Updated at 11 p.m.
WGBH News Political Reporter Adam Reilly and Senior Editor Peter Kadzis, co-hosts of The Scrumpodcast, are providing their real-time analysis of the second Democratic presidential debates. With 20 candidates to sort through over two nights, the goal here is to provide a useful guide to what we are learning about the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination. They also analyzed Wednesday night's debate, which you can catch up on here. It is a bit like Statler and Waldorf — for politics.
Kadzis: The late breaking news from Wednesday's Democratic debate was the dramatic spike in online curiosity about U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran who vehemently opposes "regime change" wars. And this interest, as Vox explained, did not materialize out of left field.
The Gabbard spike demonstrates the fluidity of a primary field that tries mightily to appear normal, but is — in truth — a bit of a freak show. The road to the Democratic nomination this July at the Fiserv Forum in Milwakee is not linear. It's not a series of peaks and valleys. Rather, it's more of a race across a series of ice floes. Treacherous and tricky. Wednesday night, Beto O'Rourke slipped and fell in. It's unclear whether he was eaten by polar bears, who (despite Beto being first with a green manifesto) may resent his many years of fealty to big oil interests.
Who will be tonight's victim — or victims?
All eyes will be on Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, misters one and two in the race to date. And to a lesser extent, that promising young mayor Pete Buttigieg. For my money, the candidate to watch closely will be Sen. Kamala Harris of California. While registering perfectly acceptable performances, Harris has yet to break out from the pack. As anyone who has watched her during the contentious Kavanaugh hearings knows, she can be formidable. Will Harris score tonight as Cory Booker scored last night? For me, that’s the key question.
And then there’s Andrew Yang.
Reilly: Peter, the next time we do this, please remind me not to let you go first. When you get lyrical it establishes expectations that I probably can't meet.
Harris' performance will certainly be worth watching. You're right about her performance in the Kavanaugh hearings: Not only was she one of very few Democrats who performed credibly, she was excellent — a pitch-perfect interrogator. The catch is, in that situation, Harris was the one asking the questions. When she's answering them, she's not nearly as impressive, at least so far; pressed to take a firm position on almost any issue, her default reply is invariably something like, "We need to have a conversation about that." Sounds great! Of course, it's also meaningless. (It's been pointed out to me by a colleague of ours I won't name here that Pete Buttigieg is similarly specifics-averse; the difference, I think, is that he gives more artful non-answers.)
It'll be interesting to see if the other candidates try to highlight this tendency of Harris' and Buttigieg's. It'll also be interesting to see how many times Bernie Sanders talks about how right he was four years ago, as if getting there first on various policy matters (Medicare for All, say) somehow means he's the best candidate for the Dems in 2020. But I don't think there's a subplot that holds a candle to watching to see if Joe Biden implodes, and I think there's a pretty good chance he will. There are so many areas for the moderators and the other candidates to press him: handsiness with women; nostalgia for amiable segregationists; his bizarre conviction that American politics will revert to some kind of imagined bipartisan ideal if and when Donald Trump leaves the White House. At some point tonight, I predict, Biden will say something that leaves people shaking their heads and asking, "What the hell was he thinking?"
Kadzis: Adam, you have Harris and Buttigieg down pat, at least for now. I have to confess that I cannot take Mayor Pete seriously, although I appreciate his act.
We should keep two lines from that cranky dead German, Karl Marx, in mind as we watch. One, history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce." Very apt for tonight. And two, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances."
But don't tell that to Bernie Sanders, who dodges the first question about taxes by touting his Medicare for all and free college plans. Not auspicious. Biden weighs in for slamming (rightly) President Trump's alleged belief that Wall Street is America. The irony is that his former boss, Barack Obama, more or less acted as if Wall Street was more important than Main Street. But then, so did Bill Clinton. Think there could be a theme here? A through line?
Reilly: I was all ready to knock Sanders for dodging the tax question, too. But then he finally acknowledged taxes would go up on the middle class if his healthcare plan becomes a reality — and followed up that admission with a pretty bracing denunciation of President Trump (phony, pathological liar, racist, etc.). The latter, of course, came after he was asked how a self-described socialist could beat Trump in 2020. It was a solid answer.
Some other initial thoughts:
— Pete Buttigieg just can't help himself with the languages.
— Good for Kirsten Gillibrand for forcing her way into the healthcare conversation instead of waiting for it to come to her, which it probably wouldn't have.
— Andrew Yang needs to wake up!
Read more: Fact Check: Claims From Dem Debate, Night 2
Kadzis: One of the many problems with this debate is that the media questioners assume we live in a civics-book society with a functioning legislative branch. We haven't for years. And the current split between the Democratically controlled House and the Republican Senate means that the administrative power of the president is what will matter the most. Each candidate should be asked how they would use the administrative state, the bureaucracy, to achieve their ends. Obama did it with immigration. And Trump is doing it now.
Reilly: Excellent point. Unfortunately, I have to follow it with a much more superficial observation about stagecraft.
In what I've decided to call the Battle of the Old Guys, Sanders is — at this point — winning by a mile. Biden's pushback when Eric Swalwell basically called him an old coot was underwhelming, and won't inspire confidence for voters who let themselves imagine him sharing a debate stage with President Trump. Sanders, meanwhile, has been either the most impassioned candidate up there tonight or one of the top two — the other contender being (I submit) your gal Kamala Harris.
