Des Moines Debate DeReview

If you suffered through that snoozer of a debate on my recommendation, you have my apologies. Rumors of kitchen sinks were greatly exaggerated.

In the end, no candidate tried to make this debate part of their final push to win Iowa. Why did they refrain from sink-throwing? I’ll have my answer at the end of today’s post.

Muted and mixed debate reviews abound across the internet. I think I’ve seen five of the six candidates declared as the “winner” of the debate (all but Tom Steyer), whereas I’ve seen every candidate declared the “loser” (very much including Tom Steyer). Only polling will be the true judge, but my expectation is that polls will not be too affected by this uninspiring final debate before voting begins.

Anyway, here were my main takeaways for each candidate. (Transcript here.)

Tom Steyer

Right around 10:00 I dozed off for ten minutes, and I’m almost positive Tom Steyer is the reason why. He often starts a response with, “I agree with _________,” which, I recall, was my go-to line while I sat on my home town’s Board of Education and didn’t know what to say. (Similarly, I also led the Board in “Seconding” motions. The only motions I initiated were the ones to end the meeting.)

His penchant for staring right through the camera also jumped a level. During one response, the control room director got creeped out a bit and went to a different camera, and it took Steyer about 0.45 seconds to go find the new one and lock eyes with it. One of these days he’s coming through the TV screen like that girl at the end of The Ring.

Regardless, Steyer did nothing to break through. He might still poll well in Nevada and South Carolina while no candidates are competing with his ad-buys there, but he’ll tank in Iowa and New Hampshire, then the competition will blow him out after that. This debate locked him into that fate.

Amy Klobuchar

I hope Klobuchar slept okay after that debate. It couldn’t have been easy with that big fork sticking out of her back. After two debates I thought she won, she struggled in her last chance before Iowa.

She just wasn’t crisp. She had an embarrassing memory lapse when trying to conjure the name of the new Kansas governor. Some of her rehearsed lines weren’t delivered smoothly. (If I had a nickel for every time she said that Donald Trump treats workers “like poker chips at one his bankrupt casinos” — a metaphor that doesn’t hold up if given much thought —  I could probably buy one of those bankrupt casinos.) She had a couple good, even powerful moments (discussing the impact of the President’s trade war, she recalled an Iowan worker in tears showing uniforms of old co-workers, lamenting, “These are my friends. They don’t work here anymore.”), but on the whole she was off her game.

No candidate was more desperate for a great night in front of a Des Moines crowd — she needs a big Iowa surge in the last 19 days to get out of fifth place — but she didn’t have one. Considering her awesome debates weren’t enough to get her into the top tier, I doubt one of her mediocre ones will be.

Pete Buttigieg

I’d say Buttigieg was the only candidate who didn’t have a bad moment. Though he wasn’t spectacular either, he was solid with every single response. He seemed prepared for every question, and he always answered in a consistently thoughtful way. Even others who are as prepared as he is can frequently rub me the wrong way. Warren’s often glib, Sanders is a greatest hits album with a broken volume knob, and Klobuchar, though she’s at her best when improvising, has way too many canned lines. Buttigieg seems to have his head wrapped around issues so well that he doesn’t have to memorize anything in advance; he just knows what he wants to say and how to construct his response to say it. I’ve seen some criticisms of his robotic nature, which I used to share, but I’ve now seen enough to think that he’s actually so effective at thinking on his feet that it comes across as rehearsed even though it isn’t. I, for one, would value adjectives like “Stoic” and “unflappable” when considering our next president.

But does Stoic win elections? Considering the guy in the White House now, to say nothing of the three Democrats leading national polls, I think not. I don’t think Buttigieg was able to draw any attention to himself Tuesday night, and, frankly, that might be out of his skill set. He’ll likely continue to languish below double digits nationally, which can hurt him in the early states when voters consolidate behind candidates who can realistically win the nomination. For my money, he was the night’s best debater, but I don’t think it’ll play that way. My hunch is viewers instead gravitated toward…

Elizabeth Warren

It says a lot about the state of politics, the Democratic Primary, and this debate that the most memorable, discussed, and high-profile moment of the evening had nothing to do with policy. Instead, the moment was a literal “he said-she said” disagreement between Warren and Sanders over whether he ever confided in her that he doesn’t think a woman can beat Donald Trump. At the debate, both candidates stuck to their stories: Sanders denied it, Warren insisted it happened. Neither wanted to talk about it much. They didn’t go after each other as much as post-debate analysis would have you believe. (The non-handshake is approaching Zapruder Film status.)

We can be fairly certain the Bernie Doesn’t Think a Woman Can Win story came from the Warren Campaign. Warren needed to try something to redirect the ongoing narrative that Sanders is becoming the dominant partner of their nonaggression pact. Strategic progressive voters may decide to back the candidate closest to Biden in the polls, which means in the last days before a contest, the weaker candidate would lose support to the stronger. Since it’s certainly looking like Sanders has the momentum, Warren needed to introduce a variable that would get attention.

This variable ended up being the invocation of the timeless doctrine known as Girls Rule and Boys Drool. Warren had prepared the line of the night: that the men on stage had lost, collectively, ten elections, whereas the women — namely her and Klobuchar — were undefeated. Being the most memorable moment of an otherwise unremarkable debate, and one that was positively received by the room and media, I suspect she’s the night’s winner in the eyes of viewers. If any candidate sees polling benefits, I think it’s her.

