Sure, there were some fiery moments in the sixth televised Democratic debate in Los Angeles, but when the cameras shut down the contours of the race remained largely the same as they were when the night began. The big take away: No one screwed up — and any skirmishes that occurred were fought to a draw. Here are some additional thoughts:
1. With fewer candidates on stage, the lesser candidates (in terms of poll numbers!) seized the moment. Tom Steyer has been an afterthought for most of the campaign, but he was unexpectedly strong Thursday, arguing that his business record makes him uniquely equipped to take on Trump, stressing the need for creative engagement with China when it comes to climate change, and noting that the Trump Administration’s opposition to immigration is focused on nonwhite people. And while it was less unexpected — he is, after all, the cult favorite of the 2020 Dems — Andrew Yang was strong throughout. His take on the need for female leaders may have been the line of the night: “The fact is, if you get too many men alone and leave us alone for a while, we kind of become morons.” We’d argue, but…
2. Three frontrunners entered, three frontrunners left. Going into the debate, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, the Big Three candidates were Joe Biden (leading nationwide); Pete Buttigieg (leading in Iowa); and Bernie Sanders (leading in New Hampshire). Little transpired that seems likely to change that, despite Elizabeth Warren working hard to remind people why, for a fleeting moment, and before the announcement of her $20 trillion healthcare plan, she’d been the Democratic frontrunner. Still, it was hard to escape the impression that the three men in front are still looking over their shoulders at Warren. Nobody has forgotten that she was a pacesetter, and she’s still looking for a way to get back to the front of the pack.
3. The Democrats still haven’t wrapped their heads around Donald Trump’s appeal. Judy Woodruff kicked off the debate with a sharp, timely question: Why don’t more Americans back Donald Trump’s impeachment? It was a terrific opportunity for every Democrat on stage, since the party’s eventual nominee will have to woo at least some Trump voters to win. A keen understanding of what made them Trump voters in the first place will make that a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, as a group, the Dems seemed either not to have considered the source of Trump’s appeal or not to be interested in discussing it. Neither scenario is particularly encouraging for the party. The only Democrat who even took a crack at answering was Andrew Yang, who said Trump’s 2016 win hinged not on Hillary Clinton, or Russian interference, but on the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs. The argument itself was dubious — anti-Clinton animus and racial backlash sparked by the first black president seem, in retrospect, like key factors in Trump’s win — but at least Yang gets credit for giving it a shot. The other Democrats would be wise to follow suit.
4. Buttigieg has a problem with the women in the race, and it seems to be getting nasty. The mayor was smart to take on Warren when she was the frontrunner, and he was smart to go for the jugular: policy — specifically, healthcare. By doing so, he reshaped the race. But when he went after Warren tonight, for her holier-than-though attitude about fundraising, it didn't quite click. If anything, it felt excessive. The Buttigieg-Amy Klobuchar tussle was even sharper, and resolved to his detriment when she gave him a rhetorical slap upside the head, basically calling him a political toddler compared to the members of the U.S. Senate on the debate stage. Buttigieg already has a problem with African-American voters; if he alienates Democratic women, he’s lost a good chunk of the coalition he’d need to become president.
5. Biden had a strong, solid night. For months now, Biden has been a walking political paradox: the strongest Democrat in the national polls, and the Democrat Trump seems to fear most. But, he’s also been shaky and erratic. But tonight may have been his best debate yet. He showed off his foreign-policy chops, making it clear that he opposed the Afghanistan surge and speaking with authority of ordering 60 percent of the American fleet to the Pacific to send a message to China. For good measure, he offered a stirring defense of the growing Latino presence in the US. It was a performance befitting a frontrunner.
6. The Sanders-Warren détente continues. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that either Sanders or Warren can win Iowa without peeling away a significant number of the other’s supporters. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Sanders could solidify his position as that state’s frontrunner by pulling away some Warren loyalists — or she could rejuvenate her campaign by convincing the Sanders faithful that she’s the better bet. In other words, Sanders and Warren have every incentive in the world to stop treating each other with kid gloves. But they continue to do so. In this debate, the sharpest dig either leveled at the other was Sanders’ oblique suggestion that, while he hasn’t taking any money from billionaires, Warren may have. (For the record, he didn’t actually mention her by name.) There’s still time for these two progressive darlings to go at each other, but what if they don’t? That scenario used to seem improbable. It doesn’t anymore.