Fifth Democratic primary debate: candidate ratings and analysis
The Democratic Party seems to be scrambling to find an alternative to Biden before the imminent implosion of his campaign. Both former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and businessman Michael Bloomberg have entered the race at an unprecedentedly late juncture. While uncertainty and apprehension are gripping elements of the party, the debates seem to have bored the public, as the viewership has been trending steadily downwards since the first pair of debates in June. The lack of excitement and even disinterest or rejection of the party that this may represent is a worrying sign for the Democratic party, who will need to drive up turnout in November of 2020 to secure the White House and even win a majority of seats in the Senate (although the odds do not appear to be in their favor for the latter). I hold the belief that Democrats ought to whittle the field down considerably, both for a chance at greater interest and viewership and in order to maintain more focused and substantive debates.
I will be rating the candidates based on their performances and how much they have helped their respective campaigns during the debate. In the interest of concision and in order to focus mainly on the viable “top contenders” I have left out some of the candidates from my rankings. I hesitate to give any candidate a positive rating because of the abysmal viewership numbers (apparently only around six million watched nationally), but my sliding scale will take that as a given that is equally true for each individual on the stage and judge how much each candidate may have helped themselves among those who tuned in.
Bernie Sanders: A-
Senator Sanders emerged among the crowded pack of candidates as a force to be reckoned with. In a race with much uncertainty, Sanders has proved to be a steady hand. He is consistently raising funds at a clip second to none and travels the country making his case, often introduced by notable guest speakers. Sanders largely remained above the fray in terms of direct attacks at other candidates, and did not see many coming in his direction either. His attacks were mostly landed on miscellany not on the debate stage, such as saying that oil executives who knowingly misled the public about the environmental impact of their enterprise might be criminally liable and should be prosecuted, and saying that the current healthcare system in the United States is “dysfunctional and cruel.” Other notable moments include his rejection of the oft-repeated notion that we are fundamentally a nation divided, suggesting that his platform, like raising the minimum wage and addressing wealth and income inequality, is one that unites us across party lines. He stuck to his main line of attack against former Vice President Biden in contrasting their votes on the Authorization for Use of Military Force in the most recent Iraq War. Overall, it was a good debate for the senator, who appeared pretty energetic and driven on the night.
Cory Booker: B+
By this point in the campaign, Senator Booker has a slew of debate performances ranging from solid to great under his belt, and this one might have been his best yet. He was firm, unflinching and assertive, but knew how to take the edge off by intermittently interjecting some humor into the conversation. Perhaps the most important and funny moment of the night was when he attacked Biden for saying that marijuana was a “gateway drug,” to which he said that he thought Vice President Biden might have been high when he said it. He followed the comment up by saying that “marijuana is already legal for privileged people.” The crowd seemed to love it. He was also strong on racial issues, on which he still somehow managed to lighten the mood, before saying that he wanted to “return to the issues of Black voters” because he has “a lifetime of experience with Black voters,” having been one since he was 18, to a lot of applause. He continued by saying that Black voters are pissed off because the only time their main issues seem to get any attention is when a candidate wants their votes. Booker had a pretty attention grabbing, commanding and humorous performance with considerable substance and policy interspersed throughout. Unfortunately for Booker, if this debate does not get him a bump in the polls and fundraising, he may not qualify for the one in December and his campaign might be all but over.
