What Changed? What Did We Learn?
We Who are About to Die Salute You
The 9th Democratic Presidential Debate held in Las Vegas was quite different. It had a manageable number of candidates (six), so more time for direct candidates’ cross talk. Mike Bloomberg had his first round in such a forum. The knives were out pretty much all around. So much for playing nicely with each other.
For a minute there, I thought I was watching a replay of a Sharks vs Jets scene from West Side Story. And over it all, the omnipresent shadow of the clock – we are in the stage wherein things begin moving quickly. I kept thinking, some may be on their last or next to the last round of competition coming out of this. Thus the Roman gladiator line above. Some are about to die.
As a coincidence, I took part in a conference call earlier on the debate day with David Gergen. He has worked in four administrations, of both parties. I find him to be a practical yet comprehensive observer of the best and the worst in American politics. His comments were in mind as I watched the debate that night.
Pundits are a dime a dozen, but I may as well add a few of my observations. For a change, I seem to line up a bit more with most commentators this round, but surely not all. If only they had read my comments first….
Some Candidates Had a Very Good Night
Whether I agreed with them or see them as viable, three candidates had strong nights:
Elizabeth Warren – Where has this Elizabeth Warren been? She clearly knew her material. She was effective in attacking everyone but the ushers. Warren had a very effective delivery that connected well. One minute she was tearing into Klobuchar, the next minute she was defending her. It was an approach through the evening that threw her opponents off balance.
It was the best night she has had in quite a few debates. She still is being squeezed out on the left by Sanders and has to convince the center she is a good candidate. But I thought she likely bought some time for her campaign last night.
Pete Buttigieg – Mayor Pete generally does well in these things. These are exceeded only by his town hall sessions (he had a great one on CNN this week). But this round may have been his best.
His opening comments were the best of anyone’s this night. He inflicted real harm on Sanders and Bloomberg. His attacks on Klobuchar agitated her and threw her off. Throughout the debate he seemed, calm, rational, and thoughtful. The man sounded presidential.
Joe Biden– Remember him? This performance left me asking, “Where the heck has this guy been?” Not a perfect night, but strong. Good content, moderately successful attacks on others, pretty solid content.
I expect he earned some points on this round with voters who watched. If he does well in Nevada and South Carolina, he is back in the hunt. If not, he is toast – I doubt that Super Tuesday could save him in that latter scenario.
Some Had Not Such a Good Night
These three had some good moments, but overall, I thought they did themselves little good.
Bernie Sanders – Some pundits thought he did pretty well. I disagree. He sounded pedantic and, as always, angry. We heard nothing new not only in ideas but in the exact same wording on about everything. Most telling, he failed to respond adequately on four criticisms leveled at him. One, the conduct of his most aggressive supporters. His basic response was he was not responsible, and we should see some of the abuse his folks take.
This was a problem in his 2016 campaign, and it is worse now. He owns this problem and is not dealing with it. Those doing this stuff think his criticisms are a wink. Heck, he even hinted all this might be Russian trolls. There likely are some of those in this mix, but that is not the problem. Second, he has now decided we don’t need to see his medical records, only letters from doctors who work for him. Really? How Trumpian is that?
Third, he lagged forever in getting his taxes out earlier, and only did a short range of them. Again, feels too Trumpian for my taste. Fourth, still no clue on the cost of his Medicare Plan for All. Nor any more on how to pay for it beyond taxes to replace some insurance costs.
When asked how he would address polls that show over 65% of voters are not comfortable with a democratic socialist, he replied he leads in the polls. The 65% represents all voters. His lead is among a much smaller population of engaged voters, and he has the support of less than 1 in 3 of those.
Overall, not a good performance, but aided by the pass others gave him to concentrate on Bloomberg.
Amy Klobuchar – I have always found much to admire here. A lot of people liked her passion in this round. But I thought she sounded alternately petulant and condescending. It was not nearly as good a performance as the previous outing. I will give her credit, not the first time, for the funniest line of the night. When told by Warren that Klobuchar’s health plan could fit on a post-it note, Amy protested: Hey, I resent that. Post-it Notes were invented in my state!
I suspect Klobuchar’s late surge is too late. I doubt if she survives Super Tuesday, but I bet she is on the short list for VP of more than one candidate. She has a lot to contribute in the years ahead, no matter what happens this year.
Mike Bloomberg – Being the Target du Jour was to be expected, and boy, did that come through. Give Warren credit for a masterful attack right up front. Bloomberg should not have been expected to do great – this is not his kind of thing. But he should have done better than he did. He has a week to polish his game or suffer some real slippage.
Two interesting phenomena to consider.
One, many voters in Nevada and South Carolina have already early voted. This means that those who did well in the debate will not get the bounce they would want. Bloomberg is not even on those ballots, so his damage is limited.
But two, a lot of Super Tuesday voters are already voting, too. This latest debate, and the next one only days away, might be factors. Most voters are not paying much attention yet. Bloomberg’s ads may well carry more weight than his debate performance in many areas, so for him, this might be a wash.
On the one hand, it is past time to thin the field – as in to 1 or 2 left standing, so the fight that broke out on stage is likely due. Minimize the free ammunition provided to the opposition for November, please. Criticisms thrown in the Spring will be rebroadcast with glee by others in the Fall.
How all this ends up likely depends in the end on what the now rather crowded center does. If everyone now running continues up until the Summer, there likely will be a price to pay.
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