What a boring mess.
If the lesson from the first round of presidential debates was that attacking pays off, the participants in Tuesday night’s debate — with the possible exception of a no-name ex-congressman — either couldn’t execute or didn’t even try.Story Continued Below
That might not have been so bad if CNN spent the two-plus hours of debate delving into policy in a substantive way. But it turns out 10 candidates discussing their differences on the nation’s complicated health care system in 30-second snippets isn’t especially revealing. It certainly didn’t make for riveting TV.
Tuesday served as a lesson in stout defense. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren deflected lobs against them from the junior varsity squad. Because Warren had the more commanding performance, it was likely her night. But her night in a debate that few people will probably remember a week from now.
Sanders and Warren really do like each other
Together, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are pulling nearly one-third of the Democratic primary vote, and the progressive-populist lane of the primary would become clearer if one of its two occupants would knock the other out.
But Sanders and Warren weren’t sparring on Tuesday. If anything, their performance suggested they might not for a while.
Instead, with their lower-profile, more moderate opponents referring to them and their policies in tandem (“I share their progressive values, but I’m a little more pragmatic,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said), Sanders and Warren linked arms in defense of progressive policy priorities such as Medicare for All.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren said, in one of the most memorable lines of the night.
It’s possible that Warren and Sanders will tangle in a future venue. But for the moment, there is little incentive. Though both are progressive Democrats, they attract different kinds of voters (Warren tends to draw a better educated, more female crowd than Sanders). And they share a common ideological foe in Vice President Joe Biden, who is polling ahead of both of them and still represents the greatest threat.
Warren, who spoke more than any other candidate Tuesday night, has now missed out on two debate stages with Biden. She will be tested when she draws a stage with him and Sen. Kamala Harris.
John Delaney exists
John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who two years ago became the first one to launch his presidential campaign, didn’t need to nudge his way into the second debate — conflict-starved moderators pretty much did it for him.
With Warren and Sanders playing nice, Delaney emerged as their top moderate foil, jabbing at their ideology and progressive plans as unrealistic and too costly while citing Ronald Reagan’s position on taxes.
For a candidate struggling to get any oxygen, it was the best he could hope for.
Delaney focused his attacks on the left from the perspective of a pragmatist, saying Democrats win when they focus on “real solution—not impossible promises.”
As the night wore on, he slipped down the list to seventh in speaking time, but that was after he’d starred in the only real viral moment as the guy on the receiving end of a spirited decking from Warren. Turning to him, a seemingly exasperated Warren waved her hands and said she can’t fathom why anyone would go through the trouble of running for president “just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Delaney, who is worth an estimated $65 million, got to be the rich guy who Warren thinks should pay more in taxes. All of the attention helped push him into the most-Googled name at one point during the middle of the debate.
Delaney also mixed it up with Sanders on the democratic socialist’s health care plan. Delaney had called single-payer “bad policy,” after deriding it as political suicide that will help Donald Trump get reelected.
Sanders didn’t need many words to slap back at Delaney. But as Sanders shot back “you’re wrong,” Delaney flashed a big Cheshire cat smile.
He couldn’t have scripted a better night.
Beto and Pete get lost in the middle
Beto O’Rourke has already qualified for the September debates, so it’s too early to start the death watch. But a great night it was not. And Pete Buttigieg, who has also qualified, has piles of cash on hand to sustain his campaign, even if it’s sagging as he struggles to talk about race issues.
The two Democrats who were once instant sensations in the Democratic primary were hard to find on Tuesday night — for one potentially troubling reason for their campaigns. In a debate cast as the moderates versus the progressives — a microcosm of the Democratic primary at large — O’Rourke and Buttigieg fall somewhere in the middle, which makes it difficult to sustain air.
Between the two candidates, O’Rourke is in the more precarious position and spoke for less time Tuesday. And though O’Rourke was crisper with his answers and appeared more confident than he did last month, when his fellow Texan, Julián Castro, roughed him up, he was largely a non-combatant. And for his rivals, it appears he’s not worth taking a swing at anymore.
On immigration — an issue that O’Rourke has put at the center of his political profile — it was Warren and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock who dominated. And when O’Rourke turned to electability, mentioning “there’s a new battleground state — Texas,” Bullock was there to remind the audience that only one candidate on stage had won statewide in a red state — twice, in fact.
It wasn’t O’Rourke.
Bullock and Biden win — in very different ways
Bullock will need a lot of help (from a lot of donors) to qualify for the September debates. But at least some Democrats might take a look at him now.
After entering the primary late and failing to qualify for the first debates, Bullock leaned hard on the electability card as the only Democrat on stage who had won a statewide election in a state Trump carried in 2016.
“I’m a progressive, emphasis on progress,” he said. And if that wasn’t clear enough, he added later, “I’m a gun owner. I hunt.”
“Even in Montana,” Bullock said at one point, he and Republicans were able to pass campaign finance reforms.
But Bullock didn’t appear to have much to say on other issues. On several topics including gun violence, he suggested they could be quelled by ridding the political system of dark money —one of the few other areas he seemed comfortable digging into.
Barring a wholesale change in the primary, he still lags very far behind. And there is a more formidable Democrat, Biden, already standing in the “electability” lane. No one touched him Tuesday.
That is likely to change when Biden squares off on Wednesday against Harris and Sen. Cory Booker.
But it would appear to have been a missed opportunity Tuesday for Biden’s lower-polling, young rivals, especially O’Rourke and Buttigieg, who were once seen as competing with Biden for support. Their decision to refrain from attacking Biden means he will avoid negative clips airing on cable for the next 24 hours. And he won’t have to respond to them on Wednesday night.
Climate change has staying power
The 2020 presidential race’s second round of debates again elevated the conversation around climate change, something millennials and environmentally conscious Democrats are starved for — four years after being virtually ignored.
While the question didn’t come until late, the stage was bereft of candidates who are chiefly carrying the climate torch—Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and billionaire Tom Steyer, who first made his name on climate change. But others gladly stepped into the breach.
“Science tells us we have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe when it comes to our climate,” Buttigieg warned.
Wonky-but-important talk about an imperiled planet isn’t easy to pull off — the issue doesn’t hit home for most voters like jobs and health care. But after being relegated to the back-burner for so long, Tuesday night’s debate showed that it’s here to stay, with the Green New Deal defining the contours of the climate debate.
Warren took on what she called small thinking that made some in her party sound like conservative Republicans when they criticize the far-reaching proposal.
Added Sanders: “I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Republicans are not afraid of big ideas.”
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