Pete and Bernie came out on top in Iowa, earning the slings and arrows that come with front runner status. Both proved up to the task in New Hampshire's debate last night.
Sure, Iowa was a mess. The hours and then days waiting for results. An impossibly close finish that resulted in two “winners.” An organizational and technological humiliation for a party at just the moment Trump crowed about his acquittal. Iowa was a Chernobyl-grade meltdown.
But through it all, real human beings had actually voted.
After all the polls, pundits, and possibilities, the first real votes out of Iowa suddenly made the stakes of the New Hampshire primary ever more intense. Iowa elevated two candidates, wounded several others, but did not eliminate any. Each of the candidates arrived at the debate last night with a great deal on the line.
Pete Buttigieg, one of two winners in Iowa, arrived in New Hampshire under the glare of the intense lights that bounce wildly off a shiny new object.
Bernie Sanders, the other Iowa winner, has witnessed the erosion in his “top three” national rivals Biden and Warren. He has no doubt been reading the articles saying that he is suddenly in a commanding position to take the nomination. He also knows that this terrifies party centrists, who see his nomination as a replay of George McGovern’s 49-1 loss to Nixon. He, like Buttigieg, came to the debate with a giant target on his back.
Facing far greater pressure: Elizabeth Warren knows that with her third place finish in Iowa, she is fading and desperately needs to close the gap between her and Sanders for leadership of the progressive wing. Compounded her challenge: New Hampshire neighbors both her home state of Massachusetts and Sanders' home in Vermont. They are therefore both expected to have a certain amount of “home field advantage” relative to the field. Another weak showing could be devastating to her campaign.
Amy Klobuchar may have had the most on the line. She had done just well enough in Iowa that no one was calling for her to drop out… but another fifth place finish could well choke the flow of money, the oxygen of politics. At a certain point, simply beating expectations no longer matters, and actually beating the competition does.
Still and all, no one was feeling more heat more than Joe Biden, fresh off a disastrous fourth place finish in Iowa, and urgently needing to avoid another embarrassment. Biden surely understands that another poor finish could raise questions about his viability just as he heads to South Carolina, the state he is counting on to restore his mojo.
Tom Steyer raised his profile with a feisty performance, simultaneously taking on the role of cheerleader for the team, while chiding his fellow candidates for petty internecine bickering and failing to see the bigger picture: how does this party beat Trump?
Andrew Yang fired staffers for a disappointing showing in Iowa, and the stress showed last night. There was little of his trademark humor and affable charm, and his relatively tiny amount of time on the microphone further marginalized what has long been the longest of long shots.
Benefiting the most from the heightened tension on the stage? Michael Bloomberg loomed over the field, instantly ready to step into the place of whoever faltered. They say there are only two tickets out of New Hampshire, but Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have their own private jets.
Given the pressure, give these candidates their due. This was a good debate, and everyone on the stage had good moments.But the two leaders were strong, and the challengers may not have done enough to change the essential dynamic before New Hampshire votes.
Biden: Better Than Average… For Biden.
Joe Biden had an above-average performance – particularly in the first hour – but the past six months have proven that debate is not Joe Biden’s gift. Biden was above average for Joe Biden, but that is no longer enough. When he attempts to be high energy, he appears rushed, even a bit manic, and occasionally angry. When he tries to be “statesmanlike” and “presidential,” he appears slow, low-T, and unpersuasive; often given to hurriedly ticking off a litany of resume items.
Over the course of watching debates since last August, one notes a rather annoying linguistic tick that is repeated ad nauseum: “Here’s the deal.” It is Biden’s way of saying “I am about to give you the final word on the way things really are.” Unfortunately, it comes off as patronizing and too often is not backed up with a sizzling insight. Biden was fine last night, but other candidates were better.
Biden did have strong moments. In the early stages of the debate, Pete Buttigieg locked and loaded his standard generational theme about how “old solutions won’t work.” Biden finally figured out how to pivot on this one, declaring “I don’t what about the past of Barack Obama and Joe Biden is so bad.” Buttigieg appeared momentarily knocked off his game: he hadn’t expected a high hard one from Joe Biden, and he sure as hell did not want anyone to think that he had a problem with Saint Barack.
