And about that wine-cave fundraiser that sparked an extended argument between Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren? One analyst suggests, “Both candidates came out of the exchange looking bad, which is ultimately a bigger problem for Warren than Buttigieg, as it’s Warren who needs to find some way out of the quagmire Buttigieg has put her in.”
Read on for more insights.
Biden will win—unless Warren and Bernie Sanders join forces.
Dan Lavoie is a progressive communications strategist.
The single most important divide on the debate stage—and within the Democratic electorate—is whether Trump is the disease or merely a symptom of something much more troubling.
Candidates like Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are making an implicit argument that Trump is an aberration and simply getting past him should be our primary goal. Meanwhile, Warren and Sanders (and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer) see Trump as the natural outgrowth of decades of curdled economic and social developments.
Democratic voters seem unsure which side they fall on, and the fractured polls show it. No candidate has surged to the top. And as long as the electorate remains divided, the status quo continues to reign and Joe Biden takes another step toward the nomination.
But there is a way to force the issue: If Warren and Sanders joined together, they could make the Democratic electorate choose a path. It’s time. These debates clearly won’t solve much. It’s time for the voters to choose the way forward. Is Trump the only problem? Or is it something bigger?
It’s Biden’s race to lose—and he didn’t lose.
Jennifer Victor is a professor of political science at George Mason University, a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks and a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats are having quite a week. First they impeached a president, then they held the most robust, aggressive and substantive debate of the primary season so far. There was a fair amount of red meat thrown toward core Democratic primary voters Thursday night. Every single top Democratic issue was raised—racial justice, LGBTQ rights, climate change, health care, jobs and wages, campaign finance reform and more—and candidates provided informed, prepared answers to them. Democrats have a lot to be fired up about.
We’re only 46 days away from the Iowa caucuses, so the stakes are getting higher. Biden has been ahead in national polls throughout 2019, and we’re getting to the point where the race is his to lose. Biden did not fumble in this debate. He had some good moments and came across as steady, informed and aggressive where he needed to be. Debates are not generally big game changers, and this one was frankly no different. Biden was ahead before, with Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg competing for second place, and those rankings do not change after this debate.
But I don’t think that means the debate doesn’t matter. It serves the important purposes of motivating the Democratic electorate, helping voters get to know candidates better and giving candidates a chance to directly challenge each other in a deliberative process. It also helps the party find and set its issue priorities for the upcoming campaign year. The fact that there were only seven candidates on stage, instead of 10 or 12, made a big difference: The debate was less chaotic and more substantive than previous ones. No one had a bad night, and each candidate had good moments. Yang may have provided the most surprisingly strong performance of the night because he was able to stand out in ways that he was not able to do in previous debates.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.
So much for the conventional wisdom that the Democratic presidential field consists of a bunch of lackluster candidates who will crumple when pitted against the dreaded Donald Trump. The fact is, as Biden loves to say, that after a soporific first half, the debate turned into a genuine humdinger with Biden and Klobuchar surging as they whacked their fellow debaters. Biden was the clear winner, crisp and (gasp!) nimble, among other things, in targeting Sanders’ loopy health care plans. His call for “consensus” and reaching out to work with Republicans was politically astute—a shrewd counter to Trump’s ceaseless attempts to polarize, as far as possible, the electorate. He came across as blunt and tough, qualities that any candidate will need to take on Trump—who clearly fears Biden.
Klobuchar shone, coming across as practical, confident and feisty. Warren played the stern matron, huffily chiding Buttigieg for his descent into a wine cave to raise money from the wealthy, but Klobuchar nailed Buttigieg when she caustically remarked that she’d only visited a Wind Cave, not a wine cave. At this point the Democratic dream team seems pretty obvious, with Biden at the top of the ticket and Klobuchar as his running mate. That, friends, isn’t California Dreamin’, but it is practical reality.
‘Senate Republicans and President Trump should view it as a big win’
David Polyansky was a senior political and communications adviser for Ted Cruz for President.