Kadzis: You are doing a better job of focusing than I am.
Sanders is hot, and doing well — by the standards of the last election. But this isn't the last election. Elizabeth Warren, with her relatively specific policy suggestions, appears to be slowly and surely moving into his space. Bernie may be holding onto his old crew. But I don't see him making any new converts.
As for Biden: He's pathetic. If he were just another candidate with about 1 percent support, like Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado, that would be okay. But he looks, well, old. And he acts old. Sanders is more animated than Larry David. (That's a compliment.)
Harris, on the other hand is acting with dignity and focus. As our colleague Kaitlyn Locke just put it, Harris is acting like an adult.
Reilly: Honestly, I can't focus at all. Every time the 10 candidates start yelling at each other all at once, my eye starts to twitch, and I feel like I need to go meditate.
Harris has been a revelation tonight, to the extent that I almost feel like I should apologize for my earlier characterization. I won't, because I'm stubborn and also because I think she wasn't especially strong early in her campaign. But she seems to have grown an incredible amount in a very short period of time. If this debate leaves Democrats wincing as they imagine Biden going against Trump in a series of one-on-one debates, it's going to have them flat-out fantasizing about Harris doing the same. Barring something unexpected, of course.
Kadzis: It is perhaps a weakness of mine that I can't take the good mayor seriously. He reminds me of kids who consciously built up their resume to get into colleges like, well, Harvard.
I must say, you were sharp to note that Trump made my point in a tweet.
I have to make it clear that I abhor Trump's cynical use of the refugees. Daniel Flores, the bishop of Brownsville, Tex., in the Rio Grande Valley said the other day: "The powerful decide who gets thrown away." Trump is actively encouraging the crisis. The Democratic party is passively enabling his behavior by failing — by refusing — to think seriously how to deal with this issue. I myself do not have a bright idea. But I'm not running for president. I expect someone to think, to do something other than spout empty rhetoric.
Last night, I saw some chance that the Democrats might beat Trump. I don't see much chance of that tonight.
Reilly: I've got the zeal of the convert here, clearly, but that exchange between Biden and Harris makes me think the exact opposite. I mean, she basically just commandeered the entire debate — so much for the 30-second rule! — and raked Biden over the coals over his track record on civil rights. Leaving aside the details of her critique (I know you have some points to make there), that was, from a purely rhetorical point of view, a bravura showing.
Kadzis: It was an attack that would have made Richard Nixon proud. When the passions of this moment have passed, history will be more on Biden's side than Harris's. As I've said many times, Biden is an amiable hack. But to paint him as a racist is the sort of big lie that I usually associate with the Mitch McConnell wing of the Republican party.
Harris's attack on Biden may have been effective, but it was unfair. Biden was right to point out that there were two types of school busing: one ordered by federal courts or the department of education, and the other voluntarism adopted by localities such as Berkeley California. If Harris doesn't know this, she should. But why allow the facts to get in the way of a good attack?
No one, especially me, can accuse Biden of being asleep on his feet.
Reilly: Let me switch gears slightly. I'm pretty sure, at this point, that Harris' surge and Biden's slow fade will be the story of the night. But I've also been struck throughout the proceedings at how strong two candidates I literally *never* think about — Michael Bennett and Kirsten Gillibrand — have been. There's some real talent here.
Kadzis: There is real talent here, no doubt. But if The New York Times was accurate, one hour before the debate, they were both polling around 1 percent. Go figure.
By the way, has Yang gone swimming with Beto?
Reilly: I know you hate hypotheticals, but I'm going to run one by you anyway: If Elizabeth Warren had been in this debate, instead of last night's, would it have been better for her campaign?
I honestly don't know the answer, but it's a counterfactual worth pondering. The opportunity to confront Biden directly gave Harris her signature moment to date. It might not have been as emotionally resonant, but just imagine Warren laying into Biden about his antipathy to bankruptcy protections back in the mid-2000s.
Moving forward, though, the question of who does and doesn't get a chance to confront Biden may be moot. I have a feeling this is the beginning of a long, inexorable slide for the VP.
Kadzis: No. Warren benefited by being head and shoulders above all but Cory Booker. Harris playing the race card would have trumped (if you will) Warren playing the special interest card. That would have been a clean shot.
This debate is a reflection of the preoccupations of the political class. Biden doesn't fit in. There is a reason he is popular with Democrats over 45, and much less so with those under 45.
Reilly: Well, that's a wrap. I have a modest proposal for the next round of debates, which I believe are coming in July: Put the top 10 candidates in one event, and the bottom 10 in another. And then make a point of letting them query each other, instead of playing weird word games with Chuck Todd. These two debates were both pretty good, and changed the way I think about the field and the race. But it's time for a new approach.
Kadzis: It's time for a new approach. Any candidate with less that 5 percent support in the polls should withdraw. Right now.
As for tonight, Harris was the clear winner. Biden was the clear loser. And Sanders was, well, clearly himself. He's off in his own universe and will probably emerge from this debate much as he entered it — as a great and interesting candidate for 2016.