These Democratic presidential debates are very important — until the next ones

At its 243rd birthday, the United States has a proud and widely-admired political tradition of freedom and generally democratic elections of its own leadership.

Thanks to voters’ brief episodic attention spans and earnest but shallow media coverage that treats a leadership choice like some marathon Kentucky Derby, the United States has a presidential selection process that’s a mess.

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It is raucous and familiar to most of us and may be better than many other leadership selections. But it’s based on superficial TV impressions, stereotypes, money, quips, empty hopes and complete happenstance.

We saw much of this made painfully clear during and after the first pair of Democratic primary debates. TV relishes such set-piece events, like old-fashioned shootouts down by the corral.

We know when it will be. Where it will be. Who will participate. TV can line up ads. Anticipation builds. And we watch for fireworks. They usually come from a struggling candidate who needs to make a splash.

Bang! Enter Kamala Harris, the biracial freshman senator (sound familiar?), who’s been underperforming so badly on the trail that she’s had a couple of campaign relaunches.

She launched an assault on the primary frontrunner, Joe Biden, attacking him for reminiscing about working with two segregationist senators during a long-ago era of collegial comity on Capitol Hill when big things got done.

“It was hurtful,” Harris said in clearly rehearsed remarks, “to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

Here was a 54-year-old California ex-prosecutor who wants to be the first female commander in chief complaining of feeling hurt by an opponent’s remarks. Seriously?

She wants to play in the big leagues with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping. But she claims to be hurt by the intentional misinterpretation of remarks by Biden, who’s been vice president and working in elective office since she was 6 years old.

At 76, Biden is younger than Bernie Sanders. But he may indeed be too old for his party’s far-left energized electorate. His debate answers were not exactly dynamic, and he sounded even older when asking that a question be repeated.

Still, after that brief exchange, Biden’s 18-point lead over Harris was tossed aside in media accounts, and Harris was pronounced the winner of that night. Thus, the party’s new heroine.

Harris could well become Democrats’ 2020 compromise nominee between the party’s doddering wing of 70-year-olds and the surging left wing that believes Barack Obama was too timid. She’s a woman of color from California who takes bold, progressive stands, then quietly walks them back on the next morning’s shows.

Harris’ in-your-face prosecutorial stance could bait a blustering Donald Trump into real trouble.

Recent polls of Democratic primary voters have shown they don’t really care much about policy ideas at this point. They want Trump ousted, whatever and whomever that takes.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the party’s flinty aunt, was proclaimed the winner for a wonky grasp of her multitudinous policy proposals. “I’ve got a plan for that.”

This was the last opportunity for a first impression by 20 of the 24 candidates. A Democratic primary record 18.1 million watched parts of the second debate, 15.3 million the first night. Four years ago, 24 million watched the crowded Republican field’s first debates.

Media plays an oversized role at this stage of the campaign. Few Americans are paying close attention so early. They see or read bits and pieces and develop general impressions of the race and the candidates which, good or bad, they then seek to confirm as time passes.

But political media is watching every minute of today’s nonstop news cycles. Not necessarily out of malice, its members need new things to cover every day. Hence, the word n-e-w-s.

Trump controls this game like a veteran play-caller. The news needn’t be necessarily important, just new.

Remember last winter’s media discovery of Beto O’Rourke’s fresh new face? Now, he’s kind of empty and used up. And then Mayor Pete Buttigieg? Julian Castro may get his moment.

Bernie Sanders 2.0 seems tired and struggling this time with Democrats professing support for his once radical ideas like free college tuition and Medicare for all.

Now, it’s Kamala Harris’ turn, using her debate performance as a launchpad. If her poll numbers rise — and the first post-debate surveys suggest she’s gaining ground — that will fuel even more coverage. And potentially more donations. And more coverage. And on and on.

Polls, as everyone should know, are just snapshots. Debates actually are much the same, especially 70 weeks out.

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At the end of July, when the next Democratic debates occur in Detroit, these crucially important June debates will mean nothing. The new ones will be, well, new. Therefore, crucial and important.

Recall the first debate of the 2012 presidential campaign in Denver. GOP nominee Mitt Romney absolutely destroyed an unprepared Barack Obama on foreign policy. That was new and exciting news on Oct. 3 and could propel Romney into the White House. But you know how this story ends.

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