Only 24 hours after the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president, most of the Democrats running to replace him were unwilling or unable to aggressively make the case supporting those hyper-partisan votes. Answers ranged from Steyer’s misplaced riff that he along with much of the liberal base have been working to impeach the president for years (long before any disputed presidential calls with Ukraine) to Sanders pivoting mostly to a clunky assault on President Trump’s core policies. In fact, it was only Klobuchar who made a full-throated, base-focused argument in favor of impeachment. These candidates and their advisers understand that impeachment isn’t a long-term political winning hand for Democrats, and their dodging approaches were only further evidence of that reality. That has to be an awfully uncomfortable feeling for vulnerable House Democrats watching Thursday night. Senate Republicans and President Trump should view it as a big win.
As for the candidates themselves, Warren again presented herself as a tough, knowledgeable and skilled debater. Nobody on the stage was as comfortable or as consistently assertive. Her line about the potential of being the youngest woman ever elected president showed a glimpse into her humorous side. She hasn’t really had a poor performance to date, but this felt like her strongest debate as she continues to position herself as one of the leading candidates just as the calendar turns to 2020.
Klobuchar had an incredibly strong night, presenting a compelling, “Minnesota nice” case on issues ranging from the environment to the advancement of minority rights to campaign finance reform. She also held her own when taking on the always-tough Buttigieg over the importance of experience and past electoral successes. While she has already seen some modest growth in both national and Iowa polling, she had the look and feel of a candidate who could be poised to catch fire and make a January run toward a surprising showing in the Iowa caucuses.
And lastly, while both Biden and Buttigieg had a forgettable first 30 minutes, each had steady overall performances and evaded errors or attacks. The mayor was eloquent in his answer about America’s role overseas and was effective not only in the defense of his robust fundraising but in presenting Warren as hypocritical about her past fundraising practices. Biden had a particularly impactful and memorable moment when discussing the perceived assault on his family and how his personal feelings on that front would not impair his ability later to work across party lines for the good of the nation. No big errors or sticky incoming attacks meant it was a very good night for the Biden campaign at an important moment in the primary process.
Michelle Bernard is a political analyst, lawyer, author and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.
Remember #OscarsSoWhite? I’m now thinking, #DebateSoWhite!
The contrast in the demographic makeup of those who made it to Thursday night’s debate stage as opposed to those who stood there only a few short weeks ago was enough to give viewers a near fatal case of whiplash. And as Yang—the one person of color who did make it to the debate stage—suggested, one could not help but watch the debate and ask how he made it when none of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, nor Julián Casto were able to reach the promised land. The debate stage was not reflective of Barack Obama’s America, and the country is less fortunate because of it.
It was difficult to visualize any of the candidates who graced the stage doing battle with Donald Trump. There were simply too many arguments that seemed either trivial or coarse, especially in light of the fact that for only the third time in our nation’s history, a president of the United States was impeached, only 24 hours earlier.
Yes, the love affair between Biden and Sanders was endearing. Klobachar going on offense against Buttigieg was interesting. Steyer’s necktie appeared to shout, “Hey, don’t forget about me!” Warren was Warren. And Yang had the only satisfying answer about the lack of people of color on the debate stage.
But at the end of the night, Donald Trump seemed to have won Thursday night’s debate.
I’m guessing that, like me, many Americans missed the fire and the hope that candidates like Harris, Booker, Castro, and—dare I say—even Marianne Williamson brought to past debates. No, we don’t need to go back to a stage that includes every candidate running for the nomination, but the Democrats do need a debate stage with candidates that not only look like America, but also look like they can do battle with Donald Trump, or at least go down fighting to the end like Russell Crowe’s character did in the movie “Gladiator.”
The Democrats have to know that they must do better in 2020.
‘Biden has never won a debate. … And it has worked.’
Larry J. Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and is a contributing editor at POLITICO Magazine.
