Biden was decent relative to his usual limbo-bar low standard. That said, he opened with a painful and awkward response about how he and his son did nothing wrong-when his son had apologized and he had proposed legislation to limit conflicts of interest. He tried to shift the focus to Trump but fumbled around. Not really reassuring going into a general election where Trump will do nothing but hammer him about it. The rest of the debate went better, with emphatic points about foreign policy, good reminders that he has actually accomplished some of the big ideas candidates are espousing, and effective criticism of the cost of Medicare for All. However, the opening bit will probably the most important question for him.
Warren took heat from a number of other candidates. This may mark the end of the honeymoon period for her, as her media coverage has been so favorable the media has begun criticizing itself over it. It’ll be interesting to see how she handles it; it’s always a little easier to run in second and draft off the leader. I think she had a few weak points — she really emphasized her Trumpy trade policy, blaming “bad trade deals” rather than automation for killing jobs, which seems out of touch with at least some of her base (though maybe not in Iowa?) as well as being inaccurate and made Yang’s followup look more forward thinking. While I am sick to death of the debate question of why-won’t-she-just-say-she’ll-raise-taxes-to-pay-for-health-care, it came up again and does make her look evasive, and Buttegieg immediately skewered her for it.
Pete Buttegieg came out shooting. He effectively used sharp, no-more-Mr.-Nice-Mayor attacks on lofty plans like Beto’s mandatory gun buyback proposal. Then he switched it up with hopeful rhetoric on unity and how we needed to move forward as a nation. I think it worked and he looked like he belonged in the top group. His calls on viewers to imagine the country after Trump may have been slyly getting users to imagine him as the President. I think if Biden’s support caves he may be best positioned to pick up moderates, though he still struggles with African-Americans so it’s unclear where they’d head. I actually saw him live in LA and was less impressed with him in person than I am on TV; he tends to over elucidate points rather than delivering points succinctly and strongly (a criticism which it pains me to make, obviously). On TV, his small but intense facial expressions and exact answers come across better.
Bernie was Bernie. A totally solid performance of the same positions we have all now heard for years. If you don’t know what Bernie’s position on Medicare for All is who are you and how did you get here? I actually liked his response to a question on UBI — emphasizing how much unmet need there is for teachers, construction workers, doctors and a laundry list of other professions — though it came with the promise of a federal jobs guarantee, a huge, undefined and impractical solution that was effectively punctured by Yang afterwards.
Yang did well. He has a knack for attention getting and I think that his newest gambit — a 10 hour marathon live-streamed Q&A — will help build his internet generation appeal and base. As I’ve said before, I tend to disagree with his basic diagnosis and solution, but I think he typically answers the questions well and seems forward-thinking and well-differentiated. I think he should make the last 5 with Biden/Sanders/Warren/Pete.
Kamala Harris was passionate but I thought it was cringe when she tried to outflank Warren by attacking her for not calling for twitter to kick off Trump.
Gabbard was terrible, condemning the US for waging a “regime change war” in Syria — and repeating that phrase at least two dozen times like she was trying to kill someone participating in an incredibly boring drinking game. It’s awkward where she says she is against Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds but also has been calling for withdrawals for months or years. Her inability to distinguish between maintaining a troop presence or preventing genocide and “endless war” is painful on her signature issue.
Steyer, presumably there to literally embody money in politics, should not have been there at all. He was a boring presence basically echoing generic points and not making a strong case for why he should be the candidate — but to be fair, there isn’t one. Fortunately, he didn’t get to talk much.
Klobuchar tried to get the audience to imagine her debating Trump a lot, but kinda came across as someone who just fantasized about debating Trump in her room, delivering lines into a hairbrush. She was again acceptable and had some good answers but wasn’t memorable. She’s like the fifth outfielder on the bench. It feels like if she is able to grow it’ll be from ground game in Iowa where after 3 hours of contentious caucuses everyone agrees she is a solid third choice.
Booker mentioned he was a vegan twice. When trying to appeal to the vegan demographic, 0.5% of the country, is a move to increase your polls you know you are in trouble. I feel like he hasn’t gotten enough love in this election but now he just feels like he is flailing for toeholds. He talked loudly about how men needed to be more pro-choice. I feel like he’s the perfect boyfriend in a show like Insecure who the protagonist messes things up with.
This is the point where I struggle to remember who the other two are…
Oh yeah, Beto! He felt like he came out worse during exchanges with Buttegieg and reverted to his pre “fuck it” era of being kinda moderate energy and forgettable. He worked references to Texas and El Paso into a lot of answers so my hope is that he goes back and becomes a representative or mayor or something soon.
And the empirically most forgettable candidate of this debate is…
Julian Castro! I was afraid it was going to be someone big and just my bad memory, but he definitely earned this title. A little in line with the Booker category: not sure why he never caught on but at some point you gotta pack it in. I wonder if these folks are hoping that maybe if they stay in long enough their endorsement will mean something?
Anyway, those are my hot takes before they cool off too much. Tomorrow we’ll see if the polling agrees, disagrees, or completely ignores the debate’s existence like it does 95% of the time. Good night!