The biggest reveals from Democrats’ debate performances so far

The PBS NewsHour/POLITICO Democratic debate on Thursday night will be the sixth encounter of the nominating contest. Looking back at the first five debates, the viral moments they produced proved ephemeral, the political equivalent of a 24-hour flu.

Kamala Harris getting in Joe Biden’s face over his record on school busing in the 1970s was for a brief moment a big deal that quickly receded into a small deal and is now remembered, if at all, as a non-deal. She’s out of the race and he’s still in it — still struggling with weak debate performances, still leading the national polls.

But if the debates of 2019 didn’t produce crystalline moments, they have — taken cumulatively — offered plenty of revelation. We know things about the nature of the choice before Democrats that we did not know before the first encounter in June. Across these months of debating we have learned things about the candidates who have lasted this far — quite possibly things they didn’t fully know about themselves before submitting to the ordeal of the televised stage.

Our POLITICO team of candidate reporters and editors gathered in Los Angeles traded notes and tried to distill some of what we have learned in the debates so far — about the character of the race and the character of the candidates.

One of the takeaways in a race dominated by candidates in their 70s is about how variable perceptions of age and infirmity can seem, depending on the politician and on the light in which he or she is viewed.

As editor and veteran political observer Charles Mahtesian notes, it is hard to watch Biden’s performances — sometimes halting, sometimes fine, almost never commanding — without noting how this very familiar politician seems visibly older than we remember. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders is a year older than Biden and has come off as an ageless figure. His style and rhetoric hardly vary from debate to debate — one senses they might not have varied much if we were hearing the Sanders of 40 years ago — and he actually seemed to return from a fall heart attack in higher spirits than before. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, is older than Reagan was in 1980 and her relatively advanced age has been largely irrelevant as a factor.

Another choice highlighted by the debates relates to the value voters will place on the power of the spoken word. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has vaulted into his current position — in the top tier of candidates and credibly positioned to win the Iowa caucuses — largely on the basis of something that no doubt became evident in elementary school. He is uncommonly articulate, answering most questions from moderators or challenges from rivals with impromptu mini-essays, never a stammer or a sentence fragment or a word trail that ends in ellipses. But this strength may be self-limiting, amid rising chatter from commentators and rival operatives that rhetorical polish is an instrument of artifice and calculation, a flow of words that conveys ambition and self-regard more than character and vision.

Biden, meanwhile, is arguably the least articulate top-tier candidate in years, with sentences that often wander into the woods, sometimes returning with the meaning clear and sometimes not. But this weakness also may be self-limiting. If smooth debate performances really mattered that much Biden’s place at the top of national polls would not be so durable. Supporters seem confident they know who he is and what he believes, even it is conveyed in hazy word clouds.

As we await the last Democratic debate of 2019, what follows are POLITICO reporters’ takeaways on what we have learned about the candidates participating on Thursday from their debate performances so far.

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