No doubt many passionate progressives spent all yesterday in front of the tv riveted to the stunning impeachment testimony. Perhaps they grew weary and turned off the Dem debate after a wonky first hour. If so, let Steve tell you what you missed in the contentious and consequential final hour.
The next Presidential election is eleven months away. The first caucus votes won’t be cast until the second month of next year.
Yep, you got it… it is time for most Democratic candidates to panic.
They are running out of time to change the now-hardening narratives, and the stress is showing.
Each of the candidates went into last night’s debate with a clear objective. Each knew they had to execute against that plan with precision.
Amy Klobuchar had to build on her strong performance in the last debate and try to squeeze her way into the top tier. This meant selling the concept of a centrist candidate while simultaneously explaining why the two centrist candidates ahead of her in the polls were not the best centrists. It meant slowing Mayor Pete’s Iowa stampede so that she could still see some daylight if and when old Joe finally runs out of gas. A very tall order.
Since the last debate, Elizabeth Warren’s momentum – effervescent and seemingly unstoppable during the four-hour selfie line in Washington Square Park back in September – has been slowed to a crawl by her tone-deaf healthcare plan. It was assumed that she would once again spend the evening straining under white-hot scrutiny of a Medicare for All plan that is of grave concern to a party that primarily wants to beat Donald Trump.
The impending arrival of Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick was nothing if not a signal to Joe Biden that is perceived to be vulnerable. Biden had to dramatically step up his game. He needed to appear presidential: calm, strong, knowledgeable, and in command… not the grimacing, glib, and garbled Grandpa Faux Pas of the prior debates.
For Bernie Sanders, the task was clear: he needed to explain why this campaign needs an older, crankier, male version of Elizabeth Warren, because he is beginning to look to all the world like a guy who just wants to bring a fistful of chips to a brokered convention.
Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker needed to explain why their candidacies have utterly failed to light a fire, and – harder still -- convince us that it still could happen.
And Pete Buttigieg knew that as a result of his recent meteoric rise in Iowa, he might spend the evening at the center of the bullseye, the implicit or explicit target of many other candidates.
Given the stakes, the debate was remarkably low key for the first hour and well into the second.
The only real explosion during in this period of the debate was the extremely contentious exchange between Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris, signaling the beginning of an incredibly bad evening for Ms. Gabbard. The Congresswoman from Hawaii, who makes her own service central to a broad opposition to military intervention, dissed Hillary Clinton as simply a continuum of poor foreign policy that began with George W. Bush and continues through Trump. Harris countered that Gabbard had spent the Obama years as a frequent Fox News guest criticizing the popular President. It’s hard to think of a more efficient way to crush a Democratic candidate than to link her to both Fox News and opposition to Obama in the same sentence.
Other than this skirmish, the first hour of the debate was a long stretch of civility, with no shouting, and none of the Bill de Blasio-style interruptions that made the first few debates look like recess at an elementary school. There was not even all that much emotion. It was largely a bunch of wonks doing good wonk at a world-class wonk-fest.
For that first hour, the four leading candidates – Biden, Warren, Sanders, or Buttigieg – were all solid. Their supporters no doubt felt that their candidate stood out. In truth, none of them really did… again, for the first hour.
Amy Klobuchar continued her strong debate performance, leavening her aggressive challenges with a well-tuned sense of humor. She had another strong night, and may indeed have fueled a continued upward rise in her polling. Klobuchar took the battle to Buttigieg on the issue of experience and getting legislation passed, and took it to Biden on his claim of superior electability:
I am the one that has passed over a hundred bills as the lead Democrat in that gridlock of Washington in Congress on this stage. I think you've got to win. And I am the one, Mr. Vice President, that has been able to win every red and purple congressional district as a lead on a ticket every time. I govern both with my head and my heart. And if you think a woman can't beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.
Indeed, in the first hour and a half, the performances that stood out were by Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, who each leveraged their careers outside of government to provide truly fresh perspective. Steyer offered broad perspective on the determinative role that housing plays in economic destiny, and claimed to be the only candidate on the stage who would make the climate crisis the highest priority of his administration. Yang proved adept at marketing his unconventional policy solutions, and demonstrated a sharp wit:
Moderator: Mr. Yang, if you win the 2020 election, what would you say in your first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Yang: Well, first, I'd say I'm sorry I beat your guy.
Then it all changed.
