I watched the first two hours of tonight’s Democratic debate, passing up the Maryland vs. Illinois basketball game (won by Maryland, putting the Terps in first place in the Big Ten). I got what I deserved for preferring my least favorite political party to my favorite college basketball team.
If you have watched several of these debates, you probably have a good sense of how things went tonight. The performances all were within the normal range of what we’ve seen in the past from each candidate.
I thought Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and maybe Sanders were at the high end of their range. The others were right around the middle.
Let’s discuss the candidates one-by-one.
Joe Biden: The stock line after almost every previous debate — one that I’m sure I used a few times — has been something like this: “Biden had some good moments and some moments when he was inarticulate and maybe confused. But he didn’t commit any major gaffes and thus, as the frontrunner had a pretty good night.”
As Ron Ziegler might say, this line now is “inoperative.” Biden isn’t the frontrunner and he needed to have a good night.
Did he? He had some good moments and some moments when he was inarticulate and maybe confused.
Biden was a bit more forceful than usual, presumably because for the first time he believes he’s in trouble. But I don’t think he gave a performance that will boost him in New Hampshire. At best, he may have stopped the bleeding.
Oddly, Biden kicked off the night by saying he expects to lose in New Hampshire. Isn’t the normal way to lower expectation to have someone in the campaign say this to a reporter?
Bernie Sanders: Sanders was Sanders, which is to say that he delivered another powerful performance. The only difference I saw between this one and his past efforts is that he showed a little more personality and humor tonight. That may have been a function of his improved status in the race.
I don’t think Sanders won over new supporters tonight, but his existing supporters will show up in droves to vote for him, and that may be enough to carry him to victory. Also, I suspect he’ll raise lots of additional money off of tonight’s performance.
Elizabeth Warren: Warren was Warren. She has perfected the art of turning every question into a vehicle for an excerpt from her stump speech. She’s canned as hell, but sounds good.
Her performance tonight was solid, but I don’t see it giving her the boost she seems to need in New Hampshire.
The good news for Warren is that during the portion of the debate I watched, no one attacked her. But that’s also bad news because it shows her rivals don’t consider her a threat any longer.
Pete Buttigieg: I think Buttigieg won the first hour. With the exception of Biden, his competitors were consistently articulate but said little if anything that’s likely to win them new supporters.
Buttigieg was more than articulate. At times he sounded inspirational and maybe a little bit visionary (or would have sounded that way to me if I hadn’t concluded that he’s a phony).
I think Buttigieg is hands down the most skillful politician in the field. This must be the case given how he’s been able to punch so far above his weight so far.
The second hour didn’t go as well for the former mayor. His rhetoric came down to earth (or maybe just wore out its welcome) and he struggled with a question about why black representation among those arrested for marijuana possession in South Bend increased while he was mayor. (The answer may be the Scanlan effect, but that’s a topic for another post.)
However, the first hour surely was the most important portion of the debate. Thus, I think Buttigieg may have helped himself tonight.
Amy Klobuchar: She’s the other candidate who seems likely to gain from the debate. She owned the center-left lane tonight and her rhetoric, though not as soaring as Buttigieg’s, was quite good at times.
Klobuchar said she has been endorsed by three major New Hampshire newspapers including the Union Leader. Such endorsements don’t seem to count for that much these days but, coupled with her debate performance, she might make a surprisingly good run in New Hampshire. Still, a top three finish seems out of reach.
Andrew Yang: As usual, Yang spoke much less than anyone else. He has himself to blame, at least in part. I rarely saw him seeking recognition by raising his hand.
When Yang did speak, it was usually to tout his money giveaway program or to claim — sometimes plausibly — that this or that problem is the product of technology wiping out jobs.
Yang’s best moment came when he was the only candidate to oppose prosecuting Donald Trump once he’s out of office. That stance may cost him half of the negligible support he entered the debate with.
Tom Steyer: Ugh. Steyer spent the first hour claiming that everyone on the stage agrees about the issue being discussed (whether they did or not) and that the real question was how do we defeat Trump. Steyer never really answered the question, and certainly didn’t demonstrate that he is the one to accomplish this.
He spent the second hour shamelessly pandering to black voters. There aren’t many of them in New Hampshire, but Steyer had South Carolina on his mind.
At one point, Steyer challenged Biden to repudiate one of his South Carolina backers who, according to Steyer, made a racist statement. Biden first tried to duck the challenge. When Steyer persisted, the best Biden could was to say he has talked to the guy and thinks he regrets having said it.
As I said, Biden had some good moments and some not so good moments.
In the end, I was left to regret spending two hours watching this affair. One hour would easily have sufficed. I’d be surprised if many New Hampshire Democrats watched more than that.