The Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights were without precedent. Twenty potential nominees, which did not even represent the full field, debated with each other over the course of two evenings. This field of twenty will be winnowed in the next months with a nominee emerging somewhere between April and mid-July of 2020. The debates are only one component of what will be a long campaign, but they are the most important and high profile to date.
Although the primary remains very competitive the debate gave voters a much better sense of who the voters are and what the campaign going forward might look like.
Several candidates who started out on the fringes of the race and are likely to remain there. This included Representatives Tim Ryan and John Delaney. Both tried some variant of being the white guy in the room telling the others that their plans were unrealistic. These appeals are pretty tone deaf as the Democratic Party, even its more moderate voters, no longer have much of an appetite for white men telling them what is or is not doable.
Three other candidates who are unlikely to get much traction in the race were much more impressive. Tulsi Gabbard’s takedown of Tim Ryan was something we rarely see in American politics, a smart, well-spoken veteran, pushing back against a foreign policy establishment that, at the end of the day, thinks the US needs to be engaged all over the world more or less all of the time. Gabbard, other than that, did not leave much of an impression, but she gave the most thoughtful and progressive foreign policy response of any candidate.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is very unlikely to be the nominee, but his first answer of the night, when he talked about what the Democratic Party should be, was an excellent moment. It was a concise and compelling statement of a progressive vision for the party. De Blasio is, in many ways, an intriguing candidate. He is a middle aged straight white man, but his progressive credentials are very strong. Moreover, he is the only real progressive in the race who can claim concrete governing credentials and accomplishment. However, in this crowded field, he will have a difficult time getting that message out. De Blasio is also at a disadvantage because he is much more popular among lower income and non-white New Yorkers than with upper middle class New Yorkers, so many non-New Yorkers only hear the negatives about his time in office.
Jay Inslee, who has been portrayed as a single issue candidate focusing entirely on climate change proved himself to be more nimble than that. He forcefully demonstrated that fighting climate change to good economic policy. However, his aggressive defense of his record on abortion rights came too close to mansplaining to three female US Senators. While Inslee is still a very long shot, it is increasingly clear if you believe the theory that the Democrats must nominate a straight white man to win the general election, a theory unburdened by any evidence, you should give Inslee a long look, as he is a better candidate with fewer negatives than the others in his demographic group
Perhaps the most disappointing showing on the first night was by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. As a Senator, Klobuchar earned a reputation for being smart, well-prepared and hard working. For voters looking for an electable candidate, Klobuchar seems like an intriguing possibility, a centrist Democrat from the center of the country who is a woman. However, within ten seconds of her beginning to speak, she seemed uninspiring and frankly, boring. That combination will make it very tough to break through in this field.
Another candidate who had a bad debate was Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke presented as long on platitudes, but short on concrete ideas or expertise. Additionally, on the large debate state, his legendary charisma did not break through. Not only did Julian Castro, in an exchange that made it clear that one or both of these men should return to Texas and run for the US Senate, get the better of O’Rourke on the debate on immigration, but O’Rourke failed to give a good rationale for his candidacy. Castro, on balance, did very well in the debate, demonstrating both substantive expertise while telling one of the few good personal narratives of the evening. Predictably, the questioners spent a lot of time discussing immigration with the one Latino candidate, but Castro is not at all a single issue candidate and has very substantive views on many issues.
Elizabeth Warren has built her surging campaign around being substantive. As the leading candidate the first night, she had the most to lose, but did not lose much at all. Warren seemed the most presidential in the first night field, keeping her cool, answering every question put her way, demonstrating a knowledge of issues beyond her core economic platform and retelling a personal story that should resonate with all middle and working class Americans, particularly women. Warren was one of the few candidates on either night who seemed what in the years before 2016, was known as presidential. She went into the first night having to hold serve-and she did.
If Warren demonstrated star power by dint of her hard work and preparation, the only other candidate the first night who demonstrated star power was Cory Booker. The New Jersey Senator had a reputation for being a good and charismatic debater, which put some pressure on him to perform well, but he did not disappoint. He demonstrated a fluency on every issue, a very strong speaking style and a familiarity with the problems of urban America that was deep and personal. Booker is still in the second tier of candidates, but of the ten candidates who debated on Wednesday, he was the only one who positioned himself to, with a few breaks, make it to the first tier.
