On Tuesday night, six of the leading Democratic candidates for president took the stage in a CNN primary debate — the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.
The stakes were particularly high as the top four candidates — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg — remain in a tight race for first place in Iowa. The Iowa results may have a significant role in shaping the course of the entire primary process.
Debates are meant to discuss issues important to political parties and their voters broadly, but elections themselves are fundamentally about winners and losers. So here’s my — necessarily subjective — assessment of who came out of the debate looking stronger and who came out looking weaker:
Bernie Sanders — Some recent polling in Iowa has given Sanders’ supporters hope that he will come in first in the primary. And on Tuesday night, Sanders put his best foot forward. He continued his strong push against Biden and effectively parried away criticisms. CNN had clearly hoped for some fireworks between him and Warren over a recent dispute between their campaigns about her allegation that he once told her a woman couldn’t win in 2020. He denied the story, and he made a passionate argument that we should believe the opposite. But more importantly, he didn’t get bogged down in the fight and spent much of the night speaking clearly about the issues that matter to him.
Elizabeth Warren — Warren struggled at first in the debate to hit her stride, but once she got it, she gave a strong performance. She stuck by her story about Sanders, but she didn’t dwell on it. Instead, she made a powerful case that a woman, and she, in particular, would be a strong opponent of the president in 2020. It was the standout moment in the debate, and if convincing, it turned a potential weakness of hers into a strength. And at the end of the debate, she wrapped up by listing off several issues that were neglected during the night — including mental health, violence against trans people, gun safety, disability rights, and climate change’s impact on communities of color — showing her breadth of interests and passions.
Pete Buttigieg — Buttigieg’s best chance for making waves in the primary — a chance which overall remains small — rests on an impressive showing in Iowa. And with that on the line Tuesday night, he delivered what he needed: cogent, passionate responses to answers that showed off his skills as a politician and communicator. He still has many weaknesses his opponents or his could have exploited, most notably a recent devastating report in The Root about his failure to address racism in the South Bend Police Department. But largely, his opponents left him untouched. At one point, CNN’s Abby Phillip pressed him on his lack of support from black voters. While he didn’t answer the question directly, he successfully deflected it and was never really caught flat-footed.
The moderators — The moderation of the debate was a disaster. Many of the questions that were asked were framed merely for the purpose of being confrontational, rather than generating clarity on the issues or inspiring informed debate. The moderators obsessed over the costs of proposed programs like Medicare for All and free college, rather than discussing the benefits they might bring. And they continually interrupted the candidates in the middle of their answers instead of waiting for a natural pause.
Joe Biden — Biden remains the frontrunner in the polls, and his previously lackluster debate performances don’t appear to have hurt him much. Nevertheless, it was hard to watch Biden’s performance and conclude he’s anything other than a loser of the night. His answers were slow, stilted, and frankly, he often looked bored and just waiting for the debate to be over. His best moment was his closing statement, which he delivered with gusto. But it just left me wondering: Where was that energy and passion the rest of the debate?
Tom Steyer — What is there to say about Tom Steyer? The fact that he has bought his way on to the debate stage with his massive wealth and a disingenuous campaign to impeach Trump hangs over his whole candidacy. His passion about climate change is always welcome, but the case that he — a billionaire with no experience in government — is best positioned to address the issue is highly dubious. He also insists on talking directly to the camera during the debates, which is off-putting. And he continues to claim that his success in business makes him best positioned to run against Trump on the economy, though there’s little reason to believe this is true.
Amy Klobuchar — The Minnesota senator has a decent case to make for her own electability as a popular elected official from the Midwest. But unfortunately, she keeps sliding into the same habit in each debate of casting herself as the person who throws cold water on the bold ideas of others. There may be a role for that in debates, but her relentless use of the tactic is hardly inspiring. While she can dish out criticism, it’s much harder for her to paint a vision of why someone should want to vote for her above and beyond her supposed ability to win.
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