PPFA’s Fifth Debate Review: Part II

If you didn’t read Part I yesterday, now’s your chance. I’m counting down the most potentially impactful developments from Wednesday night’s debate. Yesterday’s inclusions likely have minimal impact. Today, we’ll take a look some potentially more important moments, starting with…

4. No one repelled Buttigieg’s momentum.

In the biggest surprise of the night, no candidate seemed interested in dousing the crackling fire that is the Buttigieg Campaign. On the heels of reaching the top of the Iowa polls, a St. Anslem survey out of New Hampshire showed him up ten points. Shouldn’t the field be worried?

Apparently not. No one really challenged him (with the exception of Tulsi Gabbard, who’s basically this race’s honey badger). Perhaps their calculation is that it’s too early to challenge someone who has the lowest unfavorable numbers in the primary, which could backfire. Or maybe they think that someone who can’t seem to convince any black voters to support him in a party whose black voters have determined every nominee in the modern era is no real threat; his overly rehearsed plea to the black community to give him a chance because he’s also lived a life of prejudice likely won’t work.

Or perhaps their calculation is that he’s really good at this and they don’t want to get schooled on national TV. When challenged on his lack of experience — that he’s “just a mayor” — he not only reminded us he’s a veteran, but he tacked on one of the best responses of the night: “I know how to bring people together to get things done. I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small. The usual way of doing business in Washington is what looks small.”

That’s good stuff.

3. Warren’s lost her groove… for now.

In the summer and early fall, no debater was more precise, feisty, and ambitious than Elizabeth Warren was. Her polls correspondingly climbed.

Lately, however, she’s lost her way. I think her awkward health care roll out got in her head. Her attempt to triangulate a position that was good enough for the Democratic base and the general electorate reeked of Hillary Clinton. That’s not that big of a surprise to this writer, as it’s easy to see some overlap between the two.

Wednesday showed glimpses of the competent candidate we’re used to, but she also lacked the fire of earlier debates, like when she publicly neutered John Delaney. In those days, no candidates went after her; they were terrified of the withering comment with which she might respond.

Now, however, she’s unsure of herself, and candidates have responded. In the last couple debates, we’ve seen Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Yang, and now Steyer and Booker each take their swipes at her, and they all came away unscathed. It’s a borderline miracle Sanders hasn’t piled on.

Of course, there’s plenty of time left for her to regain her strut. A late November surge, like Buttigieg’s, isn’t ideally timed. (More on that in a later post.) Because of what can happen in December and January, Warren remains the least unlikely nominee, mostly due to…

2. Joe Biden is still not good at running for president.

Can he string together two good responses? I don’t think it’s possible. (Former Obama Administration titan David Axelrod accurately described him as “Mr. Magooing his way through this.”) He was again shaky as all get out. Every answer has a false start or a stumble or a correction, and Biden’s face wears his frustration. (For the record, the Atlantic released a piece yesterday revealing Biden’s long, embarrassing fight against a speech impediment. Admit it. You feel kind of bad now.) Meanwhile, any sparring yielded a poor contrast:

  • Booker bested him with his marijuana zinger.
  • He was awkward against Steyer on coal.
  • When asked about the problem of sexual violence and harassment against women, he said we need to “keep punching at it,” which is problematic already, but he continued by saying “and punching at it and punching at it.” Can he not hear it?
  • He said that he had the support of “the only African-American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate” (referring to Carol Moseley Braun), apparently forgetting another duly elected African-American female Senator was standing on the stage with him. (“The other one is here,” Harris shot back, to Booker’s agreement.)

It’s cringe city. Often, the substance of what he’s saying is good — his position on how he wouldn’t direct his justice department to go after political enemies, including an ex-President Trump, was solid — but his delivery is troubling. And delivery, of course, is critically important to winning elections. I’m finding it harder and harder to see him as a strong general election candidate.

