Is it Finally a Woman’s Turn? Lessons From the First Democratic Debates

The first Democratic debates were one of the most anticipated primary debates in a generation. Since their 2016 presidential loss, the Democrats have been doing a lot of soul-searching and as a result, they were able to field 20 candidates for these debates with a diverse set of solutions and backgrounds. 

Could it finally be a woman’s turn in the White House?

Overall, Democrats have a lot to be proud of.  Women won both nights, and a Black man (Booker), a Latino man (Castro), and a gay man (Buttigieg) were close runner-ups overall.  That is a strong indication of where the party is going. And with this kind of performance coming from a field of women candidates, it's fair to ask at this point: is it finally a woman's turn?

After all, one of the long-standing sources of bitterness within the party following the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 is the nagging feeling that Trump stole an opportunity to advance feminism from the Democrats.  

Harris has demonstrated that the dream is still alive and kicking, and perhaps even inevitable.  Harris seems perfectly situated to carry on both the legacy of Hillary Clinton's campaign for women's equality and Barack Obama's campaign on racial justice.

But beyond her heritage and background, Kamala Harris has a charisma and ferocity that stands out in the crowded field.  More to the point, Harris seems the most able to take on Donald Trump in the primaries. Not too many of the other candidates looked a sharp and strong as she did, and it’s those qualities that could put Trump on the defensive.

Though her campaign seemed to have been fading over the past few months, this debate performance rocketed her to superstardom status within the party. Just how much the performance will help her overall in the polls remains to be seen, but she clearly will get a nice bump out of the evening.


Buttigieg kicked butt

Buttigieg also performed extremely well. He was calm, articulate, and adequately handled racial questions where Joe Biden stumbled. Mayor Pete also easily handled questions on gun control and he skewered the Republican party on their use of religious language. Of all the white men who performed on both nights of debating, including Biden and Sanders, Buttigieg appeared to be the most articulate charismatic of the bunch.

It will be interesting to see whether the polls reflect his performance, though. After all, Buttigieg has a lot of work to do to win over Black voters, and his performance did not put that issue to bed. 


Warren channeled her inner Lisa Simpson perfectly

Warren deserves a huge amount of attention for her performance on the first night. The first night was characterized by deeper dives into policies and issues that allowed candidates to distinguish themselves and offer plans with clear numbers and goals. That sort of debate is Warren's bread and butter and she excelled where other candidates like Ryan and Tulsi Gabbard floundered. 

The bottom line: Warren has a plan for everything, as everyone knows by now.  Though Warren managed to stay above the fray most of the time, that did not prevent her from displaying her charisma and explaining her plans to revitalize working-class American Life.


Not everyone had a good night, of course

Yang Went Bang

There were many failures as well, most notably Andrew Yang, who was one of the more anticipated candidates in the field.  After months of excitement, Yang seemed unable to find an entry point into the shouting matches that frequently broke out. As a result, he failed to communicate his ideas. 

Granted, the moderators only gave him two or three questions. He spoke for only 3 minutes total, which is not nearly enough to do the heavy lifting he would have had to do in order to boost his name recognition. First, he has to educate the public about Universal basic income. Second, he had to win support for the idea. 3 minutes is simply not enough time to do that job. 

as the debate went on Yang seemed to fade into distant memory. As a result, when he was given a chance to speak, it was surprising to remember he was even still on stage. When he spoke, his ideas came out quickly and seemed so odd and off-topic that the moderators didn't really know what to do with him. 

After the debate, when it became clear that the disaster would indeed have a significant negative impact on his campaign, Yang was quick to blame microphones and MSNBC's moderation strategy. His claim that his microphones had been muted quickly went viral on the internet. Whether there is any substance behind this claim or not remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Yang is not done. He will be back for the next round of debates.

Bye Bye Beto

Beto O'Rourke also had a lackluster showing.  For many in the country, it was the first time they got to see the much-hyped pretty boy from Texas live on stage in real time. Unfortunately, Beto may look good in photos, but in person, he is often stilted and awkward. 

He has the look of a man who doesn't quite believe he should be on stage in the first place, but is willing to give it a try anyway. He did not look relaxed or happy. Instead, the tension behind his every word and his reliance on vacuous populist language was a disappointment to many viewers who were interested in his candidacy.


Harris masterfully crushed Biden on Civil rights

But perhaps the most stunning upset of all came from an exchange between Kamala Harris and Biden. Harris attacked Biden's record on civil rights issues and Biden had no adequate response prepared.  

This is surprising given the fact that Biden would have known going into the debate to expect questions about race and his record on civil rights. But he was entirely flustered when Kamala Harris launched her attack on his bussing record. 

That could in part be due to the skill with which Harris launched her masterful take down. After all, Harris is a star prosecutor and she knows how to connect with an audience emotional while driving home a critique with precision and devastating force. Just to make the skewering extra effective, Harris delivered it so politely that no one could even be offended that she would criticize a man who was the VP for the first black president. 

Biden's gambling inarticulate response did little to stem the bleeding and by the end of the night, it was clear that Biden had lost some of that feeling of untouchability which has characterized his campaign does far. Biden lost this round, but as the front runner, he has room to lose a round or two. 

All of that being said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a sympathy bump in the polls for Biden. He is popular after all, and it was sad to see him get pummelled so hard.


For the rest of the results were a mixed bag. 

While many of the other candidates did well in the debate,  most of them didn't do well enough to stand out from the pack. 

Tulsi Gabbard and Klobuchar had a few good moments on the first night, but then almost completely faded from prominence by Friday morning. 

Bennett also looked surprisingly good with articulate appeals to the working class in Midwestern states. But he didn't have the kind of charisma that would be needed to catapult his candidacy to the next level. 

Sanders continued with his usual talking points, but he appeared to be more unhinged than usual.  

Gillibrand and Deblasio both made the most interruptions and went on the longest rants, which earned each of them the designation of most annoying for their nights respectively. 

Castro Booker and Beto O'Rourke all courted Latinos by using Spanish in their statements, but their Spanish came off as broken, unnatural, and disingenuous.  

Meanwhile, Swalwell, Hickenlooper, Inlee, and Ryan all blended together in a forgettable montage that could be adequately titled the ‘white man speaking’ montage.

Marianne Willamson is the Crystal healer America needs

One of the most hilarious and interesting candidates was Marianne Williamson. Williamson is Oprah's Crystal healer therapist and while she did technically fail the debate, she failed so spectacularly that it almost seemed to help her. Google searches after the debate of her name skyrocketed and memes have begun pouring out onto the internet. 

Her tour de force rant against the idea of making any plans to get anything done, as well as her invocation of the need for a political strategy based around the power love, were so completely bizarre that she managed to achieve the goal that eluded so many others in these debates: she elevated her name recognition to be equal with the likes of Klobuchar and Gillibrand.

Conclusion: Harris Better Be Ready To Play Defense Next Time

The Democratic Party has many fantastic options for candidates this year. It's not clear that any single candidate has clearly defined themselves as a frontrunner yet, though Biden will likely continue as the default choice for now. 

If one candidate looks the most promising coming out of these debates, it's Kamala Harris. But one of the problems with being the winner of the debates overall in the first round is that you can bet in the second round that everyone else is going to come after you next time. Whereas during this first round of debating, Harris played offense and only offense, she better be ready to play some defense next time.

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