Debate Digest: Re-Evaluating the First Round

“Let’s get ready to rumbleeeee!!!” could have been a more appropriate introduction to June 26 and 27’s Democratic debates as heavyweights Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Marianne Williamson (?) made their way onto the Miami stage. There’s the old adage that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” so even a year and a half removed from actual electoral votes being cast, the initial primary debate presented 2020 hopefuls with a golden, high-stakes opportunity: Solidify yourself as a serious contender, or become meme fodder forever. 

Through a gauntlet of ideological questions, record challenges, personal rebukes and progressive litmus tests over the course of two nights, 20 candidates duked it out for the right to properly introduce themselves to the American people. Yet, in a social and cultural era defined by instant analysis and short attention spans, the true verdicts of the debate are made in the days and weeks that follow, as candidates hope and pray their airtime has enough staying power to be condensed and packaged into memorable quotes and clips. 

By now, pundits have already ran with these remarkable moments, making the rounds at news desks and in op-ed columns, with all their reactions and analysis drilled and inundated into the craniums of informed voters. While round two in Detroit is bound to present new storylines (Trump’s racist tweets about “the squad,” the growing calls for impeachment, Mueller’s recent testimony, etc.), tonight’s and tomorrow’s debates will be deeply rooted in the context of the previous.

To freshen up on the Miami proceedings, political junkies Jesse Horowitz, Jess Moss and Mack Liederman of The Brewer’s Table have stewed long and hard over their takeaways, and have compiled them here below for your retention pleasure.

Biggest Winners

Jesse: The big winner among the 20 Democratic candidates who debated this week was Senator Kamala Harris of California, who not only eviscerated Former Vice President Joe Biden, but also easily established herself as the candidate to beat. While she benefited from a debate environment that was not particularly concerned with criminal justice reform nor challenging her on her hypocrisy and history of unethical conduct, she clearly bested her opponents with a passionate, smart and memorable performance. Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand also delivered strong performances in the second debate; Buttigieg successfully showed he could hold his own among more experienced contenders while Gillibrand showed she was aggressive enough to stay in the fight for the nomination. In the first debate, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Bill de Blasio all distinguished themselves—though the latter messed up the next day through an unfortunate gaffe.

Jess: Although all three original frontrunners delivered somewhat lackluster performances, Elizabeth Warren‘s work on stage counts as a win when compared to Sanders’ and Biden’s. Avoiding any major takedowns and leading with thoughtful, yet few, responses, Warren hasn’t appeared to lose much traction. Aside from her most noteworthy moment with Biden, Harris also delivered punchy lines like “Americans don’t want to watch a food fight,” paired with a number of applaudable moments (my favorite being her shutdown of the appallingly bad moderator Chuck Todd, saying, “I would like to speak on the issue of race”). Although not as viral, Buttigeig had several outstanding moments—one of my favorites being when he called out the GOP for religious hypocrisy. The political wunderkind didn’t seem to trip over himself once, all while remaining polite and level-headed. 

Mack: While the top four or five candidates certainly further distinguished themselves in Miami, I think the real winner here is the Democratic Party. In a political environment that is pushing the party towards a period of critical realignment, both in terms of policy and identity, the first night of debates solidified the legitimacy of the progressive agenda as a viable option. Progressive ideas (medicare-for-all, free community college, reparations, etc.) that were once previously reserved for the ultra-left fringes and one finger-wagging grandpa (the Bern is back!) have now inched closer towards mainstream party adoption. On the second night, the public meltdown of establishment, moderate Democrat Joe Biden spoke to the fact that Democrats are evolving into a more progressive mold. The extent of that change is still unknown, but it seems like the Democratic Party has survived the optics of a 20-candidate clown car, and has emerged with two clear directions for voters to choose from: a shift further to the left, or the continuation of electable, establishment politics. A year and a half out from the elections, laying the table already seems like a pretty good start for Democrats.

Biggest Losers

Jesse: The biggest loser of either debate was Tim Ryan, whose gaffe was so embarrassing that I’d be surprised if he’s still in the race by the time this is published (update: he still is). However, if we’re going to focus on candidates who actually matter, Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden suffered the most devastating defeats. O’Rourke’s missteps on key issues made it clear that he’s in way over his head, while Joe Biden’s blistering takedown by Kamala Harris has left his campaign in shambles. Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders also gave unimpressive performances that will likely not do them any favors going forward. Though, they lost for different reasons: Klobuchar failed to adequately vie for Biden’s lane, Yang didn’t get nearly enough time to distinguish himself, and Sanders did virtually nothing to quell the rise of rival progressives. 

