Hearing them out: The Post-Impeachment Hearing Democratic Debate Recap

Toby Muresianu
Nov 21, 2019 · 9 min read
Cory Booker sings “If I ruled the world”

The latest Democratic debate from Atlanta is in the books, and it was pretty good. The candidates have all done this before (and probably have a group text without Tom Steyer). The moderators were good, with about 80% quality questions…and then asking if the candidates would tear down the wall already built (what, all eight feet of it?). Billed as a free for all against the surging Pete Buttigieg or a forum on the bombshell impeachment hearings, it was…neither, mostly a cordial discussion albeit with a few saved shots lending fireworks towards the end. Here’s how our contenders fared.

Joe Biden. It feels like his mouth is a slot machine, where a few sentences randomly spin together and gaffes spill out (usually). He made it most of the way pretty decently, although he seems incapable of finishing a sentence without interrupting himself four times (galaxy brain: the other debaters can’t interrupt me if I interrupt me). I do think he has under-appreciated appeal in helping downballot races, which he finally highlighted, and authenticity in making campaign promises he can actually deliver on — and which are genuinely big deals. Public option! Nationally decriminalized weed! Universal Pre-K! These would be huge home runs barely imaginable not long ago, and we should not forget that. However, he responded to a question on #MeToo (dangerous territory for him already) by saying we need to end a culture of domestic violence by “punching at it and punching at it and punching at it.” Then he responded to an attack by Booker questioning what he would do for black voters by saying awkwardly “I come out of a black community…in terms of my support” and basically listing black friends. He then claimed he was endorsed by the “only African-American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate” and was quickly corrected by Kamala Harris, the other African-American woman who’s been elected to the United States Senate (no word on her endorsement, but I’m pessimistic). Time will tell whether this chips away at his support among the black community, but if it was going to happen in any debate it was probably this one — at a historically black university with Booker and Harris delivering good performances in contrast.

Kamala Harris —as you may have guessed, she did well. She was teed up with an opportunity to attack Buttigieg for his stumbles with the African American community and tactfully resisted, instead emphatically making the broader point that Democratic politicians thank black women for showing up for them but don’t always show up for them in turn. She got applause for this, handled Biden’s gaffes with humor and aplomb, and was generally confident and poised. On a day when people had law on the mind, she reminded people of her viral moments questioning Kavanaugh and others — while escaping mentions of the thornier parts of her prosecutorial background. If she was there to make a case for a second look, she did a great job of it; we’ll see if she gets one.

Cory Booker — also did a good job. After being blocked out of the conversation on race (because the moderators went to Warren for some reason, or maybe 1/1024th of one), he nimbly picked up the ball a minute later in a highlight-reel exchange. He lead by saying he knew a few things about black voters, since he’d been one since he was 18 — getting laughs — then subtly shaded Buttigieg without naming him by emphasizing the need for an authentic connection with African Americans to win. He then pivoted to Biden’s recent comments against national legalization of marijuana, asking if he was high when he said it and getting laughs again. Biden had a totally reasonable response about how he was for decriminalization and record expungement, but his followup black-endorsement gaffe overshadowed it and will make sure the episode sticks in people’s memories. Booker has done consistently well in these debates and it’s surprising that he has not done better in polls, though some figures credit his and Harris’s lack of traction in the black community with the crowded field: Biden wins older voters because of loyalty to Obama and because they know him, and Sanders wins younger ones with free college, drug legalization and having run continuously since 2016.

Pete Buttigieg — After surging into a lead in Iowa and contention in New Hampshire, pundits said he had a target on his back. With few candidates from the bottom 20 (or whatever) able to break out, he’s managed to — now the question is if he keeps rising, plateaus, or falls back down to earth. He got through it reasonably well, without any big blows; he was probably grateful the only vicious attacks came at the hands of Tulsi Gabbard, a highly unpopular figure within Democratic primary voters (condemning the Democratic party in front of them can do that). She tried to attack him by saying he would send troops to Mexico, which he responded to with disbelief and saying she was taking his remarks wildly out of context — and hitting back for her meetings with Assad, drawing applause in the room. She then asked people to fact check him. Well, if you’re asking! His comments — according to an article on a forum with Latino voters the other day — came in response to a question on whether he would station troops in Mexico:

“There is a scenario where we could have security cooperation,” Buttigieg said, adding, “I’d only order American troops into conflict if American lives were on the line and if it was necessary to meet treaty obligations.”

According to the article, he then added he would “make drug trafficking less profitable by walking away from the failed war on drugs here in the United States” and his campaign clarified he’d only use troops as a “last resort” in response to Mexican cartel violence or an outside threat that endangers the country’s security.

I’ll let you make the call — seems to me like a question he was probably addressing on the fly with a sort of squishy response. Not a worrisome position to me but maybe a small testament to lacking national experience, which other candidates jabbed him for more effectively. He responded to those with a canned response about how he only didn’t have “Washington” experience. I don’t know how effective this will be (maybe it’ll work in Iowa); I didn’t find it super authentic, but I’m used to it as a generic argument used in debates. I did think he had some reasonable points about having to address firsthand as mayor the everyday issues in small cities that national politicians opine about constantly, and I don’t think lacking national political experience is a huge liability in an election where his opponent will had none of any kind, so I’m not that worried about it.

