Saturday Special: Third Debate Review

Welcome to a rare PPFA Saturday Special, which was supposed to be a Quick Hit Friday until my real job disagreed. I’ll still try to keep it quick. If I don’t keep this post under 1500 words, the Yang Campaign will give you a thousand dollars a month.

So let’s get right into it. Here are ten thoughts I had while watching Thursday’s ten debaters.

(Debate transcript here)

1. Let’s start with the night’s most memorable moment, which was also the most cringey. Julian Castro, who’s usually pretty sharp at these debates (and indeed had some sharp moments Thursday), ham-handedly went after Joe Biden’s mental acuity, asking “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting ALREADY what you said just two minutes ago?” It’s an on-the-nose attack against Biden’s recent gaffes, distortions, and memory lapses, and it’s a vague charge against Biden being too old to be a strong candidate, which remains an untapped vulnerability of all three septuagenarian frontrunners.

Unfortunately, Castro was clearly forcing the issue in an awkward way, and a disapproving crowd saddled his gambit with bad optics. Though Castro is smart and perhaps right to push for an invigorating generational change, he’d have benefited from a defter approach. As delivered, however, he’s facing a backlash that probably hurts his chances to grow even if Biden’s numbers do fall.

Castro was so arrogant and obvious, in fact, that I’m left with one conclusion: he was trying to do Warren’s dirty work for her and is angling to be her running mate, which would create a ticket that makes a lot of demographical sense.

2. Speaking of Biden, he’s still having a hard time deflecting concerns about his age and acuity, a struggle best evidenced by this Trumpish soliloquy that meandered in a number of directions with pit stops at unfinished thoughts and non sequiturs. At one point, as he worried about and advised poorer parents, he explained, “They don’t know what— They don’t know what quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone—make sure the kids hear words.” I mean, I get what he’s saying, but… “the record player”? Sheesh. Even Castro couldn’t bend over far enough to pick that low-hanging fruit.

Still, Biden had enough forceful moments — including, importantly, criticisms of Sanders and Warren’s health care proposals, which should please moderate and conservative Democrats worried about nominating someone too far left — that anyone who was pro-Biden before likely remains pro-Biden.

3. Warren and Sanders certainly played to expectations and were again solid. They know their progressivism inside and out. Sanders probably hated the timing of his hoarse voice, as anyone fleeing Biden due to age concerns probably weren’t convinced the older Sanders was an acceptable alternative. Warren answered the question I asked with my preview: she chose to continue her slow ascension rather than take any risky swings at Biden. I expect her climb to continue.

More broadly, I thought Thursday’s debate crystallized most of the candidates’ comparative ideology and campaign strategies. We already knew Klobuchar joined Biden in the center-left, but Booker and Buttigieg also finally declared for that lane after attempting to keep a foot in both camps for much of the campaign and not getting much support as a result. (Buttigieg side-eyed Yang’s attempt to buy people’s support and later went after Sanders on health care. Booker, noting “We cannot sacrifice progress on the altar of purity,” built to a glorious crescendo where he emphasized helping struggling people with workable solutions now.) Meanwhile, Warren, Sanders, Yang, and Castro were critical of these moderate, establishment candidates and were the clearest voices for a restructuring of American politics.

4. O’Rourke and Harris, however, remained chameleonic, though in different ways. O’Rourke would be pragmatic sometimes, like on health care or immigration, and revolutionary other times, like on race or guns. The latter provided the first big moment of his campaign, one that might position him as the biggest winner of the night. However, it’s also a moment that’d be easily referenced to motivate general election conservative voters, even ones who don’t like President Trump.

Harris, meanwhile, has me rolling my eyes during nearly all of her responses. I can’t believe I was so recently impressed by her. She’s since been far too coy, like someone trying to be cute and clever but instead coming across as misdirectional — a charming magician who’s masking something. On Thursday, Harris kept falling into a circuitous, lazy, evasive response. She sometimes had jarring mood-changes from sassy to gravely serious. (At one point she needled Biden with a “Yes We Can” remark, followed by laughing, followed by talking about looking at autopsy photos with grieving mothers.) We know why people use misdirection; she probably doesn’t want us paying attention to the fact that she has the vaguest policy positions of anyone on stage. Though that’s probably by design — she’s still hoping to be the consensus candidate that can unify the left with the centrists, white college educated liberals with black working class moderates — it’s frustrating to watch.

