other players earned applause. Julián Castro scored several impressive dunks, even with the huge whiff on his attempt to include the transgender community in the reproductive rights question. Inslee’s audition for Secretary of Energy went well. There was even appreciation for the player-you-love-to-hate, with lusty cheers when Tulsi Gabbard scored on Tim Ryan about Al Qaeda vs. the Taliban, a deliciously gender-reversed version of every guy who’s ever bleated, “Oh, so you like [TEAM], name three of their Hall of Fame players.”
Republicans have long understood that politics is a blood sport, and their unwavering devotion to their team is why they keep posting wins. How else to explain the enduring popularity of Ted Cruz, who is either a lizard in a skin suit or the Zodiac Killer? Mitch McConnell is Toby Turtle from Robin Hood but they keep him on the team because he scores points. Yet Democrats continually rip each other apart as if they’re playing at some kind of individual sport; leftie Twitter and figure skating Twitter are nearly equally bloodthirsty. Like Tonya Harding, Republicans are fine with cheating if it takes their opponent out of the competition. They’re the New England Patriots – only trophies matter.
For the second debate, Philadelphians for Pete Buttigieg took over Tabu, a sports bar in the Gayborhood. Pods of Pete fans spread out at tables interspersed with regular patrons, somewhat demographically divided and reminiscent of the Democratic electorate itself, with a table of college girls here, another full of black voters with slightly skeptical faces there. But once again, the crowd came through with cheers for their dude from the jump.
As before, the room was full of love for the game, and not just the favorite player. While Pete capably fulfilled his role as the promising rookie, there was lots of love for Kamala from the Pete crowd. When Kamala hit Biden on busing and school segregation, totally demolishing him, you could almost hear the crowd thinking FINISH HIM in unison, like it was Mortal Kombat.
Derision for bad plays abounded. LeBron throwing his hands up at J.R. Smith has nothing on the eyerolls at Hickenlooper, the watchers booing oil and gas companies when he brought them up. The looks in the crowd when Marianne Williamson got off on one of her rambles matched the faces of the candidates onstage: Biden and Bernie looked like they were listening to their mutual 15-year-old grandson explain how to install an internet router, while Pete’s eyebrow was so expressive it was running for VP all on its own.
On both nights, the plethora of nondescript white dudes represented the candidate equivalent of automatic qualifiers from weak divisions. Clearly nobody’s drinking game cue was every time someone in the crowd said “Who is that guy?” or an ambulance would have been called. MSNBC clearly fumbled by not posting every dude’s name underneath while he talked; there’s a reason that teams put the players’ names on the back of their jerseys.
The banter in both crowds on both nights was the same: calling this-or-that policy a “nice move;” discussing past incidents like Warren’s Pocahontas kerfuffle or Pete’s police chief controversy like they were seasons they’d had in the minors; a polite appreciation of everyone’s second choice. But even to outliers like Yang or Inslee, there was a gentleness of team spirit exhibited, even amidst the occasional eyeroll. Yes, some of these players are only ever going to ride the bench, but in this case “the bench” might be the Senate or Cabinet. Every team needs its sixth man or fourth line to grind it out against the boards.
It seems hard to believe that this was only opening day in an impossibly long season for the sport of democracy. Let’s get ourselves some snacks and beer, grab our foam fingers proclaiming we’re #1, and settle in for the stretch.