The Democratic debate, Night Two, where mediocrity is good enough

In a general sense, the theme of tonight’s Democratic presidential debate was the same as last night’s — skewer the the frontrunner[s]. Last night, the frontrunners were Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. They came under attack from four no-hopers: John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, and Steve Bullock.

Tonight, the frontrunner was Joe Biden. He came under attack, at one point or another, from Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee, and Bill de Blasio.

There were two important differences between the debates, though. First, Biden was attacked from the left, whereas Warren and Sanders were attacked from what passes these days among Democrats as the center. Second, Biden wasn’t just attacked by no-hopers. Harris is in the top tier, and Booker, though lagging in the polls, may not be entirely without hope.

The second difference is key. Delaney, Hickenlooper, etc. had nothing to lose by going after Warren and Sanders. But Harris stood to lose if she came out second best in her exchanges with Biden, and maybe if she fought him to only a draw.

Moreover, because Harris is a strong contender, she was a potential target of some of the minnows. Indeed, the strongest attack against her came not from Biden, but from Tulsi Gabbard.

But let’s get back to Biden. How did he do? Much better than last time, that’s for sure. He was more prepared, more forceful, more articulate, and less sleepy.

Biden did have a few senior moments, the most bizarre of which came at the very end of his closing statement when he urged people to “go to Joe 30330.” I think he wanted people to text him at that number. He also warned against eight more years of Trump, as though this were 2017.

Biden parried some attacks well and some attacks not so well. The bottom line, I think, is that this was not much better than a mediocre performance, but good enough to counter the narrative that Biden is too “out of it” to nominate.

Moreover, since Biden was being attacked from the far left, he probably solidified his position as the choice of Democrats who aren’t radical leftists. Frankly, there just isn’t much competition in that lane. Candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke don’t seem committed to occupying it. Amy Klobuchar has been a dud so far. Candidates like Delaney, Bullock, Hickenlooper, and Ryan are no-hopers.

As expected, Biden went on the offensive against Harris and Booker when they attacked him on race. I thought his bout with Booker over policing in Newark was basically a draw. I thought his attack on Harris over her time as California’s chief prosecutor lacked crispness.

Fortunately for Biden, Tulsi Gabbard joined that fray and absolutely hammered Harris’s record. Expect more of the same from other candidates in future debates. As I said early on, Harris is quite vulnerable on this subject.

Harris also looked bad when she tried to bob and weave her way out of the fact that her health care proposal deprives people of the option of keeping employer-provided plans. I understand that she finally admitted this after the debate when pressed by Anderson Cooper.

On balance, I rate Biden’s exchanges with Harris as basically a draw. Given Biden’s lead in the polls and his poor showing last time out, that makes this a good night for Biden.

Indeed, it’s plausible to say that Biden had two good nights. The attacks from the center against Warren and Sanders on Tuesday may work to Biden’s advantage.

What will the next sets of polls look like at the top? For what it’s worth, I don’t expect much to change. However, Biden might improve his numbers a little, while Harris may take a slight hit. Warren may gain some ground on Sanders in the far left lane.

How did tonight’s other debaters do? I think Booker had a good night. To be fair, I thought that last time too, and his poll numbers didn’t improve.

Tonight, though, he was more demagogic, so maybe that will help. It’s also possible that he takes some support away from Harris in the African-American lane, since he was the more impressive debater.

I was happy to see Andrew Yang in the fourth slot tonight, despite having been frozen out of the first debate. I think he also spoke less tonight than the others, but wasn’t frozen out.

Yang sounds like an intelligent guy until he tries to convince us that giving $1,000 a month to every American will solve our problems. Unfortunately, he says that a lot.

Yang also said we should pay people to stay out of jail. What a sucker I am. I’ve stayed out for free the past 50 years.

Yang offered a unique solution to climate change — move to higher ground. At least he recognizes the possibility that man can adapt to the “existential threat” we face.

Jay Inslee recognizes no such thing. Elect him or face extinction. Not an easy choice.

Julian Castro did pretty well. I’m told he doesn’t really speak Spanish, but he must be practicing. His pronunciation of Guatemala and adios was impeccable, at least to my ear.

Tulsi Gabbard is an impressive debater. She has a presence that should be the envy of just about everyone else in the field.

She’s in the non-radical camp on domestic issues and the radical camp on foreign policy. That makes her interesting. I hope she makes it to the next debate.

Unfortunately, Gabbard went Jay Inslee in her closing statement when she warned of an impending nuclear war.

Kirsten Gillibrand was better than last time, or at least easier to take. She didn’t try to force her way into the debate by interrupting. She let the debate come to her, and it did. She spoke more than most of the others without being obnoxious in the process.

Her most notable moment occurred when she attacked Biden for some ancient op-ed in which, she claims, he said, in effect, that a woman’s place is in the home. This was to be her Kamala Harris busing moment, but I think it fell well short of that.

In her closing statement, Gillibrand said it was a “false choice” to say that Democrats had to pick between a progressive with bold ideas and a moderate with pragmatic ones. Why? Because she is both.

Nothing could summarize Gillibrand more aptly.

Gillibrand also pleaded for support so she could qualify for the next debate. She’s in trouble and knows it. After tonight, I think she’s still in trouble. At least I hope so.

Michael Bennet was earnest and considerably more sensible than anyone else on the stage. Tonight was the last we’ll see of him in a presidential debate.

Bill de Blasio was earnest and considerably less sensible than anyone else on the stage. He went Howard Beale tonight, saying that “Americans don’t have to take it anymore” and promising to “tax the hell out of the rich.”

Tonight was the last we’ll see of him in a presidential debate, thank God.

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