Expectations were low going into last night’s debate mostly because of the number of candidates on stage, which meant that each candidate would get less air time, and the fact that the previous two debates had made little or impact in the polls. But to the surprise of many, the 6th Democratic primary debate was perhaps the most consequential since the second debate, when Harris took a swipe at Biden and subsequently surged in the polls for a brief week or so.
In retrospect, this was clearly going to be an interesting night given recent shifts in the dynamics of the race. First, the recent controversy over Biden’s son’s ties to Ukraine and the perception of a swampy nepotistic relationship between the Biden’s and Ukrainian oil companies has undermined Biden’s lead among moderate establishment liberals. This has left an opening for the top position in the field, and Warren has gladly surged into first place. Bernie continues to be tolerated but politely ignored by the wider democratic party as reflected by the lack of movement in the polls, and a recent heart attack meant that his usual firey podium-shaking rhetoric was more subdued.
Several other factors increased the consequential nature of the debate. In addition to the turmoil among the top three, the mid-tier candidates have all improved significantly since the early debates. Yang has gained more attention and has become a real threat, which won him much more air time and a place toward the center of the stage. Also, they are all now seasoned debaters, and they all know each other’s major policy points, positions on social issues. They are, therefore, less likely to be caught off guard by moderator questions or blunder into brash attacks that end up hurting themselves more than their opponents. That meant that the overall quality of the debate was higher than usual and gave views a look at what each of the candidates can do when they are at their best.
From a strategic standpoint, the shifts in the dynamics at the top of the race meant that new openings had emerged for mid-tier candidates to exploit. The fact that Warren is now the front runner meant that more moderate candidates could distinguish themselves by attacking the top of the ticket. Whereas before, Biden’s grip on the lead meant that other moderates were unable to land solid blows from a policy standpoint (moderates attacking moderates doesn’t make for good TV), this time, moderates were able to gorge themselves on Warren’s well defined progressive policy points in an attempt to slingshot into the top position. In this respect, perhaps the most obvious winners of the debate overall were Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who came out swinging at Warren’s healthcare plan in particular. They effectively argued that Warren would alienate midwestern moderate voters by pushing for Medicare for All. In perhaps the most damaging exchange of the evening, Harris, with her characteristic prosecutorial edge, skewered Warren’s lack of clarity on how she would pay for Medicare for All, pointing out that Sanders openly admits that taxes for middle-class workers would go up. Warren refused to be specific about where funding would come from, which instantly reversed the work she has done over the past year to cultivate an image as a woman with specific plans for every issue. Biden also laid into Warren and Sanders on this point by driving home the notion that Medicare for All would cost Americans $3 trillion per year, a number which acted as an effective bogeyman to scare moderate voters into a reactive backlash against Warren’s surge.
Yang also had a good evening, and UBI and automation dominated a good amount of the first hour of the debate, indicating just how much impact he has already had on the Democratic Party. Though he faded a bit into the background in the second hour, he did what he needed to do, which was to show that he could hold his new position as a mid-tier candidate by parrying attacks and avoiding controversies. This was a moment for Yang to consolidate the gains he has made over the past months, and he successfully did so. Several of the other candidates even took steps to move toward Yang’s UBI position, with Gabbard outright endorsing UBI, Warren offering to add $200 to social security payments, and Klobuchar and Castro a new openness to the idea of testing UBI. Yang is now well-positioned to push higher in the polls if he can while maintaining his dark horse status in the race.
Buttigieg, in particular, had several important exchanges with other candidates that proved his has what it takes to surge higher in the field. One exchange worth noting was between O’Rourke and Buttigieg on the issue of guns during which Buttigieg questions O’Rourke’s understanding of what it would take to implement a gun buyback program and admonishing O’Rourke for implying that Buttigieg doesn’t have the courage to take the issue of gun violence in America seriously. Another exchange between Buttigieg and Gabbard revealed just how much Buttigieg’s status as a veteran informs his foreign policy positions, specifically on the recent events in Syria. While Gabbard consistently advocated an isolationist position, Buttigieg took a more conventional approach, saying the US must stand by its allies and prevent bad actors from committing atrocities. That should give some comfort to more hawkish wings of the Democratic Party who are alarmed by Trump’s seemingly erratic military strategy in the Middle East.
Finally, while everyone on the stage did well, some had better nights than others. But if there were losers, they would be Castro, Steyer, O’Rourke, and perhaps Booker. Castro, in particular, failed to gain any momentum from last night’s performance and continues to struggle to make the case for why he should continue to run. Steyer also acted as an effective Billionaire punching bag for the other candidates, but he did manage to gain some name recognition, so perhaps he had a good night in that respect. O’Rourke, unfortunately, failed to make a convincing argument for his mandatory gun buyback program for assault weapons. With his candidacy in question, tonight was a must-win for him, and he did not make the kind of gains that would breathe new life into his campaign. Booker also had a mixed night. He continued to perform well as he has in previous debates but also failed to make any new arguments about why he deserves voter’s attention over other mid-tier candidates.