December Democratic Presidential Debate Review

December Democratic Presidential Debate Review


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As we all go home to see our families, we have one more political subject to discuss at the dinner table: the latest Democratic debate. This debate, held Thursday December 19, took a while to get going, with the first hour or so consisting of softball questions that didn’t distinguish between candidates. The last question tried to incorporate a holiday theme, and was similarly disappointing. Here’s my holiday wish for better questions next time.

With only seven candidates qualifying, the debate felt more under control, but had many familiar faces missing.  While many of the original 20-plus candidates have dropped out, candidates like Cory Booker or Julian Castro are technically still in the race, though not on the stage. We’ll see if any of them rebound and qualify next time. With that in mind, here is my review of the December Democratic debate, from best to worst. 

Amy Klobuchar: Klobuchar, in my opinion, was the star of this debate. She was well-prepared, constantly referenced her record, and actually praised other candidates while defending her points of view. It’s true that Klobuchar hasn’t been the front-runner and as such, hasn’t taken heat in the same way. At the same time, she has maintained a very professional high ground and so her remarks at other candidates don’t feel like immature bickering. Klobuchar was able to claim a position as “the woman candidate,” even with Elizabeth Warren on the same stage. She highlighted her moderate positions very explicitly, and is clearly hoping to capitalize on the drop in Joe Biden’s popularity. Time will tell how Amy Klobuchar will fare once she becomes more relevant to the race as a whole, but I expect her support to rise following this debate. I’m not sure how many Democrats will actually buy into her unity message if she becomes a likely nominee, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. 

Andrew Yang: I don’t like the Freedom Dividend idea, but Andrew Yang has shown why he’s still in the field. Yes, I groan every time he connects everything on the planet to Universal Basic Income, but Yang is starting to put forward other ideas, and was finally given the airtime to share them. Despite being the definition of a rich businessman, Yang has positioned himself as a hardworking child of immigrants, the one candidate of color left. He intelligently has been using the Freedom Dividend in debates as almost a social justice idea, marketing it as the perfect answer to any question on gender or race. Several of the leading candidates very visibly struggle with racial issues, so this was a bold but effective strategy. I definitely have to hand this debate to the less prominent candidates who finally get a chance to speak. Like Klobuchar, Yang may falter when he becomes a frontrunner, but that wasn’t happening at the debate. 

Joe Biden: While I have yet to see a stunning performance from Joe Biden, this was one of his better debates. He was not asked about his son or sharply criticized, but he managed to avoid the attacks aimed at the millionaires and billionaires, despite fitting squarely in that sphere.Biden also claimed a main talking point against the progressive candidates. When Bernie was pressed about passing Medicare-for-All with a potentially conservative congress, Biden was there to claim that we have to work with the people we have, not dream of something else, and then to back it up.  He didn’t seem old, didn’t deflect, and was able to use the Obama legacy positively for once. It is true that Biden did not speak as much as usual, but he did not have any of the tone deafness that both Buttigieg and Sanders fell into, so I count this as a win for him. 

Elizabeth Warren: Not bad for Elizabeth Warren, but I think this debate doesn’t move her one way or the other. We sort of know what to expect with Warren now: detailed policy plans and critiques of corruption. Her attack on Pete Buttigieg over closed-door fundraisers did more to hurt Buttigieg than it did to help her, as he astutely revealed that she, too, was a rich person who had made use of similar fundraisers in her past. Warren’s anti-corruption points are valid, but this past debate highlighted the issue with using purity tests as a campaign strategy–no one is ever pure enough. Warren’s thoroughness and intelligence make her the leading progressive candidate over Bernie Sanders, but she’s become fairly predictable, and has not made headway towards fixing her main issue, attracting non-college educated white voters.

Tom Steyer: The debate announcers on the network I was watching (PBS) thought Steyer did a great job, but I really don’t see it. He qualified for the debate, which means his support is fairly substantial, but he seems fake to me in a way that’s hard to pin down. I think it’s probably that he is a billionaire who’s only recently come onto the scene, and yet acts like impeachment and climate change reform were his idea all along. Tom Steyer wants to be the climate change candidate, but didn’t Jay Inslee already try that in September? I also found his strategy of attacking Donald Trump repeatedly somewhat insincere. It’s the Democratic debate, nobody on stage is a Trump supporter. Attacking the president to me is a cheap shot that wins you cheap points as everyone can do it. 

Pete Buttigieg: I know it’s harder for Mayor Pete now that he’s the frontrunner, but that wine cave example was just too easy. For those who may have missed the debate, Buttigieg was sharply critiqued for holding closed-door, very expensive fundraisers in a wine cave in order to support his campaign. Not to be too blunt, but to me, it appears like an incredibly stupid move for Buttigieg to make. He already struggles to connect with non-white voters, and has a bad record on race. He  already is being accused of being too cozy with the rich in his younger years as a consultant. Why would he give other candidates this ammunition? Buttigieg had risen in my estimation, and his strategy appeared to be working. I was incredibly disappointed that he would fall into such a silly trap. 

Bernie Sanders: Last, but not least, is Bernie Sanders. This was not a good night for Bernie. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m at least a little biased since I disagree with Bernie on some major plans, but I think it was fairly obvious he did not do well. His response to a question on race, a subject where Bernie has repeatedly fallen short, was a redirection to a climate change question. This shows a lack of adaptability, but also an insensitivity towards a group he needs to court. Worse still, the moderator called him out on the dodge, and forced him to answer the question. Bernie showed a similar stiffness when asked about Medicare-for-all. He insisted that he would push the bill through somehow even with congressional disapproval, an extreme position that was quickly rebutted by Amy Klobuchar. In such a polarized political environment, Bernie’s attitude of “it’ll just happen because it’s a good idea” fell short. It made him appear old in a field where age has been a serious question. I predict Elizabeth Warren will continue to take from Bernie’s supporters and emerge as the only progressive candidate as we get closer to election time unless something changes.

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  • comment-avatar

    writing that Buttigieg is the frontrunner is wildly misleading and irresponsible journalism, he consistently polls in the single digits nationwide and his terrible debate performance isn’t going to help that. He also does poorly in head to head polls against trump (unlike Biden and Sanders) so if you are going to support a candidate who has 2% non-white support that’s fine but don’t mislead your readers by suggesting he is the frontrunner when he is in fact in a distant fourth place.

    • comment-avatar
      Allison Hellman December 23, 2019

      Hi, I’m the author of the article. When I referred to Buttigieg as a frontrunner, it was in the sense that he is leading in the Iowa caucuses and that the media and other candidates have treated him as a leading candidate for the first time recently. While I know his polling nationally doesn’t show him as a frontrunner, his Iowa performance does, and his treatment at the debate reflects that.

      I don’t think he did terribly well at the debate, but I wanted to explain the reasoning.

  • comment-avatar

    thanks for your response, I just thought his frontrunner status in Iowa should be clarified because of the large discrepancy between those numbers and national polls. I understood you meant Iowa but it could be very easy to not infer. I agree the media is treating him as a frontrunner which is disingenuous at best and by referring to him as such in your article only furthers that skewed narrative (like how cnn keeps showing a poll from a month ago showing him with a decent lead in Iowa despite over a dozen credible polls have been released since then showing his lead over bernie now almost within the margin of error)