Saturday Special: PPFA’s December Debate Review

The busy holiday season is here, which, combined with a hectic day at my real job, dashed my hope for a Quick Hit Friday review of the sixth Democratic debate. With an extra day to piece this together, please accept this extended Saturday special instead.


If you had 9:22 EST in your office pool for when Thursday night’s debate would move from snoozefest to slugfest… congratulations! You nailed it. The first 80 minutes or so produced polished talking points but few sparks. The next 80, however, practically engulfed the stage in flames. We’re starting to see the Iowa caucuses rising in the horizon, and this is the first debate where candidates most visibly jockeyed for position coming into the home stretch — three candidates in particular.

Here are my takeaways from the last Democratic debate of 2019. (Transcript here.)

Tom Steyer had his best debate… and perhaps his last.

Steyer found ways to be more direct with his messaging on Thursday. In fact, as I took notes on him throughout the night, I kept summarizing his responses with, “I’m different!” This theme culminated with his closing statement, which actually started with the words, “I’m different from everybody else on this stage.” All night, he emphasized that he’s a true liberal who also has experience growing considerable wealth in the private sector, which is indeed a unique resume for the debate’s candidates and, he suggests, the necessary Democratic response against the Republican billionaire in the White House. (Notably, he had to include the words “on this stage,” because we know there’s a looming billionaire who sees Steyer’s so-called wealth of just 1.6 billion dollars and responds with some version of, “That’s adorable.”)

Still, even though it was his best, clearest debate yet, it was far from a game-changer for him. That could be a problem heading into the final pre-Iowa debate, scheduled for January 14 in Des Moines, which has again upped qualifying thresholds. Candidates will now need 225,000 donors (up from 200,000 for the most recent debate) and either four national and/or early state polls of five percent (up from four percent) or two early state polls of seven percent (up from six percent). These polls must be earned between November 14 and January 10.

As it stands, only five candidates have qualified, and the rest have their work cut out for them:

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All other candidates have 0 qualifying polls and much fewer than 200,000 reported donors.

The top five are in. After them, Bloomberg will have plenty of polls, but since he’s not accepting donations, he will not be at the debate unless donor thresholds are eliminated. For the other borderline viable candidates, it’s the polls that are a problem, particularly with Christmas week coming up, a time when few polls are conducted. There’s a chance we head into the week of January 5 with few changes to the above chart, and then there’s only five days to pick up the requisite polls. Steyer might be able to spend his way there, but I think he has worse momentum than Andrew Yang and even Cory Booker, who’s risen a bit since Kamala Harris’s withdrawal, and this debate didn’t do anything to shift that momentum.

Andrew Yang is impressive.

Yang saturates his responses with so much data (MATH!) that it feels like we should just trust him on everything. Interestingly, his data-driven approach ranks him high in a competitive list of “Who best contrasts with President Trump?,” a list all of these candidates, short of Steyer, seem eager to top. Trump, of course, relies on intuition much more than he does numbers, the latter of which he knows only if it’s on a list of his accomplishments.

Like Bernie Sanders, Yang is really good at identifying and articulating unacceptable problems with our society. However, also like Bernie Sanders (see below), it’s his solutions that seem to have trouble winning over the party. At just one qualifying poll, even the passionate #YangGang will have trouble getting him into the January debate. He was good on Thursday and gets better each time, but his slow rise might be a bit too slow at this point.

Bernie Sanders is mad again.

I’ve written how Sanders’s last two debates showed a gentler democratic-socialist than the cantankerous one we were used to. I’m not sure how causal that was to his return to second place in the polls — I’d say Elizabeth Warren’s fall is the primary reason Sanders looks stronger now — but it seemed that Sanders post-heart attack found some room for warmth alongside his cold critique of American politics and society.

