My 10 hot takes from Night 2 of the first Democratic debate (Night 1’s hot takes can be read here):
- First, wow, what a difference a night makes. Night 2 was so much more intense and engaging than Night 1. The quality of the competition was SO MUCH BETTER. The intensity and sharpness of the exchanges, the differentiation of personality and of approach, were much stronger. Last night was a mock tea party at the kidz table (plus Elizabeth Warren). Tonight felt like WrestleMania in Vegas.
- Harris didn’t just win, she kicked ass (specifically, let’s face it, Biden’s ass). But it wasn’t just that one riveting exchange with Biden about race and busing – it was her forceful and confident performance throughout, from her first answer, when she ripped the irresponsibility of the Bush tax cuts, to when she shut down a side squabble with her incisive comment that, “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going help them put food on the table.” I said going into this debate that my (waning) hope was that Harris would find her voice in this debate. She did. As I write this, I hear the talking heads in the background gushing over her performance.
- Biden actually had a good first hour. Bernie didn’t have a good debate, either hour. Instead of Bernie attacking Uncle Joe out of the gate, the first half surprisingly ended up being more about some of the other, also ran candidates calling out Bernie’s supposed radicalism, which then brought out his grumpy, angry old leftist side. Several times over the course of the debate he seemed like your friend’s eccentric uncle at the Hannukah party who’s slugged back a glass too much of the Manischewitz and is now off on a crazy person rant. Biden, meanwhile, had a strong answer on the need to build on Obamacare rather than going down the pie-in-the-sky road of Medicare for All. Then, early in the second hour, Kamala shivved Biden with the rhetorical equivalent of a stiletto heel. Sparks flew, blood was spilled and Biden suddenly looked old, flustered, and out of touch.
- A friend texted me in the middle of the debate: “We have consensus at my house that Gillibrand is annoying.” I totally agree, all of the people in my brain reached the same consensus.
- But… busing? Yes, absolutely, Harris generated the defining moment of the debate – Biden was clearly rocked, and over the last 50 minutes of action never really recovered — by tying her personal history to Biden’s political history in a brutally effective way. But… busing? It gives me pause. Part of why Harris’ attack was so effective was that Biden’s response in the moment was so poor. OTOH, busing was never popular, and studies show it was not only not effective, it was probably counterproductive. Going forward, if Biden, instead of reacting angrily, brings it back to whether busing was the right way to get to the shared goal of integration, maybe he could still salvage this exchange.
- I am completely befuddled by Bernie’s strategy in this debate. I was sure he’d come out swinging against Biden, drawing the obvious contrast between his social democratic boldness and Biden’s status quo incrementalism. Instead, he hung back, creating the opportunity for Harris – nearly 70 minutes in – to own the big moment of friction with Biden that has become the dominant storyline of the night. He ended the night a clear loser. What the hell was he (not) thinking?
- One more Harris thought: if one of the core questions in this nomination contest is who is badass enough to go head-to-head with Trump – and it is – then Harris just demonstrated that her prosecutorial toughness may be just what the Dems need.
- Andrew Yang boldly wore no tie! no tie! no tie! Unfortunately for him, it went all downhill from there. Still, if he wears spandex bike shorts to the next debate, I’m going to have to vote for him.
- Eric “Pass the Torch!” Swalwell really doesn’t trust people over the age of, uh, 40? 45? What generation is he a member of, anyway? Shut up, ageist millenial snowflake (if that’s what you are), I shouted at the tv in my cracked, middle-aged voice. My other Swalwell thought: apparently, being successful as a regular partisan warrior on MSNBC is not actually a great reason to run for president. Buttigieg’s smooth close – his answers were quite good overall, but his compelling liberal, apple-cheeked choir boy shtick got mostly overshadowed by the Harris-Biden fireworks – made the generational argument ten times better than Swalwell’s heavy handed efforts.
- Marianne Williamson came straight from the Est seminar to channel the ancient wisdom of Ramtha in order to assure us that love will triumph over fear. I’m glad that’s been settled. But now I’m going to dream about dropping acid with her in the White House.
- Bonus extra upshot-of-the-two-nights summation: Warren on Day 1 outshined Crazy Uncle Bernie on Night 2, so her cannibalization of his educated white cosmopolitan progressive base should continue in the short term. But now I’m betting she has real competition from Kamala Harris for the progressive cool chick track. Also, obviously, Biden took a hit tonight. But it’s one, early debate. Hardly fatal. He can easily put this setback in the rear view mirror, but not if he can’t figure out how to explain MUCH BETTER why he did what he did 40 years ago. So overall, Magic 8 Ball says, “the future is uncertain.” But it’s now plausible to imagine both Biden and Bernie fading, and this nomination battle turning into a Warren-Harris showdown. Now that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?
Photo credit: Joe Biden, official photo portrait, Wikimedia Commons.