5. On that note, the best attack of the night — far better than Castro’s ageism — actually came from one of the moderators! Shout out to Lindsey Davis who asked the following to Harris:

“Senator Harris, you released your plan for [criminal justice reform] just this week. And it does contradict some of your prior positions. Among them, you used to oppose the legalization of marijuana; now you don’t. You used to oppose outside investigations of police shootings; now you don’t. You’ve said that you changed on these and other things because you were, quote, “swimming against the current, and thankfully the currents have changed.”

But when you had the power, why didn’t you try to effect change then?”

As the pointed question unfurled, Harris’s increasingly wide smile grew inversely proportional to her affection for Ms. Davis.

6. In a shocking turn of events, Andrew Yang didn’t mention Universal Basic Income after his opening statement until, my notes tell me, 10:05! Perhaps his campaign wants to convey he’s more than just a single-issue candidate, but I think that’s crazy. UBI got him here, and the whole point of UBI is that it would presumably fix countless other current or looming problems in American society. Nearly every single political issue could connect back to it, as he finally noted in the third hour when he connected it to climate change.

But if he’s just talking like other candidates, he loses that unique approach.

7. I thought Cory Booker was yet again the most impressive candidate on stage. In every single response he’s charismatic, personable, and genuine. He truly has lived among the roughest neighborhoods and worked hard to transform them. He’s so likable, so bright, and so energetic. And don’t get me started on how handsome he is.

Wait a minute… do I have a crush on Cory Booker? Nobody tell my wife! (Or my many lovers in the U.S. Senate.)

8. After Booker, I’d say Amy Klobuchar probably had the next best debate from start to finish, at least when compared to a baseline of expectations. To that, I say, “Finally!” She had been underwhelming in the first two debates, but it looks like she’s finally getting her sea legs.

Of her many strong moments, she had the benefit of following a missed opportunity from Buttigieg. The Mayor, who’s always impressive in a conversation (an understatement, really) but can’t seem to find a debate soundbite, was asked about the effects of the President’s tariffs and China strategy. Buttigieg waxed poetically about America’s role in the world, but he didn’t drill down to the toll it had on average Americans. That was a mistake for someone looking for an Iowa win to springboard him into the top tier.

Klobuchar, who’s looking to leap off that same springboard, went right to job losses and soybean tariffs impacting the Midwest, mentioning Iowa by name. She later returned to the themes of being someone from the heart of the country (Iowa), who can win swing states out there (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa), who wants to be president of not just the coasts but all of America (IOWA!). Indeed, as the debate’s only candidate to never mention Trump by name, she’s signaling that she’s looking to build a majority coalition that can actually pass legislation.

9. But will the polls move for her? For Booker? For O’Rourke? I’d say certainly not for all three, and probably not two. At most, without an unforeseen crash at the top of the polls, there’d be room for a little boomlet for only one of them. I really don’t think we see relevantly different polling a week from now.

Still, even minor changes can have effects later. If Biden, Warren, or Sanders drop by just a couple of points, that will catalyze a negative news cycle, which can cause more damage. If Klobuchar, O’Rourke, or Booker climb a few points, that will earn a lot of positive press coverage and campaign donations, which can then feed more growth.

10. Looking ahead, the DNC has scheduled the fourth debate for October 15… and maybe the 16th, too. Since falling one poll short of making the third debate, Tom Steyer found his fourth qualifying poll, so now we’ll have at least 11 candidates, assuming one of Thursday night’s 10 doesn’t unexpectedly drop out. One has to wonder if the DNC would break their “maximum 10 debaters on a stage” rule if there were just 11 qualified candidates. If they don’t, we’re looking at one night of six debaters and one night of five.

However, Tulsi Gabbard might also be there, as she’s just two polls away from qualifying, and she’s experiencing a mini-surge in New Hampshire. At that point, we would probably expect two nights of six debaters. While that is inconvenient for us viewers, it could at least give the candidates more time to develop their responses — a good thing in a complex world.

Uh oh, 1600 words. The Yang Campaign will be in touch. See you Monday.


7 thoughts on “Saturday Special: Third Debate Review

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