Biden’s high water mark for the evening was when he very cleverly called for the crowd to rise and applaud Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, who had only hours before been fired by the White House in an apparent retaliation for his testimony during the House impeachment hearings. The crowd cheered lustily, and one supposes that Biden could close his eyes and pretend that it was an outpouring of love for him. It was, in fact, the strongest video moment of the evening, and Biden owned it.
Klobuchar: Strong and Snarky, But Was It Enough to Vault over Biden or Warren?
While Amy Klobuchar had exceeded expectations in Iowa, she had still finished fifth. She arrived in New Hampshire no doubt knowing that the winnowing process would soon begin in earnest, and that another fifth place finish could end her candidacy.
She clearly knew that she had to take off the gloves and shake up the campaign mojo in order to keep her campaign alive, and she was not shy. Klobuchar has a tight game plan: she attacks progressives Warren and Sanders on the impracticality of their extreme policies, pointing out that a number of their most progressive ideas do not even have the support of a majority of Congressional Democrats.
Within her centrist lane, she seems to have decided that attacking Joe Biden directly is like pulling out Grandpa’s cane, so she targets her darts at Pete Buttigieg and secondarily at Tom Steyer, archly dismissing their lack of Washington experience by talking about how hard it is when you are actually “in the arena.” At one point she seemed to go full “Demean Girl,” attempting to betlittle Buttigieg for behavior that “makes you look like a cool newcomer.” She doubled down on this middle-school ridicule, at one point even appearing to draw an equation between Buttigieg and Donald Trump. “We got a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us.” This line of attack seemed to land with the dull thud of a clumsy cheap shot. Amy can throw elbows, all right, but there is little by way of subtlety and charm.
However, when Klobuchar is not going after competitors, she can radiate a warm, nurturing compassion that is authentic and compelling. She riffs off a story about a hard-on-his-luck man who sobbed at the death of FDR, and when asked if he knew the President, the man replied, “no, but he knew me.” Klobuchar then repetitively employs this phrase as a rhetorical device to prove that she, too, knows the plight of everyday people who need government help.
Still and all, Klobuchar was energized, passionate, and human, and she probably won supporters last night. Time will tell, and her debate performance was very strong… but it simply may not have been enough to change the game and vault over either Biden and Warren.
Buttigieg: Sharp, Steady, and Very Ready for Prime Time
Even with his powerhouse Iowa showing, Pete Buttigieg still had to have been startled at the amount of artillery lobbed at his lectern from virtually all corners. Mayor Pete was put on his heels several times, but on balance, he turned it yet another very solid evening. Somehow, this 37-year-old continues to appear so measured, thoughtful, and unflappable that he comes off as the adult in the room.
Probably the most uncomfortable moment Pete has encountered in the debates to date was when he was confronted with data that showed that marijuana arrests in South Bend increased while he was Mayor, which appeared at odds with his campaign position that he would end incarceration as a penalty for drug use. We are accustomed to a Pete Buttigieg who has thoroughly anticipated every question and elegantly parries each attack. He seemed unprepared for the question, and his attempt to reframe it did not sway the moderator, who doubled down and asked him a second time to address the question. Spinning to Elizabeth Warren, the moderator asked the Massachusetts Senator if Buttigieg’s answer was satisfactory. Warren didn’t equivocate: “No.”
But this moment was the exception. Buttigieg flawlessly handled the question of how he would beat Trump (leading with his service in the military was a key point), and Buttigieg was brilliant in explaining why Hunter Biden should not be an issue in the national debate, or in the Democratic primary. Finally, asked whether he would have taken out Qassem Soleimani, Buttigieg gave the kind of thoughtful, comprehensive, and fully analyzed response that appeared so utterly lacking in the rationales offered by the White House that actually killed the Iranian General. Buttigieg also changed his game a bit in this debate, being much more aggressive in direct attacks on Sanders (on healthcare) and Biden (on Iraq) than he has in the past.
Was it Buttigeig’s best night? Maybe not. Did he lose ground? Hard to see how that could have happened. Most important: under the intense scrutiny that falls on a “front runner,” Buttigieg was steady and very effective.
Nobody Stays on Message Like Bernie Sanders
With Bernie Sanders, what you have always seen is what you will always get. The man disarms with candor, maintains his fiery intensity throughout, and can pivot just about any question into one of his wheelhouse issues, for which he has a tightly scripted debate-size rant. He seems to understand that each audience is new, and that he wins when he sticks to the thoroughly rehearsed sound-bytes that engender the big applause lines.
