Steve provides his analysis of the opening two nights of Democratic Presidential debates.
For two hours on Wednesday and another hour on Thursday, the Democratic debates were spirited and energetic, but all seeming to little effect. It appeared that there would be only modest shifts in the hierarchy of the candidates’ standing, as most candidates turned in solid performances and no one committed a train-wreck caliber gaffe.
Then, just after 10:00 on Thursday, Kamala Harris turned and faced Joe Biden, and the tectonic plates underneath the race shuddered with the force of a 7.0 Richter California quake.
Harris challenged Joe Biden directly on his recent remarks about working with segregationist Senators, and then doubled down on her attack by raising the issue of Biden’s position's on school busing. Harris spoke with intensity and passion about her own personal experiences with race, and with busing specifically:
“There is not a black man I know, be he a relative, a friend or a coworker who has not been the subject of some form of profiling or discrimination. Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because she—because we were black. And I will say also that—that in this campaign, we’ve also heard—and I’m going to now direct this to Vice President Biden. I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But, I also believe—and it’s personal. And I—I was actually very—it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day... and that little girl was me.
It took all of five minutes for Harris to upend the Presidential election campaign of 2020. She had not simply taken Biden down. She had presented herself as a powerful leader willing to take on the toughest issues. For a party that is desperately searching for the leader who has the guts, gravitas, the personal power, and the savvy to take down Donald Trump, Harris’ tour de force was mesmerizing. The inevitability of Biden’s nomination seemed to drain in real time.
While that five minute segment was the most consequential exchange in the four hours of debate over two nights, it was not an isolated moment showcasing Harris’s strength. She put her stamp on the proceedings early in the debate, scolding her shouting, interrupting colleagues: “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.” Sure, it was a canned, planned line… but it worked. It was an assertion of authority over all the candidates. Humanity. Candor. Strength.
Expect real gains in the polls for Harris. For all the clips you’ve seen of Rick Perry saying “oops” or Lloyd Bentsen saying, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine,” the number of times that the debates yield a moment of true consequence in the overall campaign are rare. We witnessed one such moment last night.
Look for gains, too, for Pete Buttigieg, and even for tier three candidate Eric Swalwell. From Wednesday night, Elizabeth Warren was outstanding, and Julian Castro and Bill de Blasio both elevated their standing.
Last night, Harris, Buttigieg, and Swalwell -- each in a different way – were very effective in reframing this as a generational race. The two older white men at the center of the stage generally performed well, but the conviction, energy, and strength from these younger rivals was visceral. Biden and Sanders are each over 75 years old, and while they are remarkable for men their age, their age was apparent. Biden, in particular, seemed to be struggling to keep up the with the frenetic pace.
Most important, gains registered for these three younger candidates are likely to come directly at the expense of Biden and Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who turned in a solid performance, is losing momentum to the rapidly rising Elizabeth Warren, who is judged to have been the winner of the Wednesday debate.
In short, the two old white guys who were the front runners in this race will wake up to a new reality. And if Biden’s support ebbs in the next wave of polls, it could feed a narrative that he is not strong enough to take on Trump. In five short minutes on a Miami stage, and the direction of the race has careened onto a new course.
For drama and consequence, the confrontation between Harris and Biden was by far and away the most significant moment in the two nights of debate. Indeed, until that moment, it seemed that that the very strict structure required to manage a debate stage with ten candidates was itself inhibiting organic interchange between candidates, and causing many to begin rudely interjecting comments and shouting over the moderators.
This shouldn’t have surprised us: Shove ten monster-sized egos sardine-style on a small stage for two nights and threaten to cut off their oxygen supply after sixty seconds, and you are going to get far more hyperventilation, projectile speed-credentialing, and panicky interrupting than anything resembling the reasoned exchange of ideas.
The frantic pace, hurtling verbiage, and sense that the entire event was played on “lightening round” rules all served to diminish the amount of serious content that could be aired and truly debated. There is no better example of this than when Tulsi Gabbard was asked her position on equal pay for women. Gabbard did not even pretend to address the question and then pivot to her messaging strategy. She completely blew off the question and went straight to the full-up sound-byte that she wanted to make for the evening:
Gabbard: “First of all, let's recognize the situation we're in, that the American people deserve a president who will put your interests ahead of the rich and powerful. That's not what we have right now. I enlisted in the Army National Guard after the Al Qaida terror attacks on 9/11 so I could go after those who had attacked us on that day. I still serve as a major. I served over 16 years, deployed twice to the Middle East, and in Congress served on the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Affairs for over six years. I know the importance of our national security, as well as the terribly high cost of war. And for too long, our leaders have failed us, taking us from one regime change war to the next, leading us into a new cold war and arms race, costing us trillions of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars and countless lives. This insanity must end. As president, I will take your hard-earned taxpayer dollars and instead invest those dollars into serving your needs, things like health care, a green economy, good-paying jobs, protecting our environment, and so much more.”
