Democratic debates round two: night one's recap and rankings
As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination continues to heat up, all eyes turned to the second and final debate before the qualification threshold is raised. Because of this steep increase in the qualification requirements, many expected that this would be a last stand of sorts for many campaigns, with a handful of candidates likely to make last minute appeals in an attempt to qualify for the September debate. Furthermore, a number of different storylines emerged after each candidate was divided into one of the two nights, including but not limited to speculation over whether the two foremost progressives in the race, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, would go after one another, and what would happen in the second meeting between California Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden after she went after him with conviction in the first debate.
Continuing the series on candidate debate performance grades and analysis, I will provide my input as to how much the candidates contributed to their campaigns on the first night.
Bernie Sanders: A-
The debate began, after opening statements from each candidate, with a question from Jake Tapper asking Sanders what he says to Congressman John Delaney — and others like him — who call championing Medicare for All “bad policy” and see it as likely to get Trump reelected. It was a glimpse of what was to follow, as questions came in left, right and center either asking Sanders what he thinks of another candidates’ criticism of his policies, or asking other candidates what they say in response to something that Bernie had said. Despite the several candidates clearly out to draw appealing lines of contrast between themselves and Sanders, and an often hostile group of moderators with ridiculous lines of questioning, Sanders stood firm and aggressively defended his positions more effectively than he did at the first debate, with numerous quotable lines. Moreover, he showed his more jovial side and at times drew laughter from the crowd, like when John Hickenlooper said, “you can throw your hands up” and Sanders did so again. Additionally, in a moment that may have been lost on viewers, he presciently predicted (or more likely knew) that the healthcare industry would be advertising during the debate with the same Republican talking points he accused Jake Tapper of pushing, which proved to be true. All in all, the debate — framed for a second time running as a referendum on Sanders — saw both Sanders and Warren often playing tag team in defending their more progressive vision for the party. The framing coupled with his aggressive, energetic and, at times, unapologetically angry demeanor throughout served him quite well.
Elizabeth Warren: A-
Senator Warren, like Sanders, bucked the expectation from some that there would be fireworks between the two, instead opting more often to partner up with Sanders to defend and sometimes go on the offensive for a more progressive vision for the future of the party. If there were any fireworks, it was between several of the moderate candidates — at times with the aid of questionable framing of the moderators — and the duo of Warren and Sanders. The two foremost left voices in the primary enjoyed a strong night. The only reason to feel trepidation about how much of a boon this debate really was for the progressive movement was the fact that Biden, who leads in the polls, was not on the stage. Warren was calm, collected and had the most consistent performance, showing her grasp on topics both in her areas of expertise and out. Although not showing an eagerness for confrontation, she proved willing to engage in it when the situation called for it by lambasting Delaney, questioning why someone would go through the trouble of running for president just to tell everybody else what they can not do and should not fight for. The line earned big applause and was one of the most notable of the night. If not for the framing of the debate as a referendum on the progressive wing of the party, which Sanders has taken up the position of forbearer due to his previous run four years ago and his championing of all the issues now in vogue, Warren would be alone atop this list for the unwavering consistency and strength of her performance.
Marianne Williamson: B+
Author and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson had a really good night, as evidenced by the raucous applause lines she received on a couple of occasions during the debate. According to the New York Times, she was tied for the least amount of speaking time of all 10 candidates, but she really made the greatest use of each minute she had. The impression she left on stage, even if judged by enthusiastic applause from the crowd alone, was far and away the most significant when compared with the expectations most had for her going into the debate. Her detailed answer to why reparations should be “at least” 200 to 500 billion dollars, converting the 40 acres and a mule that were promised to, but in many cases not received by, freed slaves after the Civil War to present day wealth likely introduced a majority of voters to the issue in an in depth way, and seemed to resonate very much with the crowd. Her mention of how the Flint Water Crisis would not happen in a wealthier, whiter neighborhood, in an analysis of systemic racism, drew tremendous applause as well. Overall, it was a very good night for her, although it could be the last time we see her on the stage as it may just be too late for her to get enough donations and positive poll results to qualify for future debates.