On Thursday night, however, we had vintage Bernie. He seemed as mad as ever at “millionaires and billionaires” and those who don’t want to take their wealth. Though he had scathing and often accurate rebukes of American domestic and foreign policy which certainly galvanized his base, I saw few efforts to grow his coalition. That being said, he still had the debate’s funniest moment. When Amy Klobuchar mentioned him in a response, Sanders explicitly leaned into the rules that earns him a 45-second rebuttal by grabbing his heart, doubling over, and exclaiming, “She took my name in vain! She hurt my feelings! I’m crushed, can I respond?” It was as if Larry David made a brief cameo.

He did, however, have perhaps the night’s worst moment, when he momentarily forgot how to pivot from the question asked to the question he wanted to answer. On the topic of race relations, Sanders started with, “I will answer that question, but I wanted to get back to the issue of climate change for a moment.” The moderator cut him off to remind him the question was about race, and the audience rallied behind her. Sanders eventually got to the point, but it was a bad look for someone who needs to erode Biden’s black support to win the nomination.

Stealing the show were Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar.

This is why we tune into debates. More than Sanders and Biden, these three are relying on strong Iowa showings. In order to compete with Biden’s excellent national polling and decent fundraising — and Sanders’s decent polling and excellent fundraising — these three candidates will need the boost in fundraising and polling an Iowa win would bring. So it’s no surprise that in the last debate of 2019, these three entered into a cage match from which, at the February 3 Iowa caucuses, only one will emerge.

Warren and Buttigieg got things started, though who fired the first shot is complicated. They had been rivaling for some time, mostly over transparency and Buttigieg’s big money fundraising. Warren’s case is that big money donors buy unfair access, or, in the case of President Trump, even ambassadorships. (“We can’t have people who can put down $5,000 for a check drown out the voices of everyone else.”)

That could have been the end of it, but Buttigieg was spoiling for the fight. (“I can’t help but feel that might’ve been directed at me.”) He proceeded to defend his position by saying all money donated to help defeat Donald Trump should be welcomed by the party. The two then traded a few punches, with Warren pointing out the inevitable access big donors get, Buttigieg pointing out that Warren is rich but not corrupted, Warren describing in detail the #WineCave in which Buttigieg held a recent fundraiser, and so forth. Buttigieg ultimately seemed to win the exchange, pointing out that Warren fails her own “purity test,” as she once did have big donor fundraisers for her Senate campaigns, then transferred those funds into her presidential run, and only then did she swear them off. “Did it corrupt you, Senator?” was the final shot. Warren’s quiver was finally empty of arrows.

Progressives likely see Warren as the winner of this back-and-forth, but regardless, it was two sharp debaters with big stakes on the line, so it was fun to watch. Nevertheless, within seconds they looked like two small fish when along came Amy Klobushark, who snapped her jaws around both of them. Her “I did not come here to listen to this argument. I came here to make a case for progress” rant was one of the best moments any candidate has had in any debate. She all but hand-waved the petty bickering between two candidates competing over white, college educated liberals and instead focused on what unites all Democrats and most Americans — campaign finance reform. Embracing this galvanizing appeal for Democratic unity, the crowd, surely a reasonable stand-in for the Democratic electorate at large, burst into cheers.

Unfortunately, about 15 minutes after this call for unity, she picked a fight with Buttigieg over the question of experience, undermining her great moment. In the attack, she outlined the progress made by the experienced Warren, Biden, Sanders, and herself, and she openly resented Buttigieg’s implications that their experience is to be mocked. In the meantime, she may have made herself more of an option to supporters of those complimented candidates who also resent Buttigieg’s rise.

Klobuchar had been dancing around the issue of Buttigieg’s surprising inclusion in the top tier for weeks, including in the last debate (recall that she thinks a woman with Mayor Pete’s experience wouldn’t have be doing this well), but never had she so explicitly addressed it than on Thursday.  She thinks experience matters — not only government experience but experience winning elections with politically diverse coalitions. Buttigieg has made the case that a Democrat from Indiana is clearly someone electable, citing his 80 percent re-election number out of South Bend, Indiana, but Klobuchar dashed that talking point as well. Buttigieg has only won in a blue city, not the state. As Klobuchar reminded him, “If you had won in Indiana that would be one thing. You tried and lost by 20 points. I’m sorry that’s just the facts.” With many viewers having since learned that he had indeed run for state treasurer with a disastrous result, Buttigieg’s electability case was exposed. His lack of experience can hurt him down the stretch when voters sober up and have to make a choice. (On Twitter, even Michael Bennet, asteroid from Colorado, threw rocks at Buttigieg’s lack of experience.) It pained me to see such acrimony between my two preferred candidates, but with Iowa hanging in the balance, it was understandable.