Jess: With a debate stage replete with forgettable type-A personalities all vying for their moment, there are simply too many losers to list. I agree with AOC here: some of these candidates should “sashay away” and allow more likely candidates the mic time to take center stage. But these forgettable candidates had far less to lose than frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who didn’t make the splash their campaigns promised us, and which the Democratic Party needs to defeat our unfortunate incumbent. While the exposure of Biden’s troubling busing record and lackluster general performance is the most evident defeat between the two nights, I would like to point out more subtle defeats for our two oldest candidates. For one, Biden’s closing statement struck me as antiquated and hollow, using catchphrases like “This is America, we can do anything” and “God bless our troops” that simply do not resonate with younger generations. Sanders received strikingly scarce applause at some of his most popular punchlines from the 2016 election, and seemed to respond to every question (regardless of content) with a loud, gesticulating comment on wealth inequality, never introducing anything new. But to be honest, I found myself most irate at moderator Chuck Todd’s performance, which—among other irritations—featured reductive questions on national security, goofy banter and a sophomoric concluding “thank you” to the candidates for “sticking your necks out like this.” Chuck Todd, this is a serious election, and you are not running in it. 

Mack: Any candidate not named Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg is a loser of this debate. In a crowded field where a wide-scale captive audience is hard to come by (especially in a time where Democratic voters are being increasingly fragmented across regional and identity lines), no second- or third-tier candidate put together the all-star performance needed to make their campaign more viable and than it is annoying. For a party in ideological flux, with a voting base craving order and peace in the executive branch, the general vibe seems to be that everyone is already ready for a more digestible list of clear candidates and directions to choose from. Long-shot White House dreamers hoping to gain sparks from single-issue platforms or from charismatic internet-based appeal don’t seem to have enough firepower to outshout legitimate candidates on a debate stage. The ultimate in-betweener Beto O’Rourke presents a particularly sad case; the dude-bro who had been widely prompted to run for president not too long ago now appears as the ultimate empty suit. All this goes to show the increasingly brutal nature of the high-speed political news cycle. One minute you’re a political darling, and the next everyone is talking about that weird stuff you wrote as a teenager under the pseudonym “Psychedelic Warlord.”

Viral Moment

Jesse: I guess I want to use this to discuss Marianne Williamson, whose bizarre debate performance has already inspired an over-abundance of memes and late-night comedy jokes. I can’t really call her one of the losers; she did exactly what she wanted to do insofar as she introduced herself to America and distinguished herself among her fellow candidates. But every time I watched her speak, a little part of me died. Yes, her odd delivery and weird rants about the power of love and the worthlessness of policy were really funny, but she’s also a terrifying nightmare candidate. Besides being an anti-vaxxer (and no, I don’t care that she denies it) with literally no government experience running her campaign on the power of “love”, she’s in the pocket of one of my least favorite people on the planet…Oprah Winfrey. Oh, Oprah, you gave us the world’s worst psychologist, the world’s worst doctor, Jenny McCarthy and now the world’s worst presidential candidate. You’ve done so much for America! But seriously folks, don’t vote for Marianne Williamson.

Jess: It’s not every day that a politician straight up admits to past failures. On Thursday night, Mayor Pete Buttigieg did. When asked why South Bend’s police force still does not reflect the diversity of the town it serves two years into his Mayorship, Buttigieg bluntly stated that he “couldn’t get it done.” Though his confession may come back to haunt him later in the election season (Why did he put police brutality at the center of his campaign narrative?), it stuck out in contrast to Biden’s evasive response to Harris’ inquiry about his busing legislative history. Rather than taking responsibility and reflecting in a moment of growth and change, Biden took a defensive position of covering up his previous position and avoiding Harris’ follow-up questions. Buttigieg instead used his criticism to point to the fact that the death that took place in his municipality is reflective of a larger issue affecting communities across the country, instead of offering a concrete response outlining future plans (which may have come across as a technical and defensive response). Perceptions of the proper response to criticism may be generational; while older politicians like Biden often strive to appear infallible and unwavering by trying to smooth over voting records, I am partial to a Buttigieg-style response, which reflects humility and receptivity. An unsatisfactory answer bereft of excuses leaves room for growth. I’m expecting to see both from Buttigieg.  