It was also a clear pitch to electability, the primary’s most important issue to voters. She got the stage, Sanders in particular, to stress than a woman can beat Trump, a concern that’s nagged some voters worried about the general election. Electability has been perceived as Warren’s weakest quality, and she tried to turn it into a strength. I admit that saying she was the only Democrat to beat an incumbent Republican in the last 30 years sounds good, but I must provide the obvious rebuttal: “Yeah, but that was in Massachusetts!,” one of the most Democratic states in the country. Indeed, when considering the “partisan lean” of one’s state, she ranked as the least popular state-wide official of this primary and, one could therefore surmise, the least “electable” candidate in the field:


So who’s most electable on that list? It’s either Sanders — the most popular Senator among home state residents — or, for my money, it’s Amy Klobuchar, who is nearly as popular as Sanders in a state that’s essentially a toss-up. Never forget that Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by just 1.5 percentage points, while Klobuchar has won her Senate campaigns by 20, 24, and 24 points, including winning every Republican-held Congressional district. Talk about electable. (Wait, should I have included that in the Klobuchar section? No. She wasn’t that great at making the case for herself.)

Nonetheless, Warren tried to change the narrative, something she had to attempt. Klobuchar and Buttigieg played it more conservatively. Warren wins.

Bernie Sanders

Now here’s someone who never plays it conservatively. Though never too acrimonious, Warren and Sanders were a bit awkward with each other Tuesday night, like a couple of grade school kids who used to date. The debate over whether Sanders’s victory over an incumbent Republican occurred more or less than 30 years ago was strange. (It was a weird moment that was desperate for a real human like Andrew Yang to interject with, “Did someone say math”?) Sanders, by the way, was right. His November, 1990 victory over Republican Congressman Peter Smith occurred 29 years, 2 months, and 8 days ago. He did miss an opportunity for his best answer, however. If it were me, I would have said, “Thirty years ago you were a Republican.”

Then there was the whole Woman Thing, which was made all the stranger by the moderator asking Sanders if he said the Thing, him denying he said the Thing, then the same moderator assuming Sanders was lying about the Thing when she followed up with Warren.

Still, I thought they actually were, in some order, the second and third best debaters of the night. Warren tried a shake-up, which logic dictated was necessary, but Sanders was the only one with the courage to go after the Biden. Sanders drew clear and often favorable contrasts between himself and the front-runner. It’s as if the rest of the field learned nothing from the lessons taught by the Republican field four years ago. Back then, every candidate wanted so desperately to be the last candidate standing with Trump that they all left him alone until his momentum was too great to stop. Now that’s happening with Biden, and Sanders seems to be the only one trying to stop him.

But does he have to cup his ears every time a question’s asked? No need to draw attention to the fact he’ll be 80 within a year of taking office. Incidentally, of our final seven candidates (if one counts these six plus Bloomberg), we have five in their 70s and one in his 30s. Only Klobuchar, at 59, sits in the wide span of ages of, you know, every single newly inaugurated president — the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Wild.

Joe Biden

The Biden team was hoping for the Joe Biden of Debate #6. They didn’t get him. Instead, the struggling, old Joe Biden of debates 1 through 5 returned. He was not sharp, lacked confidence, frequently tripped over words, and looked every one of his 77 years. With welcome polls out of Iowa and New Hampshire in the last couple days — each with him leading the field — it was a chance to secure a stranglehold over the primary, but he missed it.

That being said, he also didn’t choke it away either. With only Sanders doing the field’s dirty work, Biden was never pressured into a gaffe or an otherwise unbecoming disposition. The decision of Buttigieg and Klobuchar to leave him be is particularly noteworthy. Though Sanders and Warren have the potential to move up into the national lead were Biden’s numbers to collapse, it’s Buttigieg and Klobuchar who would inherit a lot of Biden’s support. They can’t rise if Biden doesn’t fall, but you wouldn’t know it by watching their debate tactics.

So why don’t they go after him? Frankly, I think pulling off a successful attack against him requires an impossibly high degree of difficulty for those two candidates. They were in Pragmatist mode all night, but attacking Biden means attacking the Obama-Biden Administration, which means attacking the pragmatic Barack Obama. Arch-progressives, who often dismiss the ideologically impure Obama as a pawn of the neoliberal center, have an easier time attacking Obama-Biden policies. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, however, see themselves as the heirs to Obama approach, yet they have to reckon with Biden, who a plurality of Democrats see as the true heir to Obama. In multiple ways, it’s a tough needle to thread, at least without resorting to some ageism.

So why no kitchen sink? I think it has to do with the unique scenario heading into this year’s Iowa caucuses. Since four candidates are between 16 and 20 points in an average of Iowa polls, they might each struggle to get to the 15% threshold in various voting precincts in the first round of caucus voting. Aggressive debating might lose precious voters. Perhaps more relevantly, each candidate who clears 15% would be eager to siphon voters from someone who fell just short. Biden wouldn’t want to attack Buttigieg, for example, because if Buttigieg falls short of 15%, Biden is keen on taking those voters for himself to get separation on Sanders and Warren. Insulting Buttigieg could alienate his voters. All combinations of debaters can apply there. That’s my best guess for why the debate came across as so “meh.”

The next debate is scheduled for February 7 in New Hampshire. That’ll be about halfway between the Iowa caucuses (February 3) and the New Hampshire Primary (February 11). The DNC has not yet released qualifying criteria, but I expect all eyes will be on the Big Four after their Iowa results turn New Hampshire into a momentum-builder or campaign-ender for each candidate. They might even be the only four candidates on stage.

Maybe then the kitchen sinks will finally be dusted off.


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