Kamala Harris was the big winner of this debate. I have been watching Democratic presidential debates for more than three decades, and hers was the best performance I have ever seen. She was charismatic, presidential and demonstrated a formidable controlled strength. She deftly told her personal story and explained her resume as a way to support her arguments. While the most memorable moment from this debate occurred when Harris addressed Joseph Biden’svulnerability on issues of race, leaving the former vice-president looking defensive and out of touch, she had already won the debate by then. At a moment when all the candidates were talking over each other, Harris announced “"Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we're going to put food on their table,"
That was the instant when she stood out from the field and demonstrated leadership. Moreover, she did it as Biden’s efforts to speak were part of the background noise. In doing that, despite being almost a quarter of a century younger than Biden, it was Harris who presented herself as the grownup in the field and the real leader on the stage.
The evening did not go well for Biden, but he is still very much in this race. Nonetheless, the debates showed why Biden may have a tough path ahead of him. Another stumble like last night where he shows how he is out of touch with today’s Democratic Party, particularly its activist class that is so important in primaries, could be devastating. Moreover, if Harris and Booker continue to land attacks on him due to his positions on race related issues, Biden’s connection to Barack Obama may not save him. If that happens, Biden will not be the nominee. Biden needs to turn his age and long tenure in politics into a story of experience, perseverance and accomplishment, rather than simply proof that he is from another era, but he has never been good at running for president and, based on last night, may not be able to do that. He also must stop saying “the fact of the matter.” Anybody who understood the gestalt of the Democratic Party in 2019, would know that an old white man asserting that his opinions are “the facts of the matter” is very much not it.
Bernie Sanders was, well, Bernie Sanders. He continues to tell simple truths about the American economy, health care system and more while waving his hands, shouting down women and, despite leaving Brooklyn more than a century ago, still speaking with the unmistakable accent of his home borough. Sanders is, by now, a familiar figure to most Americans. He gave the usual Sanders performance, energizing his base while likely failing to win over any new voters in this crowded field. Sanders is still very much in this race and seems likely to remain in the top tier of candidates, but is a longshot to be the party’s nominee.
Pete Buttigieg had as much at stake as any candidate in this race. He had, thus far, emerged as the breakthrough political talent of this cycle, a title he now has to cede, or at least share, with Kamala Harris. The debate was Buttigieg’s first opportunity to showcases his skills to his largest audience yet. He was well-spoken and smart, but not quite compelling. He got one tough question about his handling of a police shooting in South Bend and responded calmly and thoughtfully, but not exactly memorably. His best moment was when he, as a religious Christian, pointed out the hypocrisy of Republican politicians who practice the politics of meanness while claiming to be Christians as well. Buttigieg, on balance, essentially tread water in the debate. He is still in the top five to seven candidates, but did not have a breakout debate by any means.
Kirsten Gillibrand had an interesting night. She has struggled in this campaign despite having a very strong profile on paper. In this respect, she is a bit like Amy Klobuchar. Gillibrand’s most memorable moment was when she explained clearly why it is important to have women in the room, and in powerful positions, when discussing issues like women’s reproductive health. It was a hard hitting and persuasive point, but ultimately fell a little flat because there are so many women in the race. If Gillibrand were the only woman in the race, that argument would likely have moved female voters to her, but it ended up seeming like another good reason to support female candidates like Warren or Harris who are doing so much better in the polls than Gillibrand.
John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennett and Eric Swalwell, like Ryan and Delaney on the first night, are smart white men who would probably be fine presidents, but don’t have a real place in this race. Swalwell’s generational appeals came off as too ham fisted. Moreover, he was by far the second most impressive under 40 on the stage last night. Buttigieg was first. Bennett and Hickenlooper seemed largely interchangeable and equally forgettable. Both would be respectable running mates if the nominee wants a white male centrist on the ticket.
Two other fringe candidates participated in the second debate and comported themselves well while demonstrating while they are not going to be factors in the race. Andrew Yang is clearly one of the smarter candidates on matters of the economy, but who got very little speaking time and did not range much beyond his core knowledge of the economy and touting his signature proposal of a universal basic income. Marianne Williamson was the most out of place of all the candidates. It was refreshing to see a smart, if quirky and sometimes a little bit far out, woman who is not only not a politician, but not interested in being one, on the debate stage, but she has no chance in this race. The most significant thing about Williamson was that despite getting very little speaking time and lacking fluency on some issues, she, like the other nineteen candidates, seemed so much smarter, better prepared and well spoken than the man they all hope to replace in the oval office.
Photo: cc/Donkey Hotey