Mack: It strikes me as kind of ironic that after so many half-jokes about Oprah running for President, it is her spiritual advisor who stumbles her way onto a presidential debate stage. Before the debate, I did not know who Marianne Williamson was. After the debate, I probably know way too much about her—there’s nothing more classically viral than that in 2019. Williamson’s quirky, almost-endearing performance in Miami has made her a minor, yet noticeable, media and thinkpiece darling, another fascinating character designed for public dissection. “I’ll tell ya one thing, it’s really nice that we have all these plans, but if you think we’re going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you got another thing coming,” Williamson decried in a statement that should one day be encapsulated in American history textbooks. The quickly fading, half-applause that followed these comments—displaying a strange mixture of robotic Trump reaction and utter confusion from the crowd—made me laugh a little bit. I’m unafraid to admit that I’m excited to hear more from Williamson in the next round of debates.

Dark Horse Candidate

Jesse: There are three candidates I’d like to encourage our readers not to forget: Bill de Blasio, John Delaney and Michael Bennet. Despite low expectations, de Blasio did an excellent job in the first primary debate, easily besting more “serious” contenders like Beto O’Rourke. Delaney had a lot of strong answers, especially on health care, and has a good chance at taking Biden’s spot as the centrist candidate, should the former Vice President’s campaign descend into turmoil. Michael Bennet, despite a weak beginning, got some good answers in on Joe Biden, which may be enough to save him—at least until tomorrow.

Jess: There are two candidates whose circumstances may have hindered a larger presence on the debate stage. First is Julián Castro, whose Spanish closing statement and well-formulated responses lent him attention he didn’t have prior to Wednesday night. However, his stage placement on the first night—which has been characterized as the Junior Varsity to its Varsity counterpart taking place the next day—didn’t seem to offer adequate space or a contentious-enough atmosphere for him to truly stand out. The other candidate is Andrew Yang, who didn’t get enough air time to say all he probably could have. Each of his responses contained a concrete plan rather than the ideological fluff that usually permeates these early debates. Even if he’s not your top pick, Yang might offer some important ideas that likelier candidates can adopt, if he is given the opportunity to express them on air.   

Mack: At first to me, it seemed like a lack of political experience and poor translation onto live television had come to be the swan song for Andrew Yang. The brainy entrepreneur-turned-candidate practically disappeared on stage, struggling to gain momentum even when given a soft-ball question about his signature Universal Basic Income (UBI) policy. Yet, after the debate, Yang did not lose any traction from his lackluster performance, but rather galvanized his base of supporters. The Yang Gang continued to mobilize online, and even cried foul at the lack of airtime given to their candidate. Now that Yang has already qualified for the fall debates, it is clear that the internet has become a powerful and legitimate organizer for dark horse candidates. While Yang is unlikely to ascend to The White House, his candidacy could very well keep UBI on some political agendas, setting new political precedent for populist causes to be born largely out of online forums.

Top Storyline

Jesse: I think the big takeaway we need to have from these debate is that Joe Biden is not the surefire win that we’ve all assumed he was. His fundraisers are starting ditch him and his campaign has been thrown into turmoil; and while it may seem easy to just blame this on his debate performance, this is just the latest in a long series of screw-ups for the former Vice President. Every newspaper I have read seems to be writing the obituary for Biden’s political career, and honestly I can’t blame them. Name recognition will probably be able to keep him in the top five for another month, but I’d be shocked if he’s there for much longer. This is good news for candidates like John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar and Steve Bullock—all of whom may have a chance at Biden’s establishment lane, were his campaign to completely collapse.

Jess: The fall of Joe Biden may be in all the headlines, but I’d prefer to talk about where we might scrounge up hope for 2020. Biden’s fall is occurring abreast Harris’ rise in popularity—and funding. But the rise of Kamala Harris may end up coupled with a controversy of its own, namely her profiting off of a broken prison system. Although her stellar performance on Thursday made me want to jump her campaign bandwagon, there’s plenty in her record to be skeptical about. The surfacing of an increasing volume of information about Harris’ prosecution history has left me turning to Warren for hope in 2020. My main takeaway? Another dose of apathy. 

Mack: It seems like the rhetoric of the Trump presidency has rubbed off at least a little bit on all of us, as the media is bent to maximize impact and entertainment value in these attention-grabbing debates by crudely labeling winners and losers (Given the first two subjects of this post, I can’t say this site is any exception). If this is how we’re playing politics now, or just how politics has always been played, then Kamala Harris is the clear top storyline out of the debates. Harris has rightfully been praised for showing up prepared, aggressive, and pointed, calling out Joe Biden on the right issues, with the right flare, at the right moments. Going after the polling favorite and winning big will certainly get you in the headlines, and if there was any previous doubt surrounding the staying power of Harris’ presidential bid, then there is no more. In the next round of debates, it’s up to Harris to not only regain that previous momentum, but to begin to clearly define where she stands on the Democratic Party’s new progressive spectrum.

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