The first of two CNN-sponsored Democratic presidential debates is over.
I watched — from the debate site in Detroit — and jotted down some of the best and worst performances from the 10 candidates on stage. My picks of the winners and losers from Tuesday night’s debate (in no particular order) are below.
*Bernie Sanders: The Vermont senator clearly got the message that he wasn’t lively or active enough in the first debate of the cycle. He came out feisty — and stayed that way. Asked about former Maryland Rep. John Delaney’s criticism of his health care plan, Sanders responded bluntly, “You’re wrong.” Questioned about his single-payer “Medicare for All” plan, Sanders snapped, “I wrote the damn bill.” Sure, Sanders probably came across to some people as irascible and scoldy. But for liberals looking for Sanders to stand up proudly and unapologetically for the need for huge structural change in our politics and our culture got exactly what they wanted. And not for nothing, Sanders clearly outshone Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in this debate.
*Steve Bullock: The Montana governor, to his immense credit, understood that this debate was his one big chance to make an impression with voters — and move from the third tier upward. I’m not sure if his numbers will move in a major way, but Bullock went for it — from his opening statement on. He made clear, time and time again, that he did not believe that the liberal views of Warren and Sanders were grounded in reality and did believe that those views would cost Democrats the election. He blasted “wish-list economics” and talked about the need to solve the “here and now” problems rather than offering what he views as unworkable pie-in-the-sky policies. If moderates were looking for someone other than former Vice President Joe Biden to support in this primary, Bullock offered himself as a viable alternative.
- Pete Buttigieg: As in the first debate, the South Bend, Indiana mayor played it (relatively) safe. But unlike the first debate, there was a clear message: I am young, yes, but the older people on stage with me haven’t fixed any of these problems, so it’s time for something different. I think it’s smart for Buttigieg to a) own his age (he’s 37) and b) try to turn it from a perceived weakness into a strength. The idea that politics (and politicians in both parties) have failed and it’s time to give a whole new generation of politicians a chance has always been a powerful one — especially in a time where people on all sides of the political spectrum hate politics. That said, there were moments in this debate where Buttigieg leaned too far into his own mystique; “The racial divide lives within me,” he said at one point. Dude, what?
John Delaney: Before this debate, no one knew who Delaney was or what he believed. If you watched this debate, both of those questions were answered. That doesn’t mean you necessarily loved Delaney, as he quite clearly embraced a moderate view on almost everything. But Delaney’s repeated clashes with Sanders and Warren were a win for the former Maryland congressman in the very fact that they existed. Yes, Warren dunked on Delaney over what she insisted was his emphasis on what Democrats can’t or shouldn’t do, but all in all, this was a very good debate for him.
- Elizabeth Warren: Her retort to Delaney was the line of the night — and encapsulates for a lot of Democrats why it’s so important to nominate someone who is willing to take on big fights, unapologetically. And her answer on electability — that no one thought Donald Trump could win — was pitch-perfect.
*Donald Trump: An extended conversation about eliminating all private insurance. A top-tier candidate — Warren — fully embracing decriminalizing illegal immigration. All of that is music to the President’s ears. Remember that his poll numbers — job approval that has never broken 50%, etc. — suggest that there is no positive message that wins Trump a second term. Which means he needs as much fodder as possible to cast Democrats as deeply out of touch and representative of a creeping socialism. He got plenty on Tuesday night.
*Opening statements: I really liked the fact that each of the candidate got a chance, right at the top of the debate, to lay out who they are and what they believe. It felt like a policy-centric and abundantly fair way of starting off a debate for president, and each candidate used the time well to make their case.
*”Emotional turbulence” and “dark psychic forces:” God bless Marianne Williamson. We’ll miss you in future debates.
*Beto O’Rourke: The former Texas congressman needed a good debate. A much better one than he had last month. While he was mildly more energetic than in the first debate — his answer on Trump’s weaponizing of race was O’Rourke’s best moment in either debate — there were large swaths of the debate where he simply disappeared from the conversation. And too many times when he did have a chance to speak, he sounded too rehearsed and wooden, a problem that plagued him in the first debate. O’Rourke has already qualified for the third and fourth debates this fall, so he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. But if this was seen by his campaign as a chance to change the downward narrative (and spiral) surrounding his bid, I don’t think they got it.
*Amy Klobuchar: Ask yourself this: If you watched, what do you remember about the Minnesota senator’s debate performance? Maybe it’s her emphasis in her opening statement on her unblemished record of victory in campaigns? Maybe? That’s a problem for Klobuchar, who seems to be treading water in search of a moment or a surge. She didn’t get one tonight. And candidly, she didn’t really come close.
*Elizabeth Warren: Yes, she made both lists. She had moments, without question (See: Winners). But Sanders seemed to better and more strongly articulate the liberal positions that define both of their campaigns, repeatedly. And Warren’s high-profile embrace of decriminalizing illegal immigration will add fuel to the fire for the already existing concerns among some Democrats that she is taking positions that could make her unelectable in a general election.
*Anecdotes: Some consultant somewhere some time ago told a candidate that the best way to “connect with voters” is to tell a story about “Bill from Buffalo,” who has had some sort of terrible misfortune and was done wrong by the government. Can we all agree that this anecdote-driven empathy needs to end? It’s not effective. It feels totally pre-planned and scripted. It tells us zero about what a candidate would do for the country as a whole. Enough!