Last night, the fourth Democratic debate gave us a record 12 candidates on one debate stage. For a couple reasons, my review of their performances will be brief. First, loyal PPFA readers probably need extra time to finish the longest post in this website’s history — a Columbus Day examination of the famous navigator’s legacy, including an assertion that he’s the most influential historical figure of all time.
Second, and more important: I didn’t see anything that will shake up the race. Twelve candidates are simply too many mouths to feed. It’s unrealistic to expect momentum shifts from a dozen candidates offering snippets of glorified stump speeches.
For months now, the race has settled into a relatively stable pecking order — we have two dominant candidates, three candidates in a second tier, then a bunch of candidates who net between 0 and 2 points in most polls. For a Quick Hit Friday this week, I’ll offer a potential reason for this stability — and an explanation of why that should soon change. For now, however, let’s stick to short analyses of last night’s performances.
As expected, Elizabeth Warren‘s rise to front-runner status was relatively stress-free compared to maintaining that status. For the first time, I saw her off balance and with a sweaty brow. Her refusal to acknowledge tax raises is getting kind of weird. Perhaps the media will bail out their darling, but we did see a sign of things to come and why her nomination won’t be as easy as it appeared a week ago.
She was targeted by multiple candidates, chiefly Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. I thought they argued the pragmatist’s position well, but I don’t expect it to hurt Warren. There’s very little chance a progressive says, “You know what? They’re right!” In fact, the more effective they are, the more annoying they’d sound to a Warren supporter. Though Klobuchar and Buttigieg debated very well and tried to do the field a solid by wounding the favorite, they unfortunately have no chance to win over her voters. It’s Biden’s voters they’re after.
The hope, of course, is that Joe Biden stumbles so badly that his supporters flee for a better moderate alternative. That didn’t happen last night. In fact, he probably had his best debate. Of course, that’s mostly because Warren absorbed most of the fire normally reserved for him. He doesn’t parry like he used to, which looms as a problem were he the nominee while President Trump wields his dangerous epee in those tiny hands.
I thought Bernie Sanders also had his best debate. Though he’s generally a consistently good debater, last night he was jocular and, well, human. Though his ideology is as hardened as ever, his heart attack has perhaps softened his personality. Of course, Sanders’s biggest headline was not his debate performance but rather the news that fellow democratic-socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and two other Congresswomen from “The Squad,” Ihan Omar and Rashida Tlaib) will endorse his candidacy. Though I sense most of the media is playing this up as a Bernie Comeback, it seems like a great development for Warren. The AOC crowd was already a backer of Sanders, and now it’ll help Warren look more electable by comparison. Come general election time, she could even say how the socialists preferred someone else in the Democratic Primary, not her. It’s akin to Sanders recently saying a key difference between himself and Warren is that she’s a capitalist and he’s not. Warren should send a hand-written thank you note.
In that next tier down…
Kamala Harris was, for the first time since her first debate, not insufferable. She finally found a way to interject women’s reproductive issues into the debate, which is welcoming home turf. Otherwise, she was neither awful nor particularly effective. She lost her brief gambit against Warren when talking about Trump’s Twitter use.
Andrew Yang was surprisingly spunky and had no problem standing up to the political powerhouses around him. He has perfected the political equivalent of, “Well, actually, here’s why that won’t solve the problem and my idea will.” He’s getting better at this.
Tom Steyer‘s approach was interesting. Whereas everyone spoke to the room, Steyer spoke to the people watching at home. Perhaps he notices his national polls lag well behind his performance in the early states, where he’s concentrated millions of his own dollars on ads in order to qualify for the debates. Last night was his first free national media, and he finally looked to the nation.
Beto O’Rourke continues to improve, but he still personifies “a mile wide and skin deep.” I thought Buttigieg owned him in their memorable spat. There’s nothing quite as scathing as a veteran telling a political celebrity, “I don’t need lessons from you on courage.” It’s the kind of thing that should make Democrats want to see Buttigieg across the stage from Donald “Bone Spurs” Trump.
Cory Booker and Julian Castro have resigned themselves to a VP competition. Booker’s “Can’t we all just get along?” motif was nice but innocuous. Castro, whose aggressive third debate earned reviews worse than Gemini Man, made sure not to insult anyone this time around.
Finally, Tulsi Gabbard, who made a feckless threat to boycott the debate (earning a dramatic PPFA eye roll), showed up with an interesting strategy. She actually… tried to debate? In other words, she attempted to ask questions to her opponents, which is how these things should work but never do. The problem was she used up all her time to deliver her talking points before only then asking a question at the end right as she was cut off by a moderator who implied, “That’s actually not how we do things.” It makes me think she’s deliberately positioning herself as a perpetual whiner of the process, which could mean Gabbard is lining up a third party bid.
All considered, since no one was that bad, I don’t see a lot of shifting in the polls. (If I HAD to rank a top three and bottom three, it’s 1) Buttigieg, 2) Sanders, 3) Klobuchar… 10) Warren, 11) Harris, 12) O’Rourke.) However, I do think this static primary is in its last days. The fifth debate will be the first opportunity for a major shift in the race’s dynamic.
The fourth debate was cute and all, but things are about to get real. See you Friday.