How do you know who’s got the momentum in the Democratic race? Look for the one with the bullseye on her back. Here's how Steve grades the performances in last night's debate.
Elizabeth Warren just had to know that she would need to come to Tuesday’s Democratic debate equipped with shock absorbers, shoulder pads, and laser shields. Not only has she recently stormed upward in the polls, but every one of her rivals seemed to enter last night's debate with flagging campaigns.
Tuesday’s debate was Bernie Sanders’s first major appearance after a heart attack, which not only effected the Senator’s health but threatened to flatline his campaign. Sanders had been steadily losing ground to Senator Warren, who had seized leadership of the party’s progressive wing, and the news of his heart ailment added a hyoooge question mark to his candidacy.
Which brings us to still more old news, as Joe Biden who continues to raise as many questions as he answers. The core premise of Biden’s candidacy is the “electability” argument, which contends that the vast majority of Democrats simply want to support the candidate who is most certain to beat Donald Trump. Yet time and time again– from Kamala Harris’s first debate take-down to his tepid response to Donald Trump’s current instrument character assassination, Biden has appeared unable to counter-punch.
Going into the evening, Pete Buttigieg seemed stuck in neutral, and Kamala Harris was fading back toward the "two percent pack." Four candidates were facing “do or die” moments, as they have not qualified for the November debate. Amy Klobuchar has been breathlessly emailing her supporters about an alleged surge in momentum that seems from here to simply be a tweak from “largely invisible” to “borderline marginal.” Last debate, Beto O’Rourke had gotten his AR-fifteen minutes of fame, but his candidacy – like just so many promises of new gun regulations in the wake of Dayton and El Paso – seems forgotten. Tulsi Gabbard was hanging on by a thread, and somebody forgot to tell Julian Castro to drop out for his flagrant helmet hit on Joe Biden.
Contrast these profiles in floundering and foundering with the resounding four-hour selfie line surrounding Elizabeth Warren after she rocked 20,000 supporters in New York’s Washington Square Park on Monday, September 16. Warren then ascended to the pinnacle of the progressive media-industrial complex, appearing on Colbert and Maddow before the news cycle was over. Elizabeth Warren was not just on a roll, she was a steamroller.
Thus the stage was set for Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Westerville, Ohio. Buckle that seatbelt, Elizabeth, and prepare for incoming.
The opening area of question was about the Democratic candidates’ views of the impeachment of Donald Trump. This rapidly devolved into a contest about which candidate could express the most aggrieved shock and outrage at Trump’s behavior, and functioned simply as the same type of vocal chord warm-up exercise that oratorio singers do before performing “The Messiah.”
Very rapidly, however, the introduction of the subject of healthcare yet again proved to be brutally divisive. Once more, a pitched battle exploded between the progressives (Warren and Sanders) who advocate “Medicare for all” including the elimination of private insurance, vs. the centrist call to “improve Obamacare,” adocating incremental rather than revolutionary change.
The white-hot core of this debate, however, was Elizabeth Warren’s repeated and adamant refusal to answer the question of whether middle class taxes would increase under “Medicare for All.” This was made all the more pointed because Bernie Sanders has long since openly acknowledged that such a plan would increase middle class taxes, but that overall middle class costs would be reduced because the cost of healthcare would decrease.
Elizabeth Warren was repeatedly afforded the opportunity to say once and for all whether middle class taxes would increase. Her unwillingness to address this simple question set her evening off on a very bad start. Overall, she had a solid evening… but she clearly squandered a night that was teed up as her golden opportunity to break out from the pack.
Much of Warren’s candidacy is premised on her willingness to squarely identify the root causes of complicated problems, and to provide clear, concrete plans for how to address them. For her to obfuscate on such an important and simple issue was a pointless self-inflicted wound. She had to know that the question of taxes on the middle class would come her way, and – somewhat shockingly – she didn’t have a plan for that.
Pete Buttigieg sensed weakness, and pounced.
It was during the healthcare portion of the debate that we realized Pete Buttigieg was going to have a strong evening. Pete has been criticized in past debates for an almost excessively cerebral, clinical approach, studiously avoiding direct challenges to fellow candidates. But last night a new Pete emerged. He watched Elizabeth Warren’s contortions in evading the tax question, and immediately went on the offensive: “Well, we heard it tonight… a yes or no question that did not get a yes or no answer.”