That was her actual, verbatim, complete answer to a question about equal pay for women. Uh, wha?
In this environment of hyper-compressed, well-rehearsed sound-bytes, it’s a safe bet that most ardent fans of each candidate felt that their favorite did as well or better than anyone else. One can imagine people in bars on Grand Street in St. Paul celebrating: “Amy crushed it,” they likely crowed. “Amy just blew the doors off of that place, you knoo, like hands down!”
No, Minnesota, Amy did not crush it. She did fine. She did not disappoint – like Beto – but she didn’t significantly advance her cause, like Julián Castro, Eric Swalwell, or Bill de Blasio. And last night Kamala Harris made it one helluva lot harder for second tier candidates to merely maintain the status quo. At a certain point, Klobuchar – and others in her peer set – will have to figure out how to dramatically change the game. But Klobuchar’s candidacy – like most – will live to see the next debate.
In our post on Monday of this week, we divided the candidates into four tiers. We’ll grade out performances by tiers.
Tier One: The five front runners in the polls... Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, and Harris.
Make no mistake: Joe Biden took a torpedo below the water line last night. Even before his confrontation with Harris, though, Joe Biden’s age was apparent as an issue. He simply looked significantly older than he did in his last public gig as VP. We had noted in our pre-debate forecast that Biden had a choice between going for the jugular or being avuncular: would he attempt to play it safe and project the aspects of his personality that are wise, measured, above the fray, and presidential, or would he attempt to put forward a lusty, high-octane charisma-fest to prove that he can still mix it up with the kids?
The answer, unfortunately, seemed to be the worst combination: he appeared to be trying to put on a high-energy performance, but was straining to do so.
Perhaps more troubling for Biden… in the entire two hours, there was no singular moment in which he made magic happen. There will be no video highlight to show he’s still got game. As the exchange between Harris and Biden goes viral today, the primary visual that many Americans will have of Biden is him in a defensive crouch, unable to successfully respond to a withering direct attack.
It’s quite the comment on Pete Buttigieg’s remarkable rise that he went into night knowing he was going to be a target for attack, too. He’s a target because of his standing in the polls, to be sure, but also because of his possible vulnerability due to his handling of the police shooting of a black man in South Bend. Buttigieg handled the direct questioning on the topic with humility and honest reflection, and appeared to have navigated that issue well. Throughout the remainder of the evening, he was the Pete Buttigieg cable news viewers have come to know well: thoughtful, richly informed, insistent on peeling away the layers of problems and seeing deeper root causes and unexamined consequences. As expected, Buttigieg did well.
Elizabeth Warren was so good in the opening forty-five minutes of the Wednesday night debate that few seemed to notice that she essentially disappeared for the rest of the evening. Nobody packed more into a 60 second response than Warren… she managed to re-frame each issue, identify the underlying cause, and propose specific policy remedies in less time than it takes McDonalds to hawk a McRib. In the second hour, Warren seemed content to sit on her clear lead and let the playground fight between the anonymous, the desperate, and the moderators devolve into a drone of irrelevance.
Make no mistake: the sizzling campaign success registered by Warren of late has made life very difficult for Bernie Sanders, her rival for leadership of the party’s progressive wing. The razor-sharp performance by Warren the prior night raised the stakes. Bernie Sanders is an exceptional debater, and he knows the power of a dramatic pause, a high-relief contrast, and a shocking statistic. Still and all, he can sound like a one-note johnny, and last night he seemed to push every issue through his singular filter of income inequality. Yes, Bernie may have been ahead of his time in 2016, but the ironic consequence is that he feels like old news in 2020. Polling data suggests that progressives are shifting their bet to Warren. Bernie did not do enough last night to stem that tide.
Tier Two: Big Names with No Traction To Date.
