Last night’s Democratic debate was perhaps the most consequential of all of the debates so far this primary season. For several of the candidates, this marked their last chance to make their case to voters about why they deserved to remain in the race. With everything on the line and nothing left to lose, candidates lashed out at each other, sometimes directly, but often indirectly, striving to paint a unique picture of what an America under their stewardship would look like.
Unlike during previous debates, there was no clear winner or loser last night. If anything, this debate featured some of the best performances so far by many of the candidates, making life harder for Democrats who need to choose one of them to face Trump in November. As with previous debates, last night’s performance is unlikely to deliver any long term benefit to any of the candidates. But with the mess in Iowa still fresh in everyone’s minds and the New Hampshire primary coming up on Tuesday, the tension on the stage and in living rooms across the country was palpable.
Before diving into a performance review of each candidate, it might help to evaluate the questioning delivered by the host network, ABC. The quality of the questions was on par with those coming from other networks, and there were still a few gotcha questions and prompts that were clearly intended to manufacture conflict between candidates. In one particularly egregious example, one of the hosts asked Amy Klobuchar to respond to Hilary Clinton’s recent comments about Bernie Sanders. There was an audible sigh in the audience, and the candidates themselves clearly recognized the awkwardness of the question, shifting on their feet nervously and smiling. In another odd moment, the moderators asked the candidates a question about Mike Bloomberg, a candidate who had not qualified to be on stage. Candidates who do not qualify for debates usually do not get air time, so the reference to Bloomberg raised questions about favoritism among the moderators and establishment Democrats broadly.
But for the most part, ABC did a decent job avoiding such blunders. The moderators pressed the candidates on issues they thought mattered, such as Buttigieg’s lack of support among black voters. They also cut candidates off quickly when they ran overtime and enforced the rules of the debate rigorously. It was a far cry from early debates when candidates stood on stage yelling over each other without regard to decorum.
It is hard to say whether Sanders had one of his best nights yet because his performances are so consistently good. He is not always the best debater on stage - Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Warren often project charisma and likability far more easily - but his rhetorical style is so polished, his message is so clear, and his focus on the issues he cares about is so sharp, that he inevitably does well, and last night was no exception.
To older voters watching last night, it was clear that he would connect with younger voters. He says what they want to hear, and they love him for it. What is less clear is whether or not the older voters, who after all, are more likely to vote in November, will get on board with his vision.
He had a few good lines last night. Notably, he said that moderate Democrats were “nibbling around the edges” of medicare for all, implying that they are offering half-measures when a full Medicare for all plan is the only solution that is viable. On climate change, he delivered one of the best lines of the evening:
“The problem is, if we are going to deal with issues like climate change, not only do we in America have to take on the greed of the fossil fuel industry, we have to lead the entire world,” he said. “But maybe, just maybe given the crisis of climate change, the world can understand that instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year collectively on weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, maybe we pool our resources and fight our common enemy, which is climate change.”
Fresh off of his shaky win in Iowa, all eyes were on Pete Buttigieg last night as he sought to expand his gains and take voters from three candidates who were on the stage with him: Biden, Warren, and Klobuchar. As a moderate, Buttigieg’s policy positions align closely with Biden’s and Klobuchar's on major issues like health care and climate change. But as a young, fresh-faced war veteran with a degree from Harvard and experience working at McKinsey, Buttigieg’s major test was whether he could connect with working-class voters, Black voters, and demonstrate that he has what it takes to defeat Donald Trump and lead the country despite his lack of political experience. Under the scrutiny of the moderators, Buttigieg’s flaws in these regards were on full display.
Buttigieg has a tendency to fall back on empty platitudes and grandiose rhetoric. But his charisma could not save him from laser focussed questions from ABC’s moderators regarding his lack of appeal among Black voters and his questionable history combating racial inequality in South Bend, Indiana, where he is mayor. When given the opportunity to explain why arrests of Black people have gone up under his tenure, Buttigieg attributed the rise in arrests to an effort to crack down on gang violence, which had led to a rise in arrests specifically for marijuana.
"One of the strategies our community adopted was to target when there were cases when there was gun violence and gang violence, which was slaughtering so many in our community — burying teenagers, disproportionately black teenagers," he said. "We adopted a strategy that said that drug enforcement could be targeted in cases where there was a connection to the most violent group or gang connected to a murder. These things are all connected. But that's the point, so are all the things we need to change, in order for us to prevent violence and remove the effects of systemic racism, not just from criminal justice but from our economy, from health, from housing and from democracy itself."