Buttigieg would go on to have a terrific debate, precisely because he was much more willing to take on the other candidates on. At one point, Tulsi Gabbard questioned whether the United States should have ever had troops protecting the Kurds on the northern border of Syria, characterizing the military presence as a “regime change war.” Buttigieg crushed his response, and may have effectively end Gabbard’s campaign. “Well, respectfully Congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong,” he began, and explaining that the role of our military in Syria was to honor our commitments to the Kurds. “What we were doing in Syria,” he lectured Gabbard, “was keeping our word.”
In yet a third one-on-one conflict, Buttigieg tangled with Beto O’Rourke on the Texas Congressman’s lead issue of gun control. O’Rourke attempted to throw some shade on Buttigieg about a disparaging comment the Mayor had previously made about the impracticality of O’Rourke’s vow to confiscate assault rifles. Given his chance to rebut, Buttigieg smoked O’Rourke with steely disdain for his halting attempt to explain how gun confiscation would work. “You just made clear that you don’t have a plan for how to get weapons off the streets.”
As a final point, Mayor Pete allowed us to measure some of the intellectual yardage separating him from Joe Biden. When both were asked whether they would consider trying to expand the number of Supreme Court Justices, Biden turned up his palms and said that he wouldn’t try to “pack the court.” Buttigieg dismissed the notion of “packing the court,” but immediately offered a series of solutions thoughtfully designed to de-politicize the court.
No one had yet seen this feisty, very combative Buttigieg, and it was very compelling. Even as Mayor Pete turned up the dial on direct confrontation, he did not appear to lose his trademark cool and unnerving ability to speak in fully-formed, grammatically chiseled paragraphs. And his finely honed debater’s tactics – challenging the premise here, re-framing the question there – seem to freeze opponents. After her exchange with Buttigieg on Syria, Gabbard seemed to utterly disappear for the remainder of the evening.
Amy Klobuchar, who continues to improve with each debate, may have done the most for her candidacy of anyone on the stage. Where Buttigieg is so well-funded that he can cruise to Iowa, Klobuchar was one of the four candidates who had not yet secured a place in the November debate. The Minnesota Senator seemed to find her voice in letting the air out of tires of Elizabeth Warren’s roaring rhetoric.
She took her first shot as Warren was engaged in heavy evasive maneuvering on the issue of whether “Medicare for All" would increase middle class taxes. “At least Bernie is being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice,” Klobuchar scolded. Feel the burn!
But Klobuchar was not done clobbering Warren on healthcare. “I appreciate Elizabeth’s work. But, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done. And we can get the public option done.”
When Elizabeth Warren exuberantly elaborated on her wealth tax, seeming to appear a bit smug for her leadership on this point, Klobuchar iced her, noting that she is hardly the only candidate who wants billionaires to pay more taxes. Asked about the idea of a wealth tax, Klobuchar cut Warren to size: “It could work. I am open to it. But I want to give a reality check to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.”
Later, Klobuchar would rise in frustration at the manner in which Elizabeth Warren would belittle any solutions that she viewed as insufficient radical. “You know, I think simply because you have different ideas doesn’t mean you’re fighting for regular people.”
The headline for the evening was that simple. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, the two polite Midwesterners, each decided that it was time to take off the gloves… and Warren was buffeted in the crossfire.
Joe Biden appeared a bit sharper and more aggressive than at any prior debate. His strongest moments were when he managed to be both strident and in control, as when he adamantly noted that Warren and Sanders had no way to pay the huge cost of their “Medicare for All” plan, and when he had opportunities to express his unbridled loathing for Donald Trump.
Perhaps most disappointing was the way Biden handled the single most expected question of the night – how he was addressing the accusations from Team Trump about his son’s business dealings in Ukraine. Three different times he asserted that his son’s statement “speaks for itself.” C’mon, Joe, by definition, a printed statement does not “speak for itself!” This made Biden look evasive on one issue in which certainty and clarity are absolutely essential.
