The June 26 and 27 Democratic presidential debates served two purposes: to introduce the twenty top-tier candidates and to determine who was best suited to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. The results were somewhat unexpected; on both debate nights the winners were women: Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
Watching a two two-hour debates, each featuring 20 candidates, is like speed dating. Blink and you’d miss a clever quip or an awkward response. There were chaotic periods and many missed opportunities to explain progressive policies to the voters.
Nonetheless, the net effect was to “cull the herd.” The marginal candidates, such as Marianne Williamson, got less attention and when they did get to speak, quickly demonstrated why they had been regarded as long-shots. In my eyes, there were no breakthroughs by the ten candidates who came in polling at less than 2 percent.
On the other hand, there was movement among the ten top-tier candidates: Beto, Booker, Biden, Buttigieg, Castro, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren. The big loser was Beto O’Rourke who seemed flat overall and the clear loser in an immigration tussle with Joaquin Castro. (Castro was the big surprise of the first night.)
The other loser was former Vice-President Joe Biden. After sailing through the first half of the second debate, Biden was confronted by Harris about his voting record on school busing. When the conversation turned to race relations, Harris turned to Biden and said: “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.” When Biden struggled to explain his voting record, Harris continued: “Vice President Biden, do you agree today — do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America then? Do you agree?” Biden stammered that he did not oppose bussing, in general, “What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education.” And Harris nailed him: “There was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education… So that’s where the federal government must step in.”
Two things jumped out from this exchange: the first is that Kamala Harris is a terrific prosecutor and, more than any other Democratic candidate, can be counted on to skewer Donald Trump in a debate. The second is that Biden should have known that this encounter was coming and been better prepared. (After the debate, Biden’s team accused Harris of helping Donald Trump.)
It’s a long road to the February 3rd Iowa caucuses, but at the moment the Democratic field is led by women: If your perspective is which Democrat is best at taking on Trump, the leader is Senator Harris. If you are inclined to favor the Democrat who has given the most thought to straightening out America, the leader is Senator Elizabeth Warren. (Warren skated through the first debate night as the clear winner: interesting ideas presented concisely — like the master teacher she is.)
Before these debates, the national polls showed the ranking of candidates as: 1. Biden, 2. Sanders, 3. Warren, 4. Buttigieg, 5. Harris, and 6. O’Rourke. After these debate, the BB poll shows Harris and Warren tied for first, Biden and Sanders tied for third, and Buttigieg and Booker tied for fifth. That leaves Castro, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, and Beto (at number 10).
I believe Biden will be damaged by his lackluster debate performance; he’ll probably lose support among black voters — this should help Harris in South Carolina. Before the debate, Bernie Sanders was already losing support as progressives switched allegiance to Warren; Sanders did nothing to reverse this trend.
“Mayor Pete” Buttigieg got a good opportunity to show everyone how capable he is. Senator Cory Booker had a solid performance in the June 26 debate. They’ve forged ahead in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination for vice-president. As has Joaquin Castro who was the surprise of night one. Klobuchar and Gillibrand were solid but don’t have enough “star power” to move up in the herd. And Beto is fading.
There’s been a debate among Democrats about what they want most from their 2020 presidential candidate: a fighter or an ideas person. Both Harris and Warren are fighters and both have lots of good ideas. It will be fascinating to watch their interaction over the next eight months.
Before the debates, some Democrats favored Biden because they perceived him to be “most electable.” Biden was damaged in the June 27th exchange. I bet that more voters now believe that Harris and Warren are as electable as Biden.
By the way: the next round of Democratic candidate debates happens on July 30 and 31.