After the chaotic Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential candidates stepped back onto the debate stage on Friday with just a few days to make their closing arguments before the pivotal New Hampshire primary.
There was a surprising amount of unity on the stage, given this critical moment in the campaign: Sen. Bernie Sanders made the case for coming together against President Donald Trump; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg refused to endorse Republican attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden; and moderate Sen. Amy Klobuchar went out of her way to point out the issues on which she’d worked with the lefty Sanders. But there were plenty of tense moments, too: Sanders and Biden sparred over Medicare-for-all, and Klobuchar and Buttigieg were at odds over whether political experience is baggage or an asset.
The primary election season began on Monday in Iowa — and five days later, major media outlets still haven’t called a winner. The debate gave the candidates the chance to either build on their commanding performance there or to put the disastrous caucuses behind them.
Buttigieg and Sanders come into the debate as clear frontrunners — despite the fact that Biden is still leading in most national polls — thanks to their strong performances in Iowa. Biden, however, needs to do much better in New Hampshire, though he is also expected to do well in South Carolina, the fourth state in the contest. Sen. Elizabeth Warren came in at a reasonably strong third in Iowa, and New Hampshire will be pivotal for her campaign. If she can’t do well there, next door to her home state of Massachusetts, she may be in trouble.
After Iowa’s caucuses proved so anticlimactic, the primary in New Hampshire — and the debate that preceded it — could have more importance than usual in setting a new narrative for the campaign. Let’s run through Friday’s winners and losers.
Loser: Joe Biden
Don’t take our word for it. The former vice president, fresh off his disappointing finish in Iowa, went straight to setting low expectations for how he’ll perform in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
“I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” Biden said in his first comments during the debate.
Biden is right: The current polling in New Hampshire puts him in fourth place, at around 13.5 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. He’ll probably finish behind Sanders, Buttigieg, and Warren once again, barring a significant overperformance on election night.
He seemed anxious to get ahead of that anticipated negative outcome. Biden expanded on his theory of the primary a bit, saying he thought of the first four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) as collectively being the opening stretch of the race. Then the primary kicks into a different gear come Super Tuesday, on March 3, when 10 states will vote.
Biden’s campaign is setting up South Carolina, where he still leads in the polls thanks to a big advantage with black voters, as his first must-win state. But in the meantime, he needs to navigate this tougher terrain. That required managing expectations, and Biden spent his opening moments at the debate doing just that.
Winner: Party unity
By some metrics, Sanders seems to have won in Iowa, and he’s been leading the polls in New Hampshire. So it was no surprise that he received a lot of scrutiny on Friday’s debate stage.
But the Vermont senator successfully parried most of the attacks, flipping them into an opportunity to make the case for his maximalist agenda — and for party unity.
It started with a question from the ABC News moderators: Trump attacked socialism directly during his State of the Union speech. Shouldn’t Democratic voters be worried he would successfully scare voters away if Sanders becomes the party’s standard-bearer?
No, Sanders said. Why? “Because Donald Trump lies all the time.”
He then reached out and hugged his colleagues (metaphorically) close, portraying all of them as potential targets for Trump’s smears.
“He will say terrible things about Joe. He has said disgusting things about Elizabeth, about Amy, about anybody else who is up here,” Sanders said. “Everybody up here, by the way, is united; no matter who wins this damn thing, we’re all going to stand together. I believe the way we beat Trump is by having the largest voter turnout in the history of his country.”
Sanders wasn’t the only one with magnanimity toward his rivals. Teed up by moderators with a question about Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and whether Republicans could successfully exploit any appearances of nepotism in the general election despite Trump’s own record of corrupt acts, Buttigieg was dismissive.
“We’re not going to let them change the subject. This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden,” Buttigieg said. “This is about an abuse of power by the president.”
Warren said more than once how happy she was to be sharing the stage with Democrats who agreed on many issues. And billionaire Tom Steyer, who has tried to build up some kind of friendship with class warrior Sanders, seemed to relish saying: “I’ve got to agree with Bernie Sanders.”
Winner: Amy Klobuchar
Klobuchar has previously taken umbrage at Buttigieg’s suggestions that the candidates who have been in Washington for a long time don’t have the necessary outsider perspective to change DC or to change politics. She sought to flip that political experience to her advantage early in the debate, invoking the recently concluded impeachment trial.
“You said it was exhausting to watch and that you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons,” Klobuchar said to Buttigieg. “We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us. I think having some experience is a good thing.”
She successfully embraced Sanders at times, noting that they’ve worked together on prescription drug legislation, but she also painted a contrast with the democratic socialist by mentioning her strong electoral record in a purple state. She said she wants to build a big tent.
The only question for Klobuchar is whether her strong performance came too late. She had a mediocre showing in Iowa — where she had placed almost all of her resources — finishing fifth in both the popular vote and in the number of state delegates won. She also sits in fifth in New Hampshire, based on the FiveThirtyEight polling average. It’ll take a big surprise on Tuesday, buoyed by a strong debate performance, to breathe life into the Minnesota senator’s campaign.
