January Democratic Presidential Debate Review

January Democratic Presidential Debate Review

Image Credit: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]


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The new year brought us another round of debates, the last until the Iowa Caucuses on February 3. This debate has been the seventh so far, with a shrinking pool of debaters and of issues to discuss. With both Julian Castro and Cory Booker suspending their campaigns prior to the debate, the only candidates qualifying were Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer. Here’s how each of them did:

Elizabeth Warren: Since the debate, the major takeaway from the debate has been the leaked post-debate conversation between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. We’ll probably never know if Bernie did say that a woman was unelectable or not, but I think neither Elizabeth Warren nor Bernie Sanders came out of the spat looking good. Elizabeth Warren, hoping to gain support in Iowa, has been shifting towards a more unity-based position. Throughout the debates, she has maintained her stance against corruption and as a progressive, but has transitioned towards a willingness to compromise. She’s declared herself a capitalist, and on Tuesday said she would vote for the USMCA, Donald Trump’s new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. We have yet to know whether these changes will win her support in Iowa, but they have certainly alienated her more progressive supporters, bringing us to her feud with Bernie this week. 

To me, it just seems too perfect. A leak of a sexist comment right before Iowa. A reluctant confirmation from Warren. Warren playing nice during the debate with her “Bernie is my friend” comments.  Then, after the sound has in theory been turned off, Warren directly confronts Bernie, declaring he called her a liar on national TV. Warren has been in politics for a long time, and I don’t believe for a second she didn’t know the audio of her discussion wouldn’t eventually be aired. While Warren’s views certainly appeal to me, and while she performed well both last night and in previous debates, this incident reveals a much more calculated, superficial Warren than people would like to believe exists.  It shows a Warren willing to compromise her ideals for political gain. I understand why she needs to separate herself from Bernie, but I don’t think this was the way to do it.

Bernie Sanders: It’s no surprise to anyone who regularly reads my reviews that I don’t approve of Bernie Sanders’ approach. Yet for most of his supporters, Bernie’s appeal lies in his consistency and he let that trait shine in this past debate. Bernie didn’t vote for the Iraq war, he won’t vote for the USMCA, he won’t compromise on his health care plan–don’t expect anything else. Since his poll numbers seem to be rising, perhaps I’m mistaken in criticizing his approach. For me, Bernie looks naive and outclassed on the debate stage. A Republican Congress won’t work with him at all, and I don’t see a way for any of his lofty ideals to become law without some sort of coalition building with the other side. To potential Sanders voters, Bernie’s strength lies in his consistency, since his voters know exactly who they are electing, and what values he possesses.

That’s where this feud with Warren could have a negative effect on him. Only time will tell whether voters believe that Bernie’s progressive positions conceal a private tendency towards sexism. In the current political climate, where believing women has become a progressive norm, it doesn’t look good that Bernie’s response to the accusations was to deny them and then demean Elizabeth Warren’s concern after the debate. A male candidate saying “Let’s not do this right now” in the face of a female candidate’s anger at him isn’t exactly an empathetic way of dealing with the situation. Bernie Sanders has always presented himself as pro-women, we’ll see if voters still believe him. 

Joe Biden: Biden still remains the Democrats’ leading candidate based on most national polls, despite debates not being his strong suit. I’ve yet to be wowed by a Biden debate performance, but his performance Tuesday I think was one of his better days. He was able to use humor well and to come across as reasonable in a debate centered largely on other candidates. Biden’s record, style, and positions allow him to coast to a fairly good debate performance just by not messing up. Though his stuttering does make him seem old, his persona has always been about being your funny, pragmatic, down-to-Earth Uncle Joe. He has bad debate performances when he’s pressured by other candidates, but he really wasn’t on Tuesday. He was able to present himself as having reflected on his mistakes and prepared to lead. I don’t mean to say that Biden’s performance was exceptional, but I’ve come to realize that Biden’s style doesn’t lend itself well to standout moments. This debate didn’t hurt him, and that may be enough.

Amy Klobuchar: Amy Klobuchar debated very well, and showed how she continually earns her place on the debate stage. She’s really the only candidate who benefitted from the Warren-Sanders sexism argument, and came across as bright and energetic on Tuesday. She also does have a winning record over Republicans, and was able to use that to separate herself from the two other moderate candidates. Klobuchar is able to make her proposals seem grounded and realistic, which I think is the reason why she remains in the race that so many other moderate candidates have dropped out of. Additionally, Klobuchar played up her gender at the debate  in an almost folksy way that allowed her to gain support from an argument between two other candidates. I don’t know much how Klobuchar’s standout debate performances will help her low polling, but if anything is on her side, it’s her debating.

Pete Buttigieg: I’m not really sure what to expect with Pete Buttigieg. With Iowa looming, Buttigieg was pulling out all the stops on Tuesday: his youth, his military service and now his faith. Buttigieg mentioned his faith completely unprompted twice in the debate, but I’m not sure how that will end up helping him in the Iowa caucuses. Most of the faith-based voters in Iowa are Republicans who aren’t voting right now. Buttigieg also took a strange line on climate change, arguing that we need to present climate solutions to appeal to those who think climate science doesn’t work for them. All in all, Buttigieg’s strategy on Tuesday seemed fit for a later race against a different opponent, rather than where he’s at right now. Perhaps I’m wrong about Iowa Democrats, but I was confused by Pete Buttigieg’s debating on Tuesday. 

Tom Steyer: It irritates me that I even have to keep writing about Tom Steyer. He continues to qualify for the debates, and he continues to debate poorly. Steyer acted on Tuesday like he invented impeachment and climate change activism, when up until two weeks ago, he wasn’t even on most people’s radar. While he legitimately has pushed for impeachment for a long time, his climate change activism does not fall into that camp. Steyer made his money from fossil fuels, a fact the moderator astutely pointed out during the debate. It’s nice that he claims to have changed, but his position as “the climate change candidate” feels so hypocritical. Now that he’s rich he can afford to give his money away, and now that he’s profited off exploiting the planet he can afford to try to protect it, I guess. His statements about running the government like a business are Trumpian in nature, as is Kamala Harris-esque strategy of declaring national emergencies as a way to push his policy plans. Steyer looks to me like he paid his way onto the debate stage, and I think that’s why he hasn’t gained much support.   

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