Knives Out: The December Democratic Debate Recap

Toby Muresianu
Dec 20, 2019 · 8 min read
From right: news talking head setup, debate stage, my talking head

Yesterday’s debate was a first for me personally: my first time watching one in person.

A lucky ticket direct from the DNC on my phone (no, they aren’t delivered by a hooded owl to your windowsill), I headed to the Loyola Marymount University gym to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells (there were food trucks) of Democracy for myself. It was surprisingly easy to get to — there was an Uber drop off point to some shuttles and none of the hours-long lines I expected. Someone should pitch this for getting Medicare-for-all patients to hospitals.

Some friends ended up in the floor section and said it was a really awesome experience being amidst the gasps or cheers to responses. I ended up in the bleachers, which offered a good view but was like watching a baseball game from the bleachers: fun and neat to be around, but halfway through your mind is wandering, you realize it still has another hour and a half to go and some $12 beers seem like a reasonable idea. The flow even seemed similar — stretches of unremarkable playing punctuated by bursts of competition and highlight-reel activity. All it needed was Joe Biden spitting out sunflower seeds.

Anyway, for the meat of the debate:

First, it was great having a debate with only seven people.

Sure, it would have been nice if Cory Booker was there instead of Tom Steyer and candidates offered their (very heartfelt I’m sure) remorse for his absence, but, like…everyone can’t be president, man. If you have five, 2–3 hour debates and haven’t been able to move your approval above 2%, at a certain point you just have to say good game. It’s not helpful for voters to have the same candidates cramming in little sound bites; if you had 5 three hour sessions to choose a babysitter and couldn’t narrow it down, people would say you were stalling. The DNC isn’t being the barrier, it’s being a good friend and nudging you towards the exit.

The moderators were not good and asked several questions nobody cared about. Namely “What you would do about Guantanamo Bay,” an issue nobody has cared about in years; “What other candidate would you ask forgiveness from or give a gift,” which put them on the spot for awkward or meaningless responses; and “Why has support for impeachment has failed to get a strong majority,” framing it as a losing battle rather than one for which there is majority support. Weak sauce.

On an individual basis I thought everyone did objectively pretty well. Everyone had a few bright points and nobody crapped the bed. However, I think some people who did better and worse relative to expectations.

Winners:

Joe Biden. He was not only coherent — but good! He offered empathetic, energetic responses while avoiding the fray of the other candidates battling it out over second-through-fourth place. Their infighting only helps him — he literally took a step back from the mic while they did. He defended opening the door to talking with Republicans by emphasizing that nobody had more reason to be hostile than him after their attacks on his family, but that we couldn’t run a country without talking with each other. This won sympathy and applause from a crowd that probably would have been favorable towards more antagonistic stances. His emotional impression of a kid struggling with a stutter brought a lazy, cruel tweet from Sarah Huckabee Sanders and then a rare and welcome apology. (I will commend any trace of humanity from people who might pull themselves away from the Dark Side, so I appreciated the apology).

Biden(‘s social media manager) laying the smackdown.

This helps Biden on a number of levels — it rallies Democrats around him and makes him look like a leader, someone who can take on Trump, and helps reassure voters worried over Biden’s faculties. Overall, I think Biden is the odds-on favorite to win. For a long time it has reminded me of the 2016 race, where other candidates battled over second or third place for when Trump inevitably collapsed — only to have him sail through the primaries. I also do think Biden is a good candidate in terms of electability. While everyone has their pet theories on who will turn out or who won’t for this or that candidate, I think his main weaknesses (being an old guy of questionable mental state and having a family with conflicts of interest) all match up with Trump’s weaknesses — but Trump’s are far worse. On Trump’s biggest strength and means to sow fear, the economy, Biden has the argument that he was literally in the White House when the turnaround started — and growth has been basically unchanged since he was in there. So I think Biden as a candidate makes the election as effectively as possible a referendum on Trump, who’s extremely unpopular and far more so than Biden. Meanwhile, all the Obama/Trump voters from last time have literally voted for him before, so some may come back while others will be mobilized to vote against Trump. I think other Dems could win the nomination (and Biden could still certainly lose the election) but I like his odds both in the primary and the general.

