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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Debate 1, Take 2: Ten More Hot Takes about the Night of Kamala

My 10 hot takes from Night 2 of the first Democratic debate (Night 1’s hot takes can be read here):

Why is this man smiling?
  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik is a political and public affairs consultant in Seattle. In a previous life, he was a staff writer and political columnist at the Stranger, and did a stint as a Washington State correspondent for Time Magazine and for the Boston Globe, back in the olden days when such positions still existed.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I agree that we may well evolve into a Warren-Harris final round. But I still think that there will be a center-left figure to pick up the fallen torch of Biden, and that this candidate will force either Warren or Harris to feint to the center. My wish for that third candidate is Michael Bennet, but I suspect it will be Cory Booker.

    • I think you could be right about Booker. My hope remains that Harris begins to occupy that center lane, while also continuing to appeal to progressives, and therefore isolates Warren on the left. She is the candidate best positioned to pull off a progressive-centrist unification of the party, but (her great night last night notwithstanding) I’m not at all sure she understands that.

  2. Could be Booker – he was pretty strong the first night. But I think we’re seeing a yearning for a new direction and rejection of the center. Which is why we’re seeing – worldwide – significant moves to the edges in the hopes of changing things..

  3. Sandeep you provided a very clear and pithy summary of Thursday night debate’s high points.

    During the debate I tried to track some key words, seeing if any patterns might emerge. I’m still looking through both nights. But one of the first things I checked was to see how the candidates would describe President Trump: Donald Trump, Trump, President Trump, or White House. It would seem that the more aggressive candidates would use Donald Trump or just Trump. All did but the following four:
    Gov. John Hickenlooper – none of the above
    Rep. Eric Swalwell – none of the above
    Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, used President Trump
    Mayor Pete Buttigieg, used White House

    Not sure what this pattern may mean, perhaps nothing.

  4. Nick, that’s an interesting observation about the near unanimity in how they referenced Trump as just “Trump.” As a man, he seems so beneath the office, so it seems to me Democrats have collectively decided he doesn’t deserve to be referred to as “President Trump.”

  5. Harris is getting a very nice polling bump out the debate, and it seems to be coming mostly out of Biden’s hide. Warren is rising too, and the two ladies are now are vying for second place with Bernie, who continues to lose ground. Biden still leads, but he is going to need to do a lot better in the next debate or he’s going to be in real trouble. Right now, a Harris vs. Warren showdown for the nomination seems like it could emerge as a real possibility.

    https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/01/politics/2020-democratic-candidates-poll/index.html

  6. Too much media attention is being given to Harris’s attack on Biden’s credentials in civil rights. Outside of the 26% of the population that considers themselves as “liberal”, this particular past vote is probably not a necessary condition for voting for or against a candidate. It could present future problems for Biden, but it is too early to tell.
    The potentially bigger issue looming ahead for all of the candidates is how to handle the growing demand for cheaper and more accessible health care.
    The media, with the exception of Fox News, has glossed over a potential major Trump opening to attack a Democrat Presidential candidate supporting the abolishment of private insurance. Only four candidates raised their hands in support of that position during the two debate nights: Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Bernie Sanders and Harris. But the next morning, after Harris raised her hand, she reversed her position saying that she misinterpreted the question. That was a smart move. Biden had the better response saying he would build on ObamaCare.
    Biden is old, but he has a keen sense of how significant a national policy adjustment can be made and still be tolerated by the electorate. The other candidates need to start demonstrating that recognition without losing and the progressive wing of the democrats. That is the challenge they all equally face.

    • Nick, I agree with you on your private insurance point. It may well turn out that the most important moment of both nights of the debate will be when Warren raised her hand to say she intends to abolish private insurance. If she turns out to be the nominee, the Republicans are going to do everything in their power to wrap that shot of her raising her hand around her neck to throttle her politically with the 180 million Americans who currently have private insurance. It remains to be seen how much impact that would have with the general election electorate — Warren is going to have to try to turn that attack into a referendum on the popularity of insurance companies — but it would not surprise me at all if that moment comes back to haunt her.

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