Elizabeth Warren: B
Senator Warren’s rise, which was the topic of interest heading into last month’s debate, seems to have been overtaken as a talking point by Mayor Buttigieg due to a few polls with favorable numbers for him released out of Iowa and New Hampshire. Overall, Warren looked a bit more anxious and eager to please voters than at previous debates. This manifested in her saying that her wealth tax of 2 cents on the dollar kicked in “for everyone with over 50 billion in assets” three times in succession, followed by saying that “when you hit a billion you have to pitch in a few pennies more. Obviously, she meant 50 million and 1 billion respectively, but she struggled to shake off the jitters deep into the night. Additionally, the release of her healthcare plan, which seeks first to expand the Affordable Care Act with the eventual goal of passing a true “Medicare for All” three years into her first term seems to have confused activists and potential supporters of hers alike. Whether it is realistic to expect two proverbial legislative “cracks” at the issue of healthcare within one term is dubious to begin with, and has some questioning her commitment to Medicare for All in principle. She had a really good answer on student debt, citing a study that 20 years after college, “94% of whites who borrowed money had paid off their student loan debt, whereas only 5% of Blacks had,” which, she argued, is why all the other candidates should support student loan debt forgiveness to help close the racial wealth gap. She closed the debate by focusing on her anti-corruption plan, which she labelled the “biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate,” and became emotional while expressing her gratitude for the American Dream that allowed her, the daughter of a janitor, the chance to rise through the education system all the way to candidate for president. It was a good, but not great, debate for Senator Warren, who has certainly had more memorable performances.
Kamala Harris: B
Senator Harris had an improved performance in comparison to her last debate. She was more firm and forceful in her delivery, and was on-message all night long. It seemed to be a point of emphasis for her to highlight the importance of rebuilding the “Obama coalition,” which she mentioned several times and described as “women, people of color, our LGBTQ community, working people, our labor unions,” arguing that she is the best-equipped candidate to do so. It was a curious choice on her part, however, to avoid engaging Mayor Buttigieg when basically prompted to do so by one of the moderators. When asked what prompted her to criticize Mayor Buttigieg, she said, “Well, I was asked a question that related to a stock photograph that his campaign published. But, listen, I think that it really speaks to a larger issue, and I’ll speak to the larger issue. I believe that the mayor has made apologies for that.” It was a good night for Harris, but some think that her initial surge earlier in the summer may have come and gone too early, making it difficult to rebuild all the momentum from the first debate anew.
Pete Buttigieg: B-
If the polls are to be believed, Mayor Buttigieg seems to have broken through with segments of the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic Primary voters, receiving more attention as a result. Thus far, Buttigieg’s strategy and method appears to be presenting himself as bland, inoffensive and unchallenging a candidate as possible, so as to not offend or unnerve any potential voters. Perhaps it is a reasonable and pragmatic enough strategy, but it leaves the audience with vapid one-liners such as “I’m running to be the president for that day the sun comes up and the Trump presidency is behind us, which will be a tender moment in the life of this country.” Of course, every single candidate still running, both on stage and off — I’m looking at you, John Delaney — is running to be the president for the day the sun comes up after Trump’s presidency. He also tiptoed around Representative Gabbard’s critique of his mention that he is willing to send troops to Mexico to fight the cartels, to which he responded, albeit disingenuously, twisting Gabbard’s words, “Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?” Buttigieg, as always, was quite an effective and eloquent communicator on the night, but the problem is that he is often not saying a whole lot, something voters are sure to pick up on sooner or later.
Joe Biden: C
Former Vice President Biden had a difficult night. His best moment was likely his closing statement, which bodes well for him, with the notable quote that the U.S. has led “not by the example of our power, but the power of our example.” He did, however, have the customary notable gaffe, saying that he had the endorsement of the only African-American woman elected to the Senate, to which Senators Booker and Harris, as well as the audience, responded in the negative, accompanied by laughter. His call for continually “punching at” the issue of domestic violence was another awkward moment in the debate for Biden, which drew a reaction from the crowd and watch parties all across the country. Biden is largely employing the electability argument. He argued that Trump and Putin clearly do not want him to be the nominee, citing Trump’s targeting of Hunter Biden with the Ukraine Scandal as evidence that Trump does not want to run against him. Evidence contradicting his argument of electability is Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick, two figures more in line with the Biden wing of the party, announcing their unprecedentedly late entrances into the race. Biden’s debate performances are not getting any better; he seems to trip over his words often, cuts himself off in the middle of sentences and offers up the occasional long-winded answer which goes all over the place.