In the battle of the bright debaters with seemingly endless rebuttals, it was as if Buttigieg outlasted Warren, then Klobuchar outlasted Buttigieg. Across the night, Klobuchar made roughly six hundred references to the Midwest — including farm bills, the Wind Caves of South Dakota, and, most obviously, “flyover country” — so I suspect, of the three, it is her who made the most effective case to Iowans. Whether its voters see it the same way remains to be seen.

None of the above were the debate’s biggest winner. Joe Biden was.

In my debate notes, I kept writing the same thing after the former Vice President’s answers: “Not awful.” Ladies and gentlemen, his campaign’s new bumper sticker — Joe Biden: Not Awful.

It was his best debate of the six so far, but when I say that, keep in mind how critical I was of him in the previous five. He’s been baaaaad. Thursday night, however, he wasn’t. He was fine. His speech was cleaner, he made no gaffes, and he even had his most forceful moment of 2019 when he jumped in on health care. (“I’m the only guy that’s not interrupted here. All right, I’m going to interrupt now.”) It finally sounded like someone who could out tough-guy Trump.

His not awfulness was coupled with his strongest competitor — who I still think is Warren — not being great. Though we saw her re-emphasize corruption as her campaign’s main theme, drawing attention away from her health care evolution, I don’t think such a shift affects voters as much as the debate’s more high-profile moments. In her only attempt at aggression toward another candidate (Buttigieg), she lost. Afterwards, when a CNN panel gave her a chance to better develop her retort to the Mayor, she still didn’t have an answer — pointedly called out by David Axelrod — which is reminiscent of her bad handling of question on health care tax hikes.

I also think moderator Judy Woodruff practically mugged her with the wording of a certain question that will make all Democrats who prioritize winning over ideology take notice: “[Y]ou have especially ambitious plans that, apart from healthcare, would hike taxes an additional eight trillion dollars over the decade, the biggest tax increase since World War II. How do you answer top economists who say taxes of this magnitude would stifle growth and investment?” Oh my. If we hear “the biggest tax increase since World War II” for five straight months before the general election — and you know we would — she’s going to lose. If Democrats figure that out in time, they will make sure she’s not the nominee. That’s very good for Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, also good for Biden is that another top rival, Pete Buttigieg, took decent knocks from Warren and Sanders, which rules him out for progressives, and Klobuchar hit him hard on experience and electability, which hurts him with the pragmatists. Biden, who rarely took incoming fire aside from a few requisite salvos from Sanders, must be thrilled with his good fortune. Candidates keep waiting for him to naturally fall back to Earth, but Biden’s greatest victory so far has been over gravity. Four years ago, Cruz and Rubio were much too late in their attacks against Trump. Democratic hopefuls are now repeating that mistake.

Considering he’s been bad in five debates but his polling wasn’t negatively since the first, I can only assume a competent debate performance won’t hurt either, and it might even help. With the next debate not until less than three weeks from Iowa, he’s sitting prettier now than he has been for some time. Perhaps he should worry about a strengthening Klobuchar knocking him out of the top four in Iowa, but I think it’s more likely that the Sanders/Warren (progressive), Warren/Buttigieg (white college educated), and Buttigieg/Klobuchar (moderate and electability) voters work things out among themselves and naturally relegate one or two of those four candidates to fourth and fifth place, allowing Biden to show a respectable third and hold onto his support nationally.

As a result of the December debate, Joe Biden is once again the favorite for the nomination.

7 thoughts on “Saturday Special: PPFA’s December Debate Review

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