Nonetheless, his Mr. Magooing never seems to matter with his multiracial coalition of working class supporters — the kind of people not on Twitter that Democrats will want to win back if they want to win in November, hence Biden’s continued over-performance in general election polls. Or, as a recent Bloomberg news headline put it: “Everybody Knows Biden Is Toast. Except Voters.”

1. Klobuchar

I know it looks like I’m trying to make Klobuchar happen — let’s be real, I’ve been trying to make her happen since June, though I wasn’t complimentary of her first three debate performances — but I think we’ll be seeing Klobuchar approach the top four in Iowa by the end of the year. Her polling there already had her as a clear fifth, though she’s certainly closer to the pack below her than the leaders above. At a solid five percent and living next door, she’s well-position for a late surge under the right conditions. One condition will be a Biden or Buttigieg fade, which is certainly possible.

Strong debates are another condition, and on Wednesday she had her second straight strong performance.

  • When Steyer suggested politicians aren’t the answers to our problems because they’ll resist “structural change,” Klobuchar deftly turned the topic of structural change on its head by suggesting it’s actually big money that’s the problem, which at once was a shot at Steyer’s billionaire ad buys and an explicit criticism of Citizens United, a popular bogeyman of the Democratic Party. It was a Warrenesque critique of the system, but one a broad swath of Americans can get behind. Noting she does not “come from money,” she demanded a more level political playing field, even name-dropping Georgia native Stacey Abrams to the welcoming Atlanta audience, much of whom thought she got screwed out of the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race.
  • As part of that response, Klobuchar recalled how in financial desperation during her first Senate campaign, she “called everyone I knew and I set what is still an all-time Senate record: I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends.” Her next line was even funnier, “And I’d like to point out, it is not an expanding base,” but unfortunately it was talked over. As someone who lives for well-timed jokes, that was particularly frustrating for PPFA.
  • In an anticipated moment, she was asked about her recent comments regarding Buttigieg’s experience, more specifically how if a woman had his relatively limited experience she wouldn’t have made the debate stage. Her response complimented Buttigieg while still defending her self-evident position. How do we know women are held to a higher standard? Because “Otherwise, we could play a game called name your favorite woman president.” She then pivoted from humor to a woman’s roar, “I think any working woman out there, any woman that’s at home knows exactly what I mean. We have to work harder, and that’s a fact.”
  • She also took on the politics of aesthetic electability, “I don’t think you have to be the tallest person on this stage to be president. I don’t think you have to be the skinniest person. I don’t think you have the loudest voice on this stage. I don’t think that means that you will be the one that should be president. I think what matters is if you’re smart, if you’re competent, and if you get things done.” So much yes here.
  • Then, perhaps the line of the night, deployed with a smile, “And if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.” True or not, that clicks with Democrats right now.
  • And yet, despite giving Democrats, especially women, plenty to like with the above responses, she also found time to remind voters of her electability. She pointed out that, unlike everyone on that stage, she is “someone that wins in red districts and suburban, purple districts, and bright blue districts every single time.” A state Hillary Clinton won by one point she won by 24. She promised to “get those independents and moderate Republicans who cannot stomach this guy anymore. This is how we build a coalition.”
  • To that end, she championed fiscal responsibility and programs that can get broad support and actually be paid for. In contrast, she noted that President Trump is “increasing the debt . . . and really putting this country in a worse financial situation every single day. . . . I am not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car.” In a general election where swing voters don’t want increased government intervention or a massive economic overhaul, but instead just someone less crazy than Donald Trump, Klobuchar is positioning herself as someone who fits that bill.

There were, however, criticisms of her shaking hair, which makes it look like she’s a trembling person. And yeah, it does kind of look like that. But yet again — that kind of appearance quibble is not something a man ever has to deal with up there.

I acknowledge it might be wishful thinking, but Klobuchar’s moment is still ahead. This debate showed she’s still warming up from her icy start. Looking forward, we’ll now see how those Iowa and New Hampshire polls respond to the candidates — if they do at all — while we wait for the next debate, scheduled for December 19 in Los Angeles.

Have a great weekend!

3 thoughts on “PPFA’s Fifth Debate Review: Part II

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