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Last Night’s Debate Was Likely the Farewell for Several Campaigns

Booker, Steyer, Yang and Gabbard may not qualify for the next debate.

Democratic presidential hopefuls participate in the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 20, 2019.

After 11 hours of impeachment hearings earlier in the day, the seemingly endless spectacle of the Democratic presidential debates continued last night. It was, in contrast to some of the previous contests, a relatively muted affair. Certainly, it didn’t have the fireworks quality that the day’s impeachment hearing testimonies provided.

By and large, there weren’t the sorts of nasty personal attacks that marked some of the earlier debates and which risk providing the Republicans with ready-made sound bites to turn on the eventual candidate come the general election. The candidates’ anger was saved, in the main, for throwing scorn on Trump and his autocratic vision of governance.

As a result, the Atlanta debate was generally less a knife-fight (with certain notable exceptions, such as Cory Booker remarking that Joe Biden might have been high when he opposed legalizing marijuana and a standoff on foreign policy between Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard) and more a discussion of ideas. It was, in part, about gradations: how much and how fast to expand healthcare access; how large an existential crisis climate change is; who can claim to being the most supportive of women’s rights; or who has the most ambitious plan to tax the rich and use the windfall to build up community infrastructure.

At this point, it’s hard to see what each candidate can say that’s truly new. They’ve been around this particular block too many times in recent months. We know that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the two most progressive candidates in the room, that they are comfortable pitching big-picture reforms to the tax code and to the healthcare system, to the problem of big money in politics, and that they are willing to support a bigger, bolder Green New Deal than are the others; that Sanders wants to begin implementing universal health care in week one of his presidency; and that he favors a far less interventionist, militarily aggressive foreign policy than do establishment political figures such as Joe Biden. We know that Biden and Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are duking it out for the moderate middle, pitching more incremental healthcare reforms and less ambitious environmental efforts. That Harris, Tom Steyer, Booker and Andrew Yang are simply trying to keep themselves in play. And that Gabbard is the one candidate who will unapologetically sit down to talk with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

What’s revealing in these debates is now really less what each candidate says than how they say it; who tag teams with who; who snipes at who; who manages to corner more time for themselves on the crowded stage; and who comes off as having the gravitas of a front-runner.

With that said, unlike in earlier debates, where Biden and then Warren were perceived as clear front runners and were thus piled onto by many of the other candidates, in Atlanta, no one occupied that dubious spot.

Many national polls still show Biden leading the field, followed by Sanders and Warren in a near-tie. Buttigieg seems to have pulled ahead in polling for the Iowa caucus, but he’s certainly not a national front-runner yet. This race is, as all the polls suggest, still wide open. Perhaps as a result of that flux, no one candidate was able to claim an inordinate amount of speaking time on the Atlanta stage. No one candidate was really forced by the others to go into fight mode to defend their policy ideas, although some moments of serious confrontation emerged over race – with Harris and Booker taking Buttigieg and Biden to task – and briefly over foreign policy (notably between Harris and Gabbard), as well as the usual showdown over Medicare for All.

Biden foundered at times, and had one crushingly bad moment, declaring, ““I come out of the Black community, in terms of my support” and saying “the only African American woman that has ever been elected to the United States Senate” had endorsed him. (Harris pointed out that she, another African American woman elected to the Senate, has not endorsed him and was standing on the same stage with him as he misspoke.) However, at some moments, such as when he lambasted Trump for not standing up for human rights at the United Nations, for not distancing himself from the Saudi regime, or more vocally criticizing China’s appalling treatment of the Uighurs, Biden performed far better than in previous debates.

Sanders vigorously defended his signature issue, Medicare for All, and also spoke forcefully about the environment, about voter protection, about Citizens United, about the importance of men stepping up to the plate to help protect reproductive rights, and even about the human rights of Palestinians (an issue untouched by other candidates). He was animated and unapologetic in his support for wholesale change.

Buttigieg was calm, and managed to project leadership skills, as well as to lay claim to a certain small-town, common sense, pragmatic governance. There was less of a sound-bite, Teflon quality to him than in previous debates, and he spoke compellingly on U.S. heartland issues, such as farm subsidies, as well as in discussing how his personal identity as a gay man gave him insight into how discrimination impacted people; yet, despite this, he seemed somewhat tentative in his discussions of racial issues.

And Klobuchar, who has, for me, been the surprise of recent debates, inserted herself into a number of the bigger policy discussions, and made an extremely eloquent pitch for why it’s well past time for a woman to be elected president. The Minnesota senator looks like she doesn’t have the poll numbers to make a serious end run for the nomination, but she may be eyed as a strong vice-presidential contender at the end of this drawn-out primary and caucus process.

Warren, too, when she spoke, more than held her own. She was, as always, passionate in her arguments and specific in her policy solutions. But she was somewhat muted last night, speaking less often and at less length, and with less of a dominating presence, than in previous debates. She came off as one of many this time around, rather than as the lead contender. Whatever the reason for this, Warren probably didn’t lose supporters with this performance, but she probably didn’t gain many, either.

Harris, Booker, Steyer, Yang and Gabbard didn’t have the stand-out performances that they need at this point to remain viable going into the final sprint toward the Iowa caucuses. Harris has already qualified for the December debate, but I’d guess, from last night’s performances, that the others in this group will struggle to do so.

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