It was a classic Buttigieg response, and it was unlikely to convince anyone in states like South Carolina and New Hampshire. But whether or not his performance last night will affect his polling numbers remains to be seen.
Warren had a good night overall. After the last debate, when she launched a flawed attack on her longtime friend and campaign partner, Bernie Sanders, progressives were watching closely to see whether she would continue her attacks or back off completely. She did mention the newly-minted alliance she has tried to build with Klobuchar as the only two female candidates, and the candidates with the most electoral success on the stage. But for the most part, she stayed away from direct attacks on Sanders or any other the other candidates and even shook Sander’s hand after the debate, much to the relief of progressives everywhere. That being said, the animosity between the two camps was palpable, with Warren supporters and Bernie supporters showing each other no love despite the fact that they technically align so closely on many policy points.
If anything, Warren was too sedated last night. In contrast to her usual pugnacious rhetoric, by the second half of the debate, she had faded somewhat into the background. In total, she had spoken for just 14 minutes two hours into the debate. Later, she admitted to a lackluster debate performance, saying, “I just didn’t say enough, didn’t fight hard enough, didn’t tell you how bad I want this, and how good we can make it if we just come together.”
Of all of the candidates on the stage last night, Joe Biden had the most to prove. After a terrible result in the Iowa caucuses, in which he placed 4th overall, Biden had to make the case that he deserves to continue being considered the front runner overall. Early on in the night, Biden conceded that he was unlikely to win in New Hampshire. But for the rest of the night, he performed fairly well, at one point garnering a huge reaction from the crowd when he praised Colonel Vindman, who had been fired from his post in the National Security office earlier that day for his participation in the Impeachment effort.
“Stand up and clap for Vindman. Get up there!” Mr. Biden said. “That’s who we are. We are not what Trump is.”
Biden continues to be most eloquent when speaking out against Trump. On other topics, he falters. None of his usual attacks on Medicare for All landed well last night. But on the issue of racial inequality and the need to rehabilitate American foreign policy, he had several good moments. He also more or less successfully navigate attacks from both Buttigieg and Steyer, contrasting himself with former, who had argued that we should not move on from the past, by saying that “the politics of the past, I think, were not all that bad,” Mr. Biden and then spending much of the rest of the night ticking off highlights of the Obama administration and his legislative career. Biden then capped off the performance by hugging Bernie Sanders afterward in a demonstration of goodwill.
Klobuchar had one of her best nights yet. She knew she had to bring her A-game given the beating she took in Iowa. Her resentment toward Buttigieg was palpable on stage. She clearly does not think he deserves the attention he is getting from midwestern voters given her own track record in the Senate in contrast to his relative lack of experience in politics. If her goal was to slow Buttigieg’s growing momentum, she may have succeeded.
In one attack, she criticized Buttigieg for being a newcomer in Washington. “We got a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us,” Klobuchar said after noting Buttigieg is himself a “cool newcomer.” She also pointed out glaring hypocrisy. Buttigieg, who does not support Medicare for all, tweeted in 2018: “I, Pete Buttigieg, politician, do henceforth and forthwith declare, most affirmatively and indubitably, unto the ages, that I do favor Medicare for All, as I do favor any measure that would help get all Americans covered.”
She also did a fantastic job demonstrating her down to Earth nature and mid-western appeal. In a final appeal to voters in New Hampshire, she pleaded with them to voter for her, using the word “please” several times. The air of desperation around her was noticeable, but whether her performance would be enough to convince voters of her candidacy was unclear. In a positive sign, she raised $1 million in the hours following the debate.
Last night’s debate was probably the end of the line for Andrew Yang. He got more air time than he has in previous debates, but his performance was likely not strong enough for him to justify continuing. It’s not that he said anything wrong, although he did have one awkward moment where he stumbled over his words and ended up apologizing to the audience. But the problem is that Yang is not a fighter. He does not like to attack, and none of the other candidates want to attack him either, which means that overall, he did not engage much with the other candidates. In the end, he successfully repeated his predictions about an automated future in which Americans will not be able to find work, and he made the case yet again for a universal basic income of $1000 per month for every American. But he has said these things many times, and last night, voters learned nothing new about him.
Finally, Steyer had a better night than usual. As the only billionaire on stage, and due to the reality that his candidacy was premised on the fact that he had been an early advocate for impeaching Trump, which has now failed to come to fruition, his presence was somewhat awkward. It was not clear why he was there. When pressed by the moderators to explain why, on a stage full of senators and a former Vice President, voters should give him a chance, he was unable to answer adequately, and instead listed off various general thoughts about the need to beat Trump and fight climate change. If Steyer is to continue in the race, he must return to the next debate with a better answer.