|Editor’s note: The Crystal Ball will be away next week for Independence Day. We wish all of you a safe and enjoyable holiday.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Do not necessarily assume that this first debate will dramatically reshape the Democratic primary race.
— The biggest moment from either night was almost certainly Kamala Harris’ attack on Joe Biden.
— The leftward shift of many Democrats may be heartening to the president as he tries to turn a referendum election into a choice election.
Referendum or choice in 2020?
The opening two debates of what Democrats hope is the 2020 Donald Trump Demolition Derby are in the books. Ultimately, the polls and maybe the upcoming donation totals will tell us whether there were any clear winners, and whether the debate changed anything.
We are now in what feels like a disorienting part of a four-year presidential cycle featuring a presidential incumbent. Even though any president is essentially the center of the American political universe — particularly Donald Trump, who insists on dominating the day-to-day news — he is strangely sidelined in the race that will produce his opponent. Other than the State of the Union, the regularly-scheduled big primetime political events of the next year — the debates, and the caucus and primary results — will not include him as a major participant, in all likelihood. On one hand, that’s great for the president: He has a clear path to renomination. On the other hand, Trump — like Barack Obama at this same point in the political calendar eight years ago — has to share the spotlight with a huge number of competitors.
Then again, the president may enjoy what he’s hearing. Three of the leading candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders — raised their hand when asked if they would abolish private insurance as part of a Medicare-for-all plan. One wonders if that would be a position that’s a bridge too far in a general election: a lesson of the last three decades seems to be that proposing change from the health care status quo is politically problematic. Republicans also will use the concept of providing health care coverage for undocumented people against the eventual Democratic nominee.
The next election may be similar to the last couple of elections featuring incumbent presidents: 2004 and 2012. The incumbents those years, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wanted the election to be a choice between them or their challengers; the challengers, John Kerry and Mitt Romney, respectively, wanted the election to be a referendum on the incumbent. Bush and Obama found enough cracks in their opponents that they avoided the kind of straight referendum that could have doomed either. Trump is clearly trying to make this election a choice, too; if it’s a referendum on him, he probably won’t win, given his middling approval ratings. It may be that the policies some of the Democrats support give Trump weapons to use as he tries to present the election as a choice.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – the candidate who will emerge to be the alternative to Trump remains a mystery. Here’s what we thought of every candidate over the two nights of debates:
Vice President Joe Biden: The former vice president was the quasi-incumbent on stage. Standing right behind him was the outline of Barack Obama, still enormously popular among Democrats. Just as you would expect, Biden invoked Obama to good effect on several occasions, but Biden was forced to own his pre-vice presidential years all by himself. Biden escaped unmentioned and unharmed the first night, but once present, he wasn’t so lucky. Bernie Sanders made sure the audience recalled that Biden voted for the Iraq war and Sanders voted against. Michael Bennet clocked Biden for a compromise with Mitch McConnell that preserved the Bush tax cuts. But it was Kamala Harris who memorably confronted Biden about the vice president’s praise for segregationist senators with whom he had worked in his early Senate career (Biden denied his comments were praise). Harris powerfully reproached Biden for his opposition to school busing to achieve racial balance in the 1970s, noting that she had benefitted from busing. It was another time and place, and older observers (including one of us) recall that plenty of Democrats were damaged or defeated because of their support of busing, which was greatly unpopular among whites and also disliked by many blacks, because it limited extracurricular activities and resulted in many students leaving home very early and returning home after dark. But none of that matters now, and Biden is paying a price. Biden didn’t answer these criticisms well, and some of his staff privately said he hadn’t followed the script they’d devised. Yet while Biden didn’t soar, we doubt he was fatally damaged by any of this. Nonetheless, as frontrunner, Biden can look forward to many more attacks. Whether this sharpens Biden for the campaign against Trump (should he win the nomination) or deconstructs Biden on his way to losing the Democratic nod, we cannot guess.
California Sen. Kamala Harris: As just suggested, Harris was widely viewed as the winner of the second night’s debate since she managed to corner Biden while most of her rivals steered clear of challenging the former vice president. Some critics found her to be too hard-edged, even mean, but that was not a view widely shared among Democratic pols and pundits. Simply put, Harris is a contender. We’ll be surprised if she doesn’t show movement in the next round of polls. Harris’s objective is clear. She needs to shake or split Biden’s strong African-American support so she can scoop it up (presumably, though Cory Booker and others have a different plan for those voters). At the very least, debate watchers in July and beyond are going to pay close attention every time she has the floor.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: The irascible independent senator came off almost exactly the same as he did in the 2016 debates: Aggressively liberal and on message, and confident in his beliefs. The difference is that the surroundings around him have completely changed: He is no longer the sole alternative to Hillary Clinton, but rather just one of many options for Democratic voters. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders are going to come into conflict sooner rather than later given that they are directly competing for the same liberal bloc of the electorate. From that standpoint, the pair being split in this first round is only delaying what may be inevitable.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Gillibrand tried to inject some issues of importance to herself, and many Democrats, into the overall conversation, such as abortion rights, but it’s hard to see how her underwhelming candidacy will get a jolt from this first debate.
