PPFA’s Fifth Debate Review: Part I

(All right, let’s get some day-after content out there. I’ve found time to review about half the field. The other half will get attention tomorrow.)

Whatever happened to good ‘ole fashioned combativeness? Both my debate previews suggested there should have been a bit more acrimony between last night’s debate candidates. Where was Sanders going after Warren’s health care pivot? Where was Harris and Booker going after Biden’s black support? Where was everyone going after Buttigieg?

Despite a few tepid attacks here and there, the night ended up a bit of a bore. The MSNBC moderators did little to find daylight between the candidates, which should be the express purpose of these debates. With such an uneventful evening, I think everyone’s default interpretation of the fifth Democratic debate is that it will have no major impact on the race. I tend to agree, but that won’t make for much of a debate review. Instead, allow me some latitude to assume there will be some kind of impact from Atlanta’s debate. My task will be to sniff out what that might be.

Here’s a ranking of the most significant developments coming out of the Atlanta debate, from least to most potentially impactful. I’ll do four today and four tomorrow.

(Transcript here)

8. Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard were fine.

On Wednesday morning, I noted that Yang, Steyer, and Gabbard were almost certain to qualify for the December debate. “As a result,” I determined, “none have to get too wild tonight, but Gabbard remains someone to monitor for that third party potential.”

At least I was right about something! They didn’t do anything crazy. Still, that means they will remain the least likely of these debaters to win the nomination. Specifically:

  • Yang was personable as always. He was kind to Steyer in a defense of the latter’s climate change efforts and had a decent one-liner about what a President Yang would say to Putin. (“I’m sorry I beat your guy.”) However, nothing he said will force more Democrats to take him seriously as a potential nominee.
  • Steyer tried to elevate himself by calling out Biden and Warren on not making climate change the priority of their campaigns (a tactic Jay Inslee tried to no avail, as evidence by you needing an extra second to remember who Jay Inslee is), but it only worked for a moment — and moments were few and far between for someone who only got about eight minutes of speaking time. (Indeed, this trio had the least amount of speaking time on the night.)
  • Gabbard didn’t take long forcing Hillary Clinton’s name into the debate (it was in her first response), and she twice Rubio’d through a verbatim “Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign policy doctrine of regime change wars” talking point. Overall she remained more interested in being independent-minded than a good Democrat, which sounds great until you realize she’s competing for the Democratic nomination.

7. Harris went after Gabbard, which Democrats will like, but she wasn’t particularly good at it.

Gabbard has become mainstream Democrats’ most annoying candidate. Indeed, in an Ipsos/538 pre-debate poll, she had the highest unfavorability in the field. These annoyed Democrats are dying for a candidate to put her in her place, but that’s easier said than done, because Gabbard is an excellent, measured debater. Harris went for it, focusing on Gabbard’s penchant for showing up on right-leaning media to drop Republican talking points, but Gabbard sidestepped the attack just fine. When the moderators threw it back to Harris, she trudged out a vague, substance-less stump speech excerpt centered around “I believe that what our nation needs right now is a nominee who can speak to all people.” Gabbard came off the better of the two, but I bet Harris is nonetheless rewarded an A for Effort from Democratic voters. Or maybe a B+.

6. Sanders continues to be solid and increasingly humanized post-heart attack, but does he want to win?

On a personal level, the new Sanders is more likable than the old Sanders. (Was that — gasp — biography in his closing statement?) On the political level, of course, nothing has changed. He’s still the great champion of the common man who wants to level the playing field beyond recognition.

Still, what happened to the Bernie Sanders that held other people responsible for their positions? Four years ago, if Hillary Clinton’s health care plan mirrored Elizabeth Warren’s newest version, he’d have never let her hear the end of it. Four years ago, if an upstart moderate mayor surged past him in Iowa (and New Hampshire?!), he’d have given him a lesson in what the modern Democratic Party should stand for.

Old Bernie, where art thou?

5. Booker all but says “Not so fast” to Democratic donors considering Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick.

As discussed in my Emergency Bloomberg Post and again this past Monday, these late additions to the field speak to a concern from the donor class that Joe Biden isn’t up to the task of holding off Elizabeth Warren this spring and/or defeating President Trump next fall. On Wednesday night, Cory Booker seemed to bellow, “Hey, you don’t need them. Look at me!”

In his first response of the night, when he knew he would have the most east coast eyeballs on the TV screen (I mean, 9:00 pm start time?? I take that personally, MSNBC!), he disagreed with Warren on her proposed wealth tax. Though he offered that capital gains and inherited estates should be taxed as income, he emphasized the concept of “growing wealth,” not penalizing it. It was a clear swerve into the moderate lane.

Still, staking out a position as the inheritor of Biden’s support requires a two-pronged strategy — not just holding off Bloomberg/Patrick, but also going after Biden himself and his black support. Later in the debate, Booker found an opportunity to use one of the funniest lines of the night. Responding to Biden’s comments from earlier in the week that he wasn’t ready to legalize marijuana, Booker quipped, “I thought you might have been high when you said it!”

He went on to address the disproportionate effect drugs laws have on the African American community. Later, in Booker’s closing statement, he went full-tilt at Biden’s African American base, highlighting John Lewis, the long arc of liberty, and that beating Trump is “the floor” of what they should achieve, not Dr. King’s “mountain top.”

It was a good night for Booker, and he probably had one of the few best debate performances (with, in my opinion, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Buttigieg), but I’ve pretty much had that exact evaluation of all his debates, and it’s never mattered. We’ll see if this performance is more meaningful since it’s occurring at a time of uncertainty for the field, but I doubt it.

Check back in tomorrow for Part II! Four debaters remain…

2 thoughts on “PPFA’s Fifth Debate Review: Part I

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