Klobuchar ended the night particularly strongly, delivering an emotional closing statement:
There is a complete lack of empathy in this guy in the White House right now, and I will bring that to you. If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you. I will fight for you. If you have trouble deciding if you are going to pay for your child care or your long-term care, I know you and I will fight for you. If you have trouble figuring out if you’re going fill your refrigerator or prescription, I know you and I will fight for you.
Winner: People who stood up to Donald Trump
It’s pretty weird to hear a room full of Democrats cheer for a former Republican nominee for president. And yet, that’s exactly what happened Friday night when Klobuchar praised Mitt Romney, the senator from Utah, for his “courage” in voting to convict Trump on one article of impeachment and to remove him from office.
Even Sanders had some warmth for Romney.
“The saddest aspect of this whole thing is you have Republicans in the Senate who knew better. They knew that Donald Trump is a crook. They knew that Donald Trump is a cheat,” Sanders said. “But they didn’t have the guts, with the exception of Romney, to vote against him.”
And Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whom Trump removed from his post on Friday in apparent retaliation for testifying before Congress during the impeachment hearings, got a standing ovation at Biden’s urging.
Democrats in Congress fell short in their efforts to remove Trump through the impeachment process, but their voters could still cheer those who stood up to him until they get another chance at taking out Trump in November.
Loser: Meaningful action on the opioid epidemic
If the opioid epidemic was going to arise as a significant issue in any debate, it was going to be the one in New Hampshire. The state has been hit hard: As recently as 2015, New Hampshire ranked No. 2 in the US for overdose deaths. (It dropped to sixth by 2018, but mostly because overdoses in other states got much worse.) New Hampshire’s overdose death rate in 2018, while 9 percent lower than it was at its 2016 peak, is actually higher than it was in 2015.
Nearly 500 people still die of overdoses in New Hampshire each year.
But Friday’s discussion about the opioid crisis clocked in at less than five minutes. While the candidates who talked about the epidemic — Buttigieg, Yang, and Klobuchar — gave good responses on expanding access to addiction treatment, that was pretty much it. The other candidates, including national frontrunners Biden, Sanders, and Warren, weren’t questioned about the opioid crisis at all. The issue came and went with little attention otherwise, almost as if the moderators were merely checking a box.
There’s no reason for such little attention. Beyond New Hampshire, the opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug-overdose crisis in US history, one of the key reasons overall life expectancy fell between 2015 and 2017. Drug overdose deaths totaled 67,000 in 2018, making it the second-worst year for drug overdose deaths ever recorded in America. Data suggests that deaths from synthetic opioid, cocaine, and meth may increase, which could push the death toll in 2019 and beyond even higher. In total, more people have died from drug overdoses since 1999 than the current population of Boston.
The sad thing is the Democrats have plans — genuinely good plans! — to tackle the opioid crisis. Warren’s $100 billion bill to increase access to addiction treatment spends the kind of money that experts have long called for. Klobuchar and Buttigieg have also proposed investing tens of billions of dollars into addiction treatment. All the candidates have plans that directly or indirectly touch on the opioid epidemic in various ways, from health care to criminal justice reform.
But the candidates haven’t been pressed on debate stages about their thinking behind these proposals, how serious they are about them, and whether the opioid crisis would be a priority for them as president.
Meanwhile, Trump is happy to own the issue — as he did in Tuesday’s State of the Union, when he bragged that deaths from drug overdoses “declined for the first time in nearly 30 years.” That’s true, but it has little to do with the president’s policies. And as states like New Hampshire continue to suffer disproportionately from the crisis, Trump’s failures could make him vulnerable — but only if Democrats actually call out those failures.
The opioid epidemic is one of the few issues that looks to have a bipartisan opening in Congress. One of the uncommonly significant bills Trump has signed was opioid legislation, even if it was criticized by experts for “simply tinkering around the edges.” It’s an issue a Democratic president will likely have to deal with.
The next president should prepare for that moment. Talking about the issue on the debate stage is a good way to start.
Winner: Small stages
Friday’s debate was vibrant. Moderators asked follow-up questions and allowed other candidates to jump in if they wanted to. There were both tense and tender exchanges between the candidates, rather than a duty to make sure each one got equitable time. Discussions could unfold naturally instead of everybody rushing through their answers so they could get to the next subject.
One of the reasons the debate stage was so crowded early on is because the DNC made a significant effort to keep the qualification rules “fair” — meaning that upwards of 20 people made it on stage over two nights and the conversation was disjointed.
The DNC didn’t have much choice but to open up the debates to most candidates in those early days, particularly after the disastrously divided 2016 primary — but Friday’s debate proves that a small stage is better for voters.