The initial trigger may have been when Kamala Harris was asked to comment upon a criticism she had made of Pete Buttigieg:
Moderator: “Senator Harris, this week, you criticized Mayor Pete Buttigieg's outreach to African-American voters. You said, quote, ‘The Democratic nominee has got to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are, as the diversity of the American people,’ end quote. What exactly prompted you to say that, Senator Harris?”
Harris spoke passionately about the core of the Democratic party being African American female voters, and about how many candidates seemed to only focus on this group when they were asking for their vote. While Harris made clear that she harbored no ill will toward Buttigieg, her response squarely placed the issue of the role of African-American voters center stage.
Harris: “Well, I was asked a question that related to a stock photograph that his campaign published. But, listen, I think that it really speaks to a larger issue, and I'll speak to the larger issue. I believe that the mayor has made apologies for that.
The larger issue is that for too long I think candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party and have overlooked those constituencies and have -- you know, they show up when it's, you know, close to election time and show up in a black church and want to get the vote, but just haven't been there before.
I mean, you know, the -- there are plenty of people who applauded black women for the success of the 2018 election, applauded black women for the election of a senator from Alabama. But, you know, at some point, folks get tired of just saying, oh, you know, thank me for showing up and -- and say, well, show up for me.”
Buttigieg was clearly prepared for a question about his relationship with the African American community. True to his contrarian style, he began his response by agreeing with Harris. He cited common ground with the plight of African Americans and other minorities by virtue of his own sexual orientation. He addressed the issue with humility, grace, and an acknowledgement that he needed to continue to build his relationship with African Americans. It was an elegant, thoughtful, and emotionally revealing answer.
Buttigieg: "My response is, I completely agree. And I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don't yet know me. And before I share what's in my plans, let me talk about what's in my heart and why this is so important. As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built-up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory…
And I care about this because, while I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here. Wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn't have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience."
Pause for a moment and consider the last two paragraphs. This is not a quote of a written response, it is a verbatim transcript of an answer given spontaneously in the moment. No "uhs" or "ums," just fully fleshed out paragraphs delivered on cue in real time. On this stage -- and perhaps in his generation of politicians -- Buttigieg is without equal as an orator.
Once the issue of the African American vote was on the table, it did not go away.
Cory Booker jumped in, taking the same issue to Joe Biden.
"I wanted to return back to this issue of black voters. I have a lifetime of experience with black voters; I've been one since I was 18. Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African-American voters. Black voters are pissed off, and they're worried. They're pissed off because the only time our issues seem to be really paid attention to by politicians is when people are looking for their vote. And they're worried because the Democratic Party, we don't want to see people miss this opportunity and lose because we are nominating someone that doesn't -- isn't trusted, doesn't have authentic connection...
"And so that's what's on the ballot. And issues do matter. I have a lot of respect for the vice president. He has sworn me into my office as a hero. This week, I hear him literally say that I don't think we should legalize marijuana. I thought you might have been high when you said it. And let me tell you, because -- because marijuana -- marijuana -- marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people. And it's -- the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people."
Yet again, Joe Biden seemed to be taken off his stride when the subject of a direct challenge. Once again, at exactly the wrong moment, and on exactly the wrong issue, the good ship Gaffe Spree set sail with Madcap Joe Biden at the helm. Biden hurriedly ticked off his bona fides in the African-American community, reaching a crescendo with his assertion that he had the endorsement of “the only female African American Senator.”
Open mouth, insert foot. Then ankle. Go ahead, get the calf. Now the knee. Half of thigh. There is putting your foot in your mouth, and then there is committing hari-kari though auto-cannibalization.
What Joe had meant to say was the “first” African-American female Senator (that would be Carol Mosely-Brown of Illinois), but, yes, Joe said the “only” when the person just a few feet away on his left was actually an African American female Senator… the woman who had just moments before said that African American women were the “forgotten” core of the Democratic Party. Oh, no, Joe. Say it ain't so.
As the audience exploded in laughter, Biden looked up, puzzled, not-so-dear in the headlights, not even aware of his own gaffe. It was a shame, because up until that moment, Biden had had a pretty good night. As we have said for some time, the only person in the world who can truly destroy Joe Biden’s candidacy is Joe Biden… we just did not expect it to be his core skill set.
Now the debate was heating up but good. With time running out, the gloves came off.
Amy Klobuchar launched a broadside against Pete Buttigieg on the issue of experience, only serving to tee up yet another planned but extremely effective counter-punch from the young mayor:
Klobuchar: “…But just like I have won statewide and mayor, I have all appreciation for your good work as a local official, and you did not when you tried, I also have actually done this work. I think experience should matter…”
Moderator: “Mayor Buttigieg, I'll let you respond to that.”
