The PPFA First Debate Review

Well, that was… tiring. Come on, DNC. You already have the west coast in the bag. Give the rest of a chance to stay up for these things!

Below are five brief thoughts on last night’s first first (not a typo) Democratic debate. If they’re not cohesive, that’s because I spent the last hour with my eyelids taped open. Cut me some slack: I’m a father of two little ones on a high school teacher’s sleep schedule!

Transcript here

1. From the beginning, the moderators were desperate to, as Lester Holt twice put it, find “daylight” between the candidates. In a primary debate, that’s precisely what moderators should do. (Just as important, I think their microphones should work at least 95 percent of the time, but maybe that’s just me.)

Interestingly, however, candidates were timid to stray too far from the pack in the early going. After Elizabeth Warren answered the first question with her typically aggressive liberal response, the mods went to Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Cory Booker to press them on how they might be a bit more moderate than the stage’s polling front-runner, and all passed on the opportunity. The Lefty Litmus(TM) continues to terrify the more centrist candidates — just like the leftists want.

2. Democrats are desperate to downplay the successes of the Trump economy. That’s a tricky sell, considering about 70 percent of Americans, including most Democrats, think the economy is on the right track.

Democratic candidates fear, and rightly so, that a strong stock market and low unemployment could convince enough undecideds break to Trump in October 2020, meaning he could inch back up to the 46 or 47 percent he needs to win re-election in November. Therefore, for the next 16 months, we can expect competing interpretations of the economy. Trump will continue to tell us it’s never been better and he’s the most accomplished president of all times and universes, while these candidates, including their eventual nominee, will tell us that if you look more closely at the numbers, most people are being left behind.

What’s hilarious about this, of course, is that four years ago it was precisely the opposite. President Obama and other Democrats pointed to record stock market gains, private sector growth, and constantly falling unemployment, but candidate Trump told us that unemployment numbers were not to be trusted and the working class was being left behind. Now the President will try to convince us of the veracity of government figures and other top-line indicators while the Democrats will call them into question.

The lesson, as always: don’t trust anyone but PPFA.

3. Regarding individual performances on the first night, I’d say most of the field falls into the B- to B range.

  • Jay Inslee, John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and Bill de Blasio did their best to show emotion and make a splash, but none had moments that will lead to a polling climb.
  • Elizabeth Warren was her typical policy wonk self, but she took no risks. She instead chose to maintain her current, slow momentum rather than goad Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders into a response when they would have the last word tonight and potentially hurt her climb.
  • Tulsi Gabbard, who I’ve long thought would show well in the debates, did a nice job introducing herself to the party at large, but any digging from voters who didn’t already like her will limit her gains. Fascinatingly, she’s a popular candidate on the far left and the alt-right, but the Left is Sanders/Warren, the Right isn’t Democratic, and everyone in between doesn’t like the two extremes. There’s nothing left for Gabbard.
  • Amy Klobuchar appeared nervous at first, and most disappointingly she didn’t seem to embrace her pragmatist persona. She likely fears losing the Left, but if I were running her campaign I’d say she doesn’t have a chance to win progressives this early anyway and should instead position herself as the inheritor of Joe Biden’s support if he loses it. (Because if he doesn’t lose it, he’s the nominee anyway.) Still, she finished very strong; the theme of her closing statement — “I listen to people and that’s how I get things done,” and “I have won in the reddest of districts, ones that Donald Trump won by over 20 points,” should have been her theme of the night. Others promise. I deliver.

Three candidates fall outside that B/B- rang. Two are on the better side of it.

  • Cory Booker and Julian Castro were, to me, the big winners of the first night, though in different ways. Booker was the best blend of substance and style, biography and charisma. These qualities are how one gains traction — Pete Buttigieg has already proven that.
  • Castro pulled off quite the trick — he’s someone polling at one percent but at times he seemed to control the debate. His stock will certainly rise. I didn’t think he had that performance in him. His aggression, policy chops, and heritage just thrust him up the Vice Presidential power rankings.

His success came at the cost of Beto O’Rourke, whose debate performance falls far on the other end of B-. Dare I say “D” range? Wednesday night was O’Rourke at his most annoying. Every time he speaks it sounds like he’s building a grand Kennedyesque flourish, but nearly every time he’s not building much of anything. He says nothing… but boy does he mean it!

Worse yet, this was evident from the beginning, when most people are watching and drawing their first impressions. When he first entered into the race I made clear my concerns about his lack of fluency on the issues, and this problem took only until the first debate to bite him. The moderators’ first question for O’Rourke asked for specifics on what he’d do with a marginal tax rate, and he answered a different question… in Spanish. (Note to self: if ever asked a question I don’t know the answer to, don’t answer a different question in Spanish.) Then, a follow-up question from Savannah Guthrie gave him a second chance, and here’s what happened:

GUTHRIE: I’ll give you 10 seconds to answer if you want to answer the direct question. Would you support a 70 percent individual marginal tax rate? Yes, no, or pass?

O’ROURKE: I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone. 

I rarely use in vain the name of the seventh most influential figure in Western history… but Jesus Christ, Beto.

4. Regarding the quality of the debate overall, it was mostly on the boring end. On the positive side, it was considerably substantive. Most candidates had specifics. Few outright lies were told; though conservatives will understandably disagree on policy proposals or evaluative statements of the President, none of these candidates approached anything resembling President Trump’s colossal provable-lies-per-sentence ratio. They also didn’t talk about polls or any other horse race stuff, which, four years ago, wormed its way into Republican debates. Policy won the night.

On the other hand, the usually predictable performances didn’t give anyone, except perhaps Booker and Castro, a great chance to win more than a percent or two in the polls. That’s probably the category we should judge someone’s debate performance. Consider Trump’s performances four years ago. His general ignorance on all issues was evident, but he knew how to connect with people and his polls kept rising. That’s political success.

The most interesting “theme” of the night was everyone’s decision to not go after polling-leaders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The unique circumstances of this debate — that last night’s candidates were not on the same stage as the leaders — likely turned the debaters gun shy. Perhaps they thought it’d be unfair to attack someone not there to defend himself, or perhaps they worried that the Night Two candidates would have the last word and 24 hours to prepare it. Instead, several candidates ganged up on the easiest target of the night — the out-of-his-depth Beto O’Rourke. Castro took shots at O’Rourke on immigration, Booker earned himself memes for firing side-eye at O’Rourke’s decision to break into Spanish, and even de Blasio lobbed in grenades from the corner of the stage before realizing he was too large to duck underneath his podium.

5. Necesito brush up on my Espanol! O’Rourke, Booker, Castro, and even moderator José Diaz-Balart all spoke to the Telemundo audience and Hispanic voters at large. I was equal parts impressed with them and ashamed at how little I retained of my six years of Spanish as a teenager.


Okay, I tried to keep that as short as possible (by PPFA standards). I don’t think my schedule tomorrow will allow a review of tonight’s debate. You’ll be fine. Just remember: there’s the debate you watch, and then there’s the debate social media tells you you watched. Trust the former.

7 thoughts on “The PPFA First Debate Review”

  1. […] O’Rourke‘s debate promise to buy back AR-15s gave him his first “moment” of his struggling campaign, which stabilized his falling numbers. His retail political skills (for Iowa and New Hampshire) and geographic advantages in other crucial states (Nevada and Texas) still make him a dangerous candidate if he regains his momentum. What’s he scared of? Being asked a hard question. […]

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