How many debates have there been this year? Sixty? Seems like it but apparently this was just the sixth. So what’s changed in 2019? Everything and nothing.
Yes, some contenders have dropped out, others have risen, some have risen and fallen again. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that the early national frontrunner is still the national frontrunner. And this debate showed why.
Biden has never won a debate. He’s made a few gaffes, shown his age, and has often practically disappeared on the stage. And it has worked. Mainly, he’s left the sniping to his rivals and posed as the party unifier—aided by the fact that he’s always been positioned squarely in the middle of the stage. The less he says, the fewer chances he takes. The deep well of affection for him as President Obama’s vice president, especially with African Americans, has sustained him, too.
But most of all, Biden is judged—rightly or wrongly—as having the best chance to defeat President Trump. Nobody really knows if that’s true, but for once, winning is the first, second and third priority for most Democrats. The fear of a second Trump term has focused the party’s mind, and the image in the mind’s eye is Biden.
Debates are fun, and educational as well. I have no lumps of coal to put in the candidates’ stockings. Yang and Steyer—often ignored—turned in energetic performances. Sanders was never dull, always blunt and relentlessly honest. Warren’s passion came across, as did a bit of frustration that her current image isn’t the person she believes she is. Buttigieg was polished and informative, a quick study on, well, everything. Klobuchar was impressive; if anyone gained from this debate, she did. Could she now rank highly on the short list of sensible running-mates (if she doesn’t score the big upset to take the top spot)?
Warren got the worst of the wine cave exchange.
Matt Bruenig is the founder and president of the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank.
The biggest moment of the night came when Warren finally struck back against Buttigieg, who has been gradually siphoning support from her over the last two months. Warren predictably focused on the recently-leaked pictures of Mayor Pete’s gilded wine cave fundraiser and his general eagerness to raise money from super-rich people. Somewhat surprisingly, Mayor Pete got the best of the exchange when he pointed out that Warren’s net worth is 100 times larger than his and that Warren has herself participated in exactly these kinds of fundraisers in the past—and even rolled over money raised from those old fundraisers into her presidential campaign account.
Both candidates came out of the exchange looking bad, which is ultimately a bigger problem for Warren than Buttigieg, as it’s Warren who needs to find some way out of the quagmire Buttigieg has put her in.
‘Sanders showed why he’s locking down the left’
Sean McElwee is a writer, data analyst and co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress.
Biden once again benefited from each candidate angling to be the last person standing against him rather than pulling him down.
The question of the Supreme Court was finally asked, but never answered. Everyone wants to nominate the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but who will give her a seat?
Drug affordability got two shout-outs from Warren, including a memorable story about insulin. Given the broad popularity of the issue, and the ways that progressive pharmaceutical policies can help overcome difficult electoral geography, she’s pivoting toward a strong electability argument ahead of Iowa.
But Sanders showed why he’s locking down the left. His defense of universality over means-testing on free college showed his closeness to left thinking, and his call for justice for Palestinians set him apart from the squishiness of other candidates.
Yet another paid TV ad for Tom Steyer.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, resident fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy Institute of Politics and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President.
The winner of the night was Buttigieg, who came into the debate with wind in his sail and a target on his back. He was ready for all incoming fire. When Warren attacked him for a high-dollar fundraiser in a wine cave, he responded by calling out her past with large donors and saying, “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”
Biden had a solid night, making a strong case for his health care plan that builds on Obamacare in a dust-up with Sanders, who advocated for his “Medicare for All” plan.
The loser of the night was Steyer, who demonstrated his lack of debate skills by not standing out in any way. His performance was no more than a commercial for his priority to fight climate change.
‘Don’t sleep on Klobuchar’
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio host.