South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “Mayor Pete” displayed many of the attributes — such as introspection and intellect — that won him attention and praise over the past several months and allowed him to surpass many Democratic pols with better resumes. He is often compared to Beto O’Rourke –- his rise probably came at some expense to O’Rourke’s numbers — and Buttigieg impressed more than O’Rourke did on Wednesday (more on the former Texas Senate candidate below). However, it felt like the action in this debate was elsewhere, and his already very long odds of winning meaningful black support have not been helped by a recent officer-involved shooting in South Bend that he tried to show contrition for during the debate. For all of Buttigieg’s progress, he either needs to attract many more liberals to his side (and he may be blocked in doing so by Warren and Sanders) or many more black voters (where he is blocked by Biden and probably Harris and Booker, among others). So we’re struggling to find a path for him even as he ranks among the better-polling candidates.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet: If the eventual Democratic nominee is someone other than a white male, Bennet may very well get a look as a running mate. He displayed both knowledge of the issues and a bit of fire and passion in discussing them; he also mixed it up with Biden to some positive effect, as noted above.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper must be very frustrated because his credentials equal or exceed anybody else’s on stage, except for Joe Biden. He was a successful mayor of a major city, Denver, and then a durable, popular two-term governor of Colorado. Yet he hasn’t found his niche in this presidential race, and so far is a minor figure — a status very probably unchanged by the debate. Snappy soundbites are not his strength, nor is he inclined to interrupt others — normally praiseworthy but unhelpful in the dog-eat-dog world of politics.
California Rep. Eric Swalwell: The debate was probably the first time most Americans have laid eyes on him, and the impression was likely favorable. Unlike most of the others, Swalwell is not afraid to lighten up a bit when the opportunity presents itself, and his responses are pointed and often effective. Like Buttigieg and Gabbard, he is young and uses that to his advantage, quoting Joe Biden (quoting John F. Kennedy) about “passing the torch to a new generation of Americans.” Having said all this, the California congressman doesn’t have the money or standing to become one of the top contenders, and his oxygen is being sucked away by fellow Californian Kamala Harris.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock: The successful vote-getter from Montana spoke to… oh wait, he actually wasn’t there. Instead…
Former tech executive Andrew Yang: A single-issue candidate who seems to have devoted support in at least some corners of the Internet, Yang actually came across as a fairly normal and reasonable person pushing the idea of a universal basic income. That said, Yang also didn’t really stand out compared to the other nonpolitician on the stage…
Author Marianne Williamson: Whatever we write about her will not be as funny as what the late-night shows and The Onion come up with. We will defer to them.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: It seemed like she would dominate the debate in the early going, as the moderators routinely went back to her. But then she was largely ignored in the second half, although she closed the night with what we thought was a powerful concluding statement that encapsulated her worldview: government played a powerful role in her life, and can play a powerful role for others. Whether one agrees with her, she has a plan, or plans, to make government do precisely that, and she summed it up in 45 seconds effectively.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: A couple of months ago, many of us were wondering why Warren’s campaign didn’t seem to be taking off. Now that Warren has emerged as one of the frontrunners, it’s been reasonable to wonder the same thing about Booker, who like Warren is a nationally prominent member of the Senate. Maybe Booker can get going following the first debate, when he got the most speaking time — though still only about 10 minutes out of two hours.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar: As much as anyone else, Klobuchar needs Biden to fall apart fast so she can try to step into the vacuum his collapse would create among the less liberal voters in the party. That she didn’t even get to share the stage with him may have been bad luck. Her contributions on the debate stage were perfectly fine, but not very memorable.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro: Generally an inert presence in the campaign so far, Castro ended up getting a surprising amount of time and seemed to make the most of it. The Associated Press’s Alexandra Jaffe noted Thursday morning that Castro parlayed his well-reviewed debate showing into a bunch of additional media appearances. For successful candidates, the debates need to be a springboard to something else. Could it be for Castro? Has he now eclipsed his fellow Texan, O’Rourke, to inherit the money and votes in the Lone Star State?
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke: One of us has been arguing that O’Rourke had a real chance to shine during these crowded debates given his rhetorical talents. natural charisma, and experience debating Ted Cruz. It’s hard to argue that he did, at least in his first appearance. He appeared nervous and intimidated by Castro and de Blasio — not a presidential image, to be sure.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: It is possible that Gabbard was a hidden winner of the evening, given that she ended up being the leading candidate in Google search trends on Wednesday. However, such searches do not necessarily equate support: Williamson, for instance, led on Thursday night. Here’s the thing: If Gabbard has true and growing support, we’ll look for it in the polls. We also thought she got the better of Tim Ryan during their back and forth on American involvement in Afghanistan, and there is undoubtedly a constituency on the left (and the right) for Gabbard’s anti-interventionist stances. Like any other candidate, if she does emerge a bit from the pack, she will face more scrutiny, both on her curious relationship with the Assad regime in Syria and her past anti-LGBTQ stances (both of which were mentioned during Wednesday’s debate).
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan: Speaking of Ryan, we thought he had some decent moments but didn’t quite nail his discussion of the Lordstown, OH GM plant closing (which essentially provides the rationale for his candidacy). Ryan did provide something different on stage — a candidate making an explicit argument about the Democratic Party’s decline with white voters in small towns and rural areas (a trend that was exacerbated by Trump but also precedes the incumbent’s presidential candidacy) — but it’s also hard to say Ryan made a lasting impression.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Climate change did not get much attention at the first debate. That’s probably not a great thing for the candidate who has premised his campaign around the topic. Remarkably, the only state governor on stage was unable to assert himself to grab his fair share of time because the moderates weren’t going to give it to him. His five minutes of airtime was smaller than any other participant that night.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: We give de Blasio credit for one thing: The fringe candidates need to make their own time or else they will be ignored. De Blasio butted in whenever he could. That said, he seemed arrogant and pushy and, all in all, he didn’t come across as very appealing, and he made a boneheaded move on Thursday when he used a rallying cry associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Miami, a city whose politics has long been influenced by anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Oops.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney: Closing now?
Yes, we are.
OK, more fairly, Delaney had a lot to say from a moderate perspective and has honed his appeal during near constant-campaigning for many months, but he just didn’t seem to fit on this presidential stage. No offense, Rep. Delaney, we don’t fit either, and 99% of our fellow citizens wouldn’t make the cut.