But when not focused on Trump or healthcare, Biden too often lapsed into his unsettling habit of speaking so quickly that he appears to be a jockey who has been thrown by the wild sentences he is riding. One actually senses that his mouth has started to operate at a faster clip than the command center, hurtling at a breakneck pace and no longer tethered to the rigors of nouns, verbs, and direct objects. His sentences become short stories with abrupt surprise endings, appearing to often leave him every bit as puzzled as the rest of us.
So far, Joe Biden has been lucky, because his two most formidable rivals – Warren and Sanders -- were clearly from a different philosophical wing of the party. Joe appeared to own the centrist camp. But last night, he got a wake-up call. Buttigieg and Klobuchar suddenly need to be taken seriously as challengers to Biden for leadership in the centrist lane. The next round of polling is going to get very interesting.
Bravo for Bernie, who turned in a rock solid performance last night, ever strident and headstrong on his principles and ideals, but somehow a little less the grumpy, angry old man. One almost felt that his health episode may have had the effect of sanding down the aspect of Bernie that comes off as bitter and mean-spirited. In the battle of the would-be octogenarian Presidents, Bernie once again seemed sharper and more focused than Biden.
A melancholy moment for Bernie happened when he was once again put in the position of defending his advocacy of “Medicare for All.” He attempted to turn the tables. “I get a little bit tired – I must say – of people defending a system which is dysfunctional, which is cruel, 87 million uninsured, 30,000 people dying every year, 500,000 people going bankrupt for one reason… they came down with cancer.” It was moving and powerful… and yet many people may have only heard his opening phrase – “I get a little bit tired, I must say."
Bernie may have temporarily halted his long slide, but he did not regain the momentum in his battle with Warren for leadership of the party’s progressive wing.
The remaining candidates needed break-out moments to create renewed interest in their candidacies, but none of them hit a game-changing home run last night. Indeed, none seemed to even be swinging for the fences.
Cory Booker is immensely appealing, and scored points with his passionate plea that the candidates cease their angry internecine personal attacks. But this stance effectively prevented him from making the aggressive attacks on the front-runners that proved so effective for Buttigieg and Klobuchar.
Beto O’Rourke’s most prominent camera time occurred during his direct exchange with Pete Buttigieg on gun control. That he was unable to score a clear win on his signature issue has to be scored as a loss.
New to the stage was billionaire Tom Steyer, who impressed with his upbeat personality and willingness to compliment his fellow candidates. He startled with views on income inequality that almost out-Sandered Bernie Sanders. Yet there was no moment that made people suddenly think that a savior had arrived. Steyer was better than expected, but did not make enough of an impact to change the game.
Tulsi Gabbard was unimpressive last night, seeming to espouse positions that were clearly at odds with the heart of the party. She was the lone voice who was skeptical about impeachment, and her quixotic quasi-endorsement of Trump’s decision to leave Syria left one and all slack-jawed. It’s hard to imagine that we will be seeing Gabbard on stage in November.
The best thing that can be said about Julián Castro’s performance is that he did not once again attempt to commit character assassination by challenging the mental acuity, memory, and stability of the candidate leading in most polls. Castro was positioned at the last podium on the right, which has effectively served as exit ramp for low-polling candidates. Say good-night, Julián.
Andrew Yang remains somewhat enigmatic, as his candidacy and policies are so out of the mainstream of traditional Democratic politics. But underestimate him at your peril… just visit the “Andrew Yang for President” sub-reddit and you will see just how much grassroots and digital energy he is drumming up. As he spoke last night about the impact that automation will have on mainstream employment, it is clear that he is speaking to a younger generation in their language. You get the sense that it is the CNN moderators who don’t get it. Still, though, at a certain point his candidacy must begin to register more emphatically in the traditional polling, and he is not there yet.
Kamala Harris is struggling. Hard to believe, but it was not that long ago that she took down Joe Biden for his record on busing and his failure to condemn segregationist Senators and had pundits giddily preparing for her inauguration. Last night she seemed unable to seize the moment and wrest the focus, often wasting precious seconds of her response time attempting to tell parables about real people rather than getting to her point. Harris needed a big night last night to recharge her campaign, and she did not have it.
Last night, Elizabeth Warren learned that the reward for appearing to be the front-runner is to become the vortex of criticism. To the victor go the spoilers.
Last night, Pete punched, Klobuchar clobbered, and Elizabeth Warren was buffeted.
Better than expected:
Did not accomplish what they needed to do:
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