John Delaney: B
Former Congressman Delaney has proven a polarizing figure in a party with a very outspoken and unapologetic center left faction. He has, no matter what one thinks of him, undeniably been a thorn in the side of the more center left candidates and voters at both debates. Although the more moderate lane seems to be firmly occupied by Joe Biden, Delaney has proven a really effective “attack dog,” so to speak, for the moderate wing of the party. Although I do not see Delaney’s campaign going anywhere, and this indeed may be the final debate he participates in, he is about as unapologetic and seemingly honest a defender of his ideas as anyone else, and comes off as such. He firmly states his case and does not falter or sway at all, earning him a satisfactory B.
Pete Buttigieg: B-
Mayor Buttigieg had another decent showing, but was largely overshadowed, once again, by other stellar performances. Buttigieg was in control, poised and showed no sign of putting his own proverbial foot in his mouth at the first two debates. However, if the goal of this debate was to have a breakout showing similar to Senator Harris a month ago, he fell short of that high standard. Never lacking the right words for the moment, his articulate presentation can at the right moment be a priceless asset, but has not really materialized for him at a debate.
Amy Klobuchar: C+
Senator Klobuchar is right on the cusp of qualifying for the September debate, but I wonder whether she did quite enough to give herself a boost from her previous performance. Fortunately for her, she is close enough to qualifying that her performance at the debate might end up being irrelevant to her qualifying for further debates. Nonetheless, Klobuchar had a largely middling performance, with just one or two notable moments. Most notably, she received significant applause on the issue of guns for saying that she would take on the National Rifle Association’s powerful lobbying arm. Also notable was her closing statement where she mentioned combating the drug companies who got millions of Americans hooked on opioids. Overall, it was not a disastrous performance by any means, but I do not see how this debate boosts her standing in the race. I think she would be more than happy if she is able to muster a 1-2% polling boost and some new donors.
Beto O’Rourke: C+
Beto O’Rourke did not have to endure much adversity at this debate, unlike the first debate. Overall, he had a middling performance as well, being largely overshadowed and not providing any memorable moments, which is often a decent measure of how a debate will be perceived by the public at large. O’Rourke has qualified for the next debate already, so there was no urgency on that front, but there was nothing too notable to talk about in his performance, neither positive or negative.
Steve Bullock: C
Governor Bullock, appearing at his first debate, was trying to leave an impression to make sure it would not be his last. His appeals were largely for being an electable Democrat from a deep Republican state that knows how to win over Republicans. While he was at times lively and animated, I do not think he left a notable impression either and might have had a largely forgettable night in the eyes of most voters. His big issue of getting money out of politics, however, does resonate quite well. Whether people will remember that as one of his marquee issues is another question altogether.
John Hickenlooper: C
Governor Hickenlooper had what was, in all likelihood, his last stand at this debate, which he fittingly signed off by saying, “Thank you, what a night. I’ve loved it,” at the start of his closing statement. He prodded the more progressive candidates throughout the night, but did little more than that. Unfortunately, he may have been too mild-mannered or polite to go forcefully into an exchange to try and make a name for himself and raise the funds in order to be in future debates. His campaign may be suspended before the end of August.
Tim Ryan: C
Congressman Ryan was also having a last stand on the night and did not make inroads — at least not any substantial advances — to be able to call the night a success. He was, unfortunately, at the receiving end of one of the quotes of the night, for the second debate running, when he questioned whether Sanders knew that Medicare for All would be a better health care plan for union members, to which Sanders responded, “I do know, I wrote the damn bill.” Ryan’s appeal seems limited, and his ability to be an effective communicator of his message even more so. It is hard to imagine him qualifying for any further debates.