Prior to the debate, we identified four candidates who had been expected to be far more formidable than they have proven on the stump so far: Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand. Booker and Klobuchar put in performances that helped them rather than hurt, but neither performance was a game-changer.
Beto O’Rourke, however, está en un gran problema… it could be that the reason he broke into Spanish is that he is not all that coherent in his native tongue. O’Rourke rose to prominence with a rhetorical flair that soared on the wings of shared youtube videos, but that gift was nowhere to be found on Wednesday night. The very first question fired at O’Rourke sought to pin him down on a very specific tax policy issue, a savvy move by Savannah Guthrie, as Beto is known to be long on Vanity Fair and short on wonkspeak. O’Rourke fumbled uncomfortably and it seemed to torque his mood for the evening.
Savannah Guthrie: “Congressman, that's time, sir. I'll give you ten seconds to answer if you want to answer the direct question. Would you support a 70 percent individual marginal tax rate? Yes, no, or pass?
O’Rourke: “I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone. Tax capital at the same rate... “
Guthrie: “Seventy percent?”
O’Rourke: “... that you -- you tax ordinary income. Take that corporate tax rate up to 28 percent. You would generate the revenues... “
O’Rourke’s stammering, stumbling reply – and refusal to answer a simple, direct question -- set his tone for Wednesday evening, and his competitors sensed he was rattled and vulnerable. It was as if O’Rourke became the “easy target.” No one dared take on the uber-wonk Elizabeth Warren, so the likes of Bill de Blasio and Julián Castro feasted off the far more vulnerable O’Rourke.
Amy Klobuchar put in a solid but unspectacular performance. She had a few good moments – particularly when she defended the record of the women candidates and their commitment to women’s reproductive health. But there is a dryness to Klobuchar’s personna – an absense of emotional fire – that makes her recede on the debate stage. It is the Micheal-Dukakis-in-a-helmet syndrome… she spouts policy but does not seem to connect emotionally. She needs to make the jump into the first tier, and we did not see that happening last night.
Perhaps Cory Booker made more headway. He was animated and emotive, and was able to invoke personal stories of life in Newark, New Jersey, to illustrate his beliefs… particularly on gun violence. Booker was most impressive when he bluntly condemned the pharmaceutical industry that is concentrated in the very state he represents. He was also able to illustrate the interrelationship of divergent issues – how healthcare impacts education and retirement, for example – and add urgency to the need to tackle the hardest problems. Booker may enjoy an uptick in the polls, but he, too, did not make a big leap through his debate performance.
If Kirsten Gillibrand did “better than expected,” it may largely be because expectations were so low. Once expected to be a formidable candidate, Gillibrand has barely made a ripple in the public consciousness. Gillibrand was particularly abrasive in the first hour of last night’s debate, as she repeatedly interrupted her colleagues on stage, talked over the moderators who sought order, and sounded whiny and petulant in so doing. In that she was essentially replicating the invasive style of Bill de Blasio on Wednesday night, the two representatives of the Empire State did a pretty effective job of proving to the rest of the country that New Yorkers are every bit as obnoxious as their reputation would suggest. Gillibrand seemed to settle down as the debate wore on, but we doubt that she made any real progress last night.
Tier 3: The “unloved knowns” and the “total unknowns.”
Tier 3 candidates are the people who urgently needed a break-out performance to rise above a sub-one-percent preference.
Two stood out head and shoulders above the rest: Bill de Blasio and Julián Castro.
When de Blasio first spoke, it was to rudely interrupt and challenge Beto O’Rourke about the latter’s advocacy of private health insurance. At that moment, it appeared that Bill de Blasio’s core thesis was that the Democrats' best chance to beat a pompous, self-involved, bloviating blowhard from New York City is with their very own pompous, self-involved, bloviating blowhard from New York City. It was de Blasio who tore the veneer of good behavior off the spectacle when he brazenly interrupted O’Rourke in mid-answer. As if flagging down a beer vendor at Yankee Stadium, de Blasio simply thundered over the restrained O’Rourke, and commandeered the platform with a startling, confident swagger. He was further emboldened when the moderators meekly allowed him to hijack the moment.
What surprised everybody – including, probably, a fair portion of the city he leads – was that de Blasio segued into remarkable personal stories, and how those personal experiences inspire his candidacy. His discussion of his father's undiagnosed WW II PTSD was profound. Of all the candidates, de Blasio seemed most intent on reminder Democrats what the party stands for. By the time the evening was done, de Blasio had done much to make people forget the noisy interruptions. Expect a jump in his polling.