When you’re in a city like Los Angeles where more than 60,000 people—1.5 percent of that city’s population—is in a state of homelessness, you shouldn’t get a pass on not asking about it. But, that’s what the moderators did and candidates allowed: There was no question on homelessness and the affordable housing crisis destroying California’s quality of life as much as its wildfires. Sanders hinted at it, and Warren finally said the word, and Buttigieg said “poverty,” sadly admitting it was taboo to do so. Perhaps the lack of “people of color” on the stage had something to do with it? Well, the lack of black people on stage sure did let the candidates, Biden chief among them, slip their way out of the reparations question. Or maybe it’s because everyone on stage was busy selling books. No one knows, but the moderators seemed more eager to get to the end and ask silly questions about gifting instead of making sure they covered all ground.
Still, with just seven candidates on stage, viewers got more detailed debate and discussion than ever before. Moderators had time to fit more questions in, and left with more time and far fewer contenders to scrap with, each candidate had more breathing space to push platforms and counter-punch. We’re getting a crisper portrait of each candidate and how they’re different from the other.
Biden was much more solid Thursday night, even as he got into an old man arm-waving fight with Sanders and sparred with the Pakistani woman over the correct pronunciation of “Afghanistan.” Sanders, as usual, was breaking TV sound bars, and looked a little shaky, frantically butting in all over Yang, who is making gains with the youth vote. Buttigieg was getting hit from all sides, and while he handled it, one can’t shake the feeling that it seemed to draw out a darkly snipey side from him. Warren was notably less wonkish for the first time, more platitudes and selfie-trail tales and teardrops than before. Strangely enough, as everyone was pelting billionaires, no one went after the lone billionaire on stage. But to his credit, Steyer was the strongest, most urgent and most visionary on climate change. And don’t sleep on Klobuchar, who is increasingly eager to scrap with each passing debate.
‘The loser was Michael Bloomberg’
Terry Sullivan was the campaign manager for Marco Rubio.
The winner was the format. Fewer candidates made for a better debate: more substance and more interaction. The loser was Michael Bloomberg. These debates generate a lot of earned media. And he’s missing out on that.
Clearly the other campaigns see something in their data that really concerns them about Buttigieg. They wouldn’t be attacking him as aggressively if they weren’t scared of him. Biden was the real benefactor of those attacks, because it diverted attention away from him. For the first time in a debate, hardly anybody laid a glove on him.
Yang ‘always infuses something fresh and unexpected’
Alan Schroeder is a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Schroeder is the author of several books, including Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail .
Compared to previous debates in this cycle, the Los Angeles match-up served to clarify a few things about the Democratic candidates. First, Klobuchar, whose debate performances have been consistently impressive throughout, turned in her best performance yet. She has a rare gift for enjoying herself during debates, and for sounding like a human being. She also understands the opportunity debates present, as evidenced by the coherent case she made for her electability.
Biden likewise had his strongest debate of the series. He was much more on point, more articulate and engaged than we have previously seen. For the first time he looked ready to take on Donald Trump.
A third winner is Yang, who always infuses something fresh and unexpected. Yang has a knack for making himself interesting as a character, especially in contrast to his more traditional rivals. It’s easy to understand why he has caught on with young voters.
This debate proved less beneficial to Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg. Sanders lapsed back into his shouting mode—not exactly what Americans need to hear after a week of high-decibel impeachment theatrics. Warren, despite a couple of quick-witted moments, showed a tendency to segue too readily into her stump speech, repeating word for word lines that she has uttered in previous debates. Buttigieg, under attack from both Warren and Klobuchar, came off as uncharacteristically peevish and defensive. Before this debate, Buttigieg had been operating under an almost angelic glow—that glow now co-exists with an image of the candidate pocketing checks from billionaires in a wine cave.
The seventh candidate, Steyer, has not solved his fish-out-of-water problem the way Yang has. Though Steyer speaks sensibly, he is not a compelling messenger—unfortunately for him, that’s something no amount of money can buy.
Klobuchar won, and Warren lost.
Liz Mair is a Republican campaign communications consultant.