Amy Klobuchar. With the additional time, she made the case for why she should be there very effectively. She emphasized her record of winning, the most important issue to Democrats. When Warren and Buttigieg attacked each other, she stepped in with the obligatory “we shouldn’t be fighting, guys!” line that got applause — and then turned around and effectively pushed on Buttigieg’s lack of experience in comparison with hers. She also had a lot of joke lines. I wonder if her strategy was to try and make highlight reels and get social media attention by putting in jokes, given her “I’ve gotten $17,000 in donations from my ex-boyfriends” line crushed at the last debate. It seemed to work, though a number of other candidates had good laugh lines too. Less successful was her attempt to address Trump, where she seemed anxious — looking away from the camera rather than projecting strength. That said, the biggest reason Klobuchar isn’t doing well seems to be that she isn’t doing well. I think if she were at 10% in the polls she would get a lot more consideration. Given that many voters have not settled on a candidate, I could see a replay of previous GOP primary cycles where some people drift towards the front of the pack and then back, and her taking support from Buttigieg or Warren. However, if Biden continues to do well everyone will struggle to break through in the moderate lane.

Andrew Yang. An extremely good performance, where every time he took the mic he was charming, compelling and relatable. Had an interesting moment where he described the U.S. as a deeply misogynist society — which gave me pause, since his base is predominately male and not enamored with identity politics — but then justified it with points about the wealth disparity, a plan to provide people an allowance for political donations to even the playing field, and joke about how “when you get all guys in a room together, we kind of become morons.” His combination of unconventional ideas, data-centric posture and folksy charm really hits a sweet spot. It will be so interesting to see where he ends up; I don’t think he has the ability to squeeze past heavy hitters like Biden, Sanders, etc. in a field that is more concerned with winning rather than quirky innovations, but it seems clear that he could be a presence on the public stage for some time and I look forward to it.

Mixed bags:

Pete Buttigieg: he knew he was going to get attacks, and he did. From the room (and row of middle-aged female Buttigieg supporters in front of us) it sounded like the attacks on him have riled up his base; they’re not shy about not supporting Warren anymore. He punched back well against Warren’s attacks on his “wine cave fundraiser,” calling her out for purity tests that “she herself couldn’t meet” based on her doing similar fundraising as senator and transferring that money to her Presidential campaign. He didn’t have a great response against Klobuchar calling him out for his lack of experience; he tried to make out like she was looking down on being the mayor of a small town or serving in the military, but it fell flat and his lack of national experience is a real weakness. His other responses were mostly well crafted, though he does often talk in high level terms rather than specifics (e.g. “[Trump] has infused domestic politics, making U.S. foreign policy choices in order to effectively interfere in Israeli domestic politics” — what does that mean, for the viewers at home?). He spoke in favor of a faster track to citizenship for kids abused by ICE and a committee to investigate reparations, presumably overtures to the black and Latino vote he hasn’t gathered so far, though they could risk alienating Iowa moderates. Overall, I think there’s more downside to upside in his performance and his combativeness might make him less likable, a risk when his likability and positivity was one of the things that drew him supporters to begin with. I wonder if the label of being a slick, ambitious politician — fair or not — may prove effective and stymie his rise. The “Wine Cave Pete” attack has already had more mileage than I thought (I’ve been to a winery! They have cellars!) and even if he got the better of his exchange with Warren, Yang and others calling back to it made it seem like they got the last laugh.

Warren: She attacked Buttigieg and probably had to, but didn’t seem like she came away a winner from it. She had overall good responses to questions and good reception from the crowd, but didn’t have a particularly strong presence on stage.

Bernie: Had a typically very solid performance of the same campaign themes he has been hammering for literally decades. You like his plans or you don’t, but you can’t say he doesn’t deliver them well — he’s energetic, blunt, and funny.

Laggards:

Tom Steyer: Had surprisingly good responses from the crowd and seems perfectly likable (especially for an old white billionaire on a stage where that is not super popular). That said, he spent about half his time unconvincingly trying to justify his presence (he’s a businessman, so he can push back best on Trump on the economy, yada yada) while not actually conveying who he is. He talks in airy terms about how he worked against corporations in Washington or whatever, but not what his organization was. I guess it’s because he was a hedge fund manager and ran a SuperPAC, which even if they support liberal causes and have done effective work aren’t the best things to be associated with. Overall, he felt like he just took up space and served up unremarkable if crowd pleasing responses and it was a disappointment when the moderators directed a question at him. I am happy he’s donated a lot of money to liberal causes and don’t have a problem with him as a person, I just don’t get why he has to run for president — and I’m guessing most voters don’t, either.

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