Julián Castro sensed O’Rourke’s vulnerability and startled one and all by going in for the kill on O’Rourke’s command of immigration law. Castro called out O’Rourke by name, and at one point accused him of “not doing his homework.” Castro had a defining moment was when he was discussing the immigration crisis and the newly released horrifying photo of a father and young child face down, drowned in the Rio Grande River.
“I'm very proud that in April I became the first candidate to put forward a comprehensive immigration plan. And we saw those images, watching that image of Oscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off.”
There was something Castro’s blunt, crude, vernacular that startled the audience. It instantly made him at once human, strong, and forceful. Castro did very well, and he, too, should enjoy a significant jump in the polls.
The remainder of the “one percenters” did their best to wrest more than their share of attention, but no one really scored.
Tim Ryan seemed intent on demonizing his own party as a bunch of coastal prep-school elites who are too busy sipping woody cabernets to notice that his Ohio constituents were suffering. While strong and passionate, he took heavy incoming from military veteran Tulsi Gabbard when Ryan appeared to conflate the Taliban and Al Qaedi as the party responsible for 9/11. That was the closest thing to Def Con 1 gaffe that happened either night.
Jay Inslee’s go-to was the phrase “I am the only candidate on the stage who (fill in topic here).” This worked reasonably well until he tried to go this route on women’s reproductive rights. This teed up Amy Klobuchar’s scorching rebuttal that there were three women on the stage who were doing one helluva lot about a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices. Inslee went soggy after Klobuchar klobbered him.
John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet were each well-informed, earnest, and credible. In any other year, their performance last night might have led to further evaluation. But this party is looking for a heavyweight puncher who can mix it up with a ferocious, bullying, lying, utterly corrupt scumbag. The cerebral and mild-mannered Hickenlooper and Bennet are going nowhere.
Tulsi Gabbard had strong moments as she leveraged her military background to make powerful points about foreign policy. However, she was called out on her past behavior relative to the LGBTQ community, and the net of her evening was neutral to slightly positive. She did not do enough to significantly change her trajectory.
Three candidates bombed.
Andrew Yang, bless his heart, was the only candidate who refused to interrupt others in a desperate plea for mic time. His reward for good behavior? He spoke only a few times all evening, and did not make enough of an impression in any moment to break through.He, too, suffered from "Johnny One Note" syndrome, as he seemed to suggest that his proposal to give every American $1,000 a month was a universal panacea for everything from healthcare to climate change.
We anticipated that Marianne Williamson was the biggest wild card of the 20 candidates, and we thought that her many years of public speaking might make her the surprise of the debates. Well, yes, she was a surprise all right. Unfortunately, Williamson’s position at the far end of the stage was a metaphor for the candidate who represented Pluto. She was in sequence goofy, spooky, and loopy. While the other candidates may now go up or down in the polls, Ms. Williamson seems destined to go to return to low earth orbit.
The only candidate who utterly bombed was that really nerdy looking guy way over on the right on Wednesday night… you know… what’s-his-name. I think it was Delaney. Wow, what a whiny jerk! He kept talking over the moderators, kept talking beyond his time allowance, and we can only hope that he falls below the qualification line for the next debate.
We do always try to include one brief comment in our debate analysis about the moderators. NBC’s line-up did very well with their questions… they were tough, direct, and challenged the candidates on their vulnerabilities. However, the moderators did a poor job of keeping order, and failed to effectively shut down the most egregious violations of time limits and decorum. They have to do better. Kamala Harris was right: Americans do not want these debates to be food fights.
In fact, Kamala Harris was right about a lot of stuff last night.
The Democratic Party is desperate to find someone who is sure to beat Donald Trump. That is the criteria, end of story.
Joe Biden's strong support to date has been because most people believe that he is the most likely to beat Trump. That belief system was shaken last night.
Harris intuited that the best way to prove that she is the one who can take it to Trump would be to take it to the current front runner. Sure, let other candidates attack O'Rourke or Buttigieg. Harris knew that the only way to position herself as the leader was to take on the leader.
In that moment, Biden needed to show how he could handle tough attacks, pivot, and fight back. He did not.
With 20 candidates, it seemed like it was going to be hard to declare a single winner.
Turns out it’s not difficult at all.
Round one to the Senator from California.
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