Buttigieg: ‘So, first of all, Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There's more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”
Then it was Tulsi Gabbard’s turn to take a shot at Buttigieg:
Gabbard: “But I want to get back to Pete Buttigieg and his comments about experience. Pete, you'll agree that the service that we both have provided to our country as veterans by itself does not qualify us to serve as commander-in-chief. I think the most recent example of your inexperience in national security and foreign policy came from your recent careless statement about how you as president would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels…”
Buttigieg: “So I've got to respond to that. I know that it's par for the course in Washington to take remarks out of context, but that is outlandish even by the standards of today's politics. I was talking about U.S.-Mexico cooperation. We've been doing security cooperation with Mexico for years, with law enforcement cooperation and a military relationship that could continue to be developed with training relationships, for example. Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?”
At this point, the audience howled with laughter at Gabbard. But Buttigieg was not finished.
Buttigieg: “I'm talking about building up -- I'm talking about building up alliances. And if your question is about experience, let's also talk about judgment. One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting was Bashar al-Assad. I have in my experience, such as it is, whether you think it counts or not since it wasn't accumulated in Washington, enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”
Once Buttigieg was finished eviscerating Gabbard, one had the sense that no one else on the stage felt like trying to take down Mayor Pete.
In a frenzied final 45 minutes, the narrative of the debate had been dramatically altered. The winners and losers for the evening had become clear.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders can each feel lucky that the MSNBC moderators decided that healthcare – the San Andreas Faultline that defines the border between the progressives and moderates – was discussed for all of two minutes in the debate. It was startling that the moderators moved past this incredibly divisive issue as if it were a debate about changing the state bird of New Jersey. Sanders did most of the heavy lifting on the healthcare discussion, leaving Warren pretty much unscathed for the evening. Ironically, however, the lack of intense debate over healthcare left Warren and Sanders less central to the debate, and often simply giving rote, well-rehearsed answers to less controversial subjects.
Amy Klobuchar had her second consecutive strong debate, and she may stand to gain if there is any further erosion in Biden’s standing. There is often an endearing whiff of desperation in Klobuchar’s oratory, and yet she does a masterful job of timing her pre-planned attack soundbytes – that are often softened with real wit – to maximum effect. We put her squarely in the winning column for the second consecutive debate.
Kamala Harris had a very solid night, speaking with more passion and focus that in the past several debates. It remains to be seen whether she did enough to re-ignite her candidacy, which has faded drastically in the past two months.
Andrew Yang had a very good night. He is good on his feet, has a quick, dry wit, and he does a very good job of explaining and justifying his out-of-the-box ideas. If any of the bottom feeder candidates got their battery recharged on Wednesday night, it was probably Yang.
Tulsi Gabbard has managed to earn the antipathy of virtually everyone on the stage, as was evident in facial expressions of disgust and dismissal evident on Mayor Pete and Kamala Harris when they each disdainfully dismantled her. I find myself puzzled by Gabbard, who seems intent on conquering the extreme right wing of the Democratic Party, which, uh, does not exist.
Tom Steyer had a good amount of screen time in that all-important first hour, but he receded from view once the punches started flying. We like Mr. Steyer, but there is something decidedly tone-deaf about having a billionaire spending hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to convince people that he is in touch with the needs of the common people. Perhaps Michael Bloomberg could learn from this and put his wallet back in his pocket.
Once again, however, Pete Buttigieg seemed to be flying at a slightly higher altitude than his competition. Pete is so shrewd about picking his battles: when challenged by Kamala Harris, he knew to be deferential, and agreeable… keenly aware that being respectful to the African American woman on the stage was absolutely essential to his need to building his relationship with the African-American community. But when taking incoming from the unpopular Tulsi Gabbard, Buttigieg saw the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that he can be a velociraptor with ‘tood.
By and large, however, his gift is fitting a diagnosis of societal ills and a coherent corrective policy proposal into an uplifting and inspiration one minute debate response.
Pete Buttigieg is emerging as the candidate for the Instagram generation, conveying everything you need to know in the instant that he is scrolling down your feed. Perhaps most interesting: as he continues his rise, one would expect him to become more and more of a target in these debates. But he is so stunningly good at parrying attacks that his rivals on stage may not want to risk triggering one of his devastating counterpunches.
Joe Biden really did have a perfectly good night... except for that brief senior moment that may have sunk the Gaffe Spree once and for all.
Here's how we grade the candidates for the evening.
Put Out of Her Misery:
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