Bernie is most appealing when he delights in saying the politically incorrect answer. Where other candidates seemed to sense that it would be wrong to admit they would employ a Roe v. Wade “litmus test” for Supreme Court appointments, Sanders looked puzzled at their equivocation. “Is there a litmus test? Yes!!”
Bernie may have gained ground on Elizabeth Warren in their zero sum battle for the progressive wing. It’s not that Warren was particularly weak… it is that Bernie got more air time (19 vs 16 minutes, which actually makes a difference), and made more of the time that he had.
No Indication that Elizabeth Warren Stopped the Erosion.
Nobody does righteous indignation quite like the Senator from Massachusetts. She had her moments last night, but there was no break-out moment that could reverse the progressive tide currently flowing toward Bernie Sanders.
Warren’s problem seems to be that she rose in the early polling by appearing to be a more palatable, more electable progressive than Bernie Sanders, embracing many of his programs along the way. But her stumbles – particularly on her plan for funding universal healthcare – put her in free-fall. Now, she is in a box… Bernie is back out in front of her, and there is little that she can do to gain ground back because her policy positions overlap so thoroughly with his.
Now that they have had their angry spat on whether or not Sanders told her than a woman could not win in 2020, their supporters seem to have frozen in their positions… and Warren is holding the short end of the stick. Last night, Warren seemed a bit out of step in her demand that we end all troop deployment in Afghanistan, particularly in the way that such a step echoed Trump’s abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Northern Syria. Warren, however, was masterful in diagnosing our national “gun violence problem.”
Steyer Steps Up
Give it up for Tom Steyer, who went bold last night, repeatedly chastising his colleagues on the stage for getting tripped up in the weeds and missing the bigger picture: beating Trump. I, for one, was delighted to hear a candidate announce that he was tired of listening to the exact same healthcare debate for the seventeenth time. Steyer is the embodiment of the riddle of money in politics: billionaires are not beholden to anybody, so an idealistic billionaire with a good heart can use that platform to broadcast a great deal of good messaging. But it’s really not fair that he can prop up his candidacy by spending millions and millions of dollars, while an Amy Klobuchar has to send me seven emails every day begging me to spring for another fifty bucks.
Steyer’s big moments last night came on the topic of racism in America. Midway through the debate he scolded the ABC moderators for not even having brought up the topic of race. He announced that he is in favor of reparations, which alone distinguishes him from his competitors. Steyer spoke of creating a commission to study the 400 year history of race in America, to correct and redefine the narrative of race in the United States. This narrative, Steyer maintained, should inform policy. Perhaps Steyer was looking ahead to South Carolina, where his polling numbers are strong and the percentage of African American voters is vastly higher than Iowa or New Hampshire, but Steyer owned this issue last night. Biden, beware.
And it is important to note: at least Tom Steyer is the billionaire who is playing in the same ballpark as the other candidates. Mike Bloomberg is hovering above it all, pounding away from 40,000 feet with beautifully produced ads… and well positioned to win a sweet chunk of delegates on Super Tuesday without ever having participated in a single debate.
What did we take away from Friday night?
I was in the advertising business for many years, where there is a time-honored truths: “When Coke and Pepsi fight, Dr. Pepper gets hurt.”
Last night, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders more than held serve. They both turned in very solid, sturdy performances. This serves to reinforce their standing as front runners.
It is the other candidates who must worry. Amy Klobuchar performed well, but did she do enough to leapfrog Biden and Warren in the primary? And if she wins fourth place, is that enough? Will it be time for her to stand down and instantly become a top-drawer candidate for the VP slot on someone else’s ticket?
If Elizabeth Warren’s performance in New Hampshire mirrors her showing in Iowa, it becomes extremely hard for her to articulate the path to victory. And she did not do enough in this debate to change the math.
Joe Biden? He appears to now be putting all his chips down on South Carolina, and it is no longer a certainty that he will excel there. Recent polling in South Carolina shows that Steyer and Sanders are challenging him. Perhaps Biden will ride name recognition and familiarity to a reasonable delegate count on Super Tuesday. But the bottom line for Biden is simple: no amount of delegates will generate charisma where none exists. Another fourth place showing puts Biden on the respirator. Did he do enough Friday night to pass Warren? Maybe. Just maybe.
Here’s our take:
Happy on the sidelines:
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