Klobuchar won the debate. Anyone watching will finally get why she’s in the race, and why they shouldn’t just ignore her. Honorable mention to Biden. His exchange with Sanders showed the fire he would need to beat Trump, and he came off as the guy who genuinely just loves people that he truly is (his great strength) while closing nicely by hitting electability and experience, which are not just talking points for him.
Who lost? Elizabeth Warren. She’s increasingly come off as smug, slippery and dishonest for anyone paying attention, and thanks to Mayor Pete, people who don’t read every scrap of political news for a living will now have seen that live and in technicolor.
I’d like to think what will change is Klobuchar moves up in Iowa and Warren moves down. There’s no reason Klobuchar shouldn’t be capable of competing there and no reason Warren should have an advantage except that rarely have her opponents been willing to take real shots at her. Buttigieg clearly has no qualms about doing so, and we learned Thursday night that she doesn’t handle it well.
‘A mayor looked presidential’
Michael Starr Hopkins is a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.
Thursday’s debate was the night that a mayor looked presidential. In a debate that many pundits had predicted would be more of the same, Buttigieg seized on his opportunity to end 2019 in the same fashion that he started it: exceeding expectations. Buttigieg’s response to Warren’s attacks on his fundraising was the type of debate moment that his campaign has desperately needed. He looked composed and sounded like a candidate who could take on the president in what will almost certainly be a nasty general election.
Multiple candidates came after Mayor Pete on stage and paid the price for it. There should be no question whether he can counter-punch after this debate.
With the Iowa caucuses quickly approaching, it’s do or die time for a number of campaigns. Candidates like Steyer will find it hard to rationalize going much deeper into the primary season.
Biden may be the frontrunner, but with expectations for his debate performances miserably low, absent him literally forgetting where he was, his campaign can be satisfied. My runner up for the debate was Yang. He has shown the most growth among all of the presidential candidates and seems like he will be a loud voice within the party for a long time.
Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang have bright futures ahead, but not in 2020.
Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.
Thursday night’s winner was Biden because he made no mistakes, he made no gaffes, and he looked presidential and statesman-like in a country run by the wild, Twitter-crazy, uncouth and newly impeached president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. Klobuchar continues to impress, and she seems to me like she would be an ideal and very strong running mate for Biden, if he were to get the Democratic nomination.
Mayor Pete has a great future ahead of him. He may well become our first gay president. But I do not see 2020 as the year to test out new frontiers in our culture wars that Trump stokes to a hot fire everyday. Warren seems to have her zeal back, and she gave a strong performance. I do not see Sanders losing or gaining ground. Yang also has a bright future. But he cannot beat Donald Trump.
Finally, as a woman of color, it was super disappointing to see not one black or brown candidate on stage for the final debate of 2019. Steyer does not belong on the stage, and he should exit the race and instead help Democrats win critical Senate and House races that may be vulnerable after impeachment.
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent . He is writing a history of the Democratic Party.
Everyone will say this was a better debate than the previous ones, particularly in the second half when several of the candidates stopped chanting miniature versions of their stump speeches and whipped a rhetorical arrow or two down the stage. Every candidate but that earnestly hopeless billionaire Steyer had a few good lines, both witty and substantive. An evening of political talk is always going to be meatier and more engaging when it features seven performers instead of 10 or more.
I doubt, however, whether the sharp exchanges or heartfelt testaments of empathy with hard-pressed Americans will change either the identity of the front-runners in Iowa or New Hampshire, or the two competing theories of the race. Biden, Sanders, Warren or Buttigieg will win one or both states. But not until early March will we learn whether Democrats care most about the ideology of a candidate (“progressive” or “moderate,” “revolutionary” or “practical”) or just favor the man or woman whom the polls and their pundits of choice think is most likely to defeat Donald Trump.
By now, anyone who has been watching these six debates (or even half of them) can predict what any of the leading candidates will say on all the major issues, domestic and foreign. But when no individual has yet topped even 40 percent support in national or most state polls, we cannot know which theory of the race will prove correct. So would the good Democrats of Iowa please move their caucus up a month?