Elizabeth Warren — I’m going to speed up now because I feel like time’s running out in a high school test and I’ve written way too much about the first few questions. Totally solid performance — wonder if she was grateful not to be attacked as directly given her (temporary?) reprieve from being the frontrunner. She’s a pro. She did take some shots for her maybe-unrealistic wealth tax, and do have a pet peeve about her calling it a “2 cent” tax when she should be saying “2 percent” — and be mentioning that it’s actually up to 6 percent annually now that she has added additional taxes to fund universal health care, which she should be mentioning if she is proud of them enough to include them in her plans.

Bernie Sanders — Similarly solid. Agree or disagree, these two have been pretty solid and charismatic in all these debates — now that I think of it, that may be why other solid and charismatic folks are struggling to get traction. Life could be worse — you could be Deval Patrick, who just made a late entry to the race to crickets. Well, not literally crickets, since even they didn’t show up to his last (cancelled) event.

What a way to shoot yourself in the foot after toying with running for so long.

Andrew Yang — A quality outing, with a particularly good answer on addressing extremism — not what you would think of as his wheelhouse. He talked about meeting Christian Piccolini, a reformed white supremacist who’s now an activist against hate and extremism. He explained that Christian felt alienated as a teen and responded to white nationalists because they were simply the ones who reached out to him, and how we need to foster community among men and boys. It was personal, authentic, and compelling and it’ll be interesting to see if it’s a theme that gets picked up on. Mayor Pete has talked about a ‘crisis of belonging,’ not the catchiest name to put on it, but the feelings of social alienation in the age of social media ties into broader societal breakdown and is worth addressing. Yang also does well with this because much of his base is male, online, and enjoys being part of a gang — YangGang, that is — so it’s a good way to speak to his base and the country at the same time. I can’t say for sure, but this may have also been the debate where he mentioned the freedom dividend least — just once— which could help him sell himself as less one-note. When he was asked what he would say to Putin and paused for a few seconds, though, I instinctively expecting him to offer him $1,000 a month. There’s no fascism dividend, I guess.

Amy Klobuchar — Got some laughs in the beginning and looked like she might have a standout performance, but seemed to drag as the night went on. When I have tweeted about her I get responses, including from women, about how they don’t like her personality — that she comes across ‘knowing what’s best for everyone’ or similar. I don’t find these vague personality arguments convincing, but I also don’t think debating is her strength — she often seems tense, and tries to rush through lots of bullet points into a response instead of hammering home one or two. She was given the chance to criticize Buttigieg for making it onstage with less experience when a woman might not be able to, and instead complimented him while still arguing the general point that experience matters and it is harder for women. It certainly could have something to do with it, but it’s hard to decisively say her gender is the cause of her struggles when several other moderate midwestern men with similar experience — Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock — aren’t onstage as they’re struggling to crack single digits. It could just again be the strength of the field, the quality of the campaign operation, or luck of how things play out.

Tulsi Gabbard — Okay, running out of time again. She stinks. She opened with harsh words for the Democratic party in the past — not a welcome message at an HBCU auditorium full of Democratic primary voters, and almost begging the question of why she is running for its nomination. She often pitches Libertarians and Republicans during her time — can she primary Trump instead? She seems uninspired when asked to speak on any issues other than war or the chance to attack Democrats; even on the war on drugs she gave a response that could have been spit out by an AI program fed Julian Castro’s speeches and a flower lei. I feel like her natural constituency is internet contrarians who comment “both parties suck lol” and surprise surprise, there aren’t that many of them in the Democratic party.

And now it’s time to play “who am I forgetting?” I’m counting that there’s one more candidate onstage who I haven’t gotten to yet.

…and it’s the one that definitely deserved to be forgotten, Tom Steyer! In fairness, I was actually impressed by Tom in that he had a great response on the California housing shortage. He called out the need to build more homes and rezone communities that have blocked new housing for decades — which is a key issue of mine. It was a thrill to see it brought up. It was also great to see Warren and Booker pitch their housing plans, which had some good points (pointing to the inequities of redlining and the mortgage tax deduction) but some less good. Warren focused on building 3.2 million units of primarily public housing, when 3.5 million are required in California alone and zoning restrictions are the key barrier; Booker focused on gentrification, which is visible in a few neighborhoods in leading cities but not representative of the broader housing crisis, and suggested tax credits for renters — which may just end up further driving up rents. Unfortunately for Steyer, he then made the mistake of attacking Biden for not prioritizing climate change first — presumably to assume the hemp-based mantle of the climate candidate vacated by Jay Inslee. Biden, however, shot back by touting his record vs. Steyer’s history of earning millions heavily investing in coal mines; I give Biden credit for bothering to learn that and remember it on the spot. And with that, the flicker of light that had appeared in the darkened coal seam of the Steyer candidacy was snuffed, likely for good.

Anyway, that’s a wrap! See you next time.

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