October Democratic Presidential Debate in Review

October Democratic Presidential Debate in Review


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Good News: I get a day off work  while all of our high schoolers take the PSAT and can provide you with your Spark Notes updates of how the Democrats are doing.

Bad news: There’s yet again too many candidates on the Democratic debate stage, with more yet to come. The moderators were our best yet in terms of persistently calling out question dodging, but with 12 candidates, even prominent figures at times faded into obscurity. While watching the debate, I’d hear, say, Bernie, speak and think “Oh, I forgot he was even here tonight! Where’s he been?” Is it too much to ask for a higher bar to entry?

The debate environment was spicier this time, with Elizabeth Warren in the hot seat as candidates sought to eliminate her growing lead over Joe Biden and the others in the polls. Here are my continuing thoughts on each of the candidates latest debate performances, again ranked from best to worst for your convenience.

1) Pete Buttigieg

This debate provided a perfect environment for Pete Buttigieg to shine. He isn’t a frontrunner, and the questions tonight didn’t highlight any of his weaknesses. This allowed him to emphasize his unique plans and criticizing other candidates, while insulating him from being attacked himself. Buttigieg this debate was the moderate who said whether to a sideshow like Beto or a top candidate like Elizabeth Warren, “how is this plan actually going to work?” and watched as they squirmed their way through. Now, normally I don’t like candidates who are all critique and no plan, but Pete Buttigieg managed to avoid that pitfall as well. He was critical of other candidates without being obnoxious or personal. He did propose some unique plans of his own, such as his 15-justice Supreme Court plan, and took a strong stand on foreign policy. He also took the ‘is this economically feasible” mantle from Biden by claiming it as a young person’s priority to see some change at least. Nothing but positive words for Pete Buttigieg.

2) Andrew Yang

Well, I think I’m about to eat my hat. I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll give credit where credit is due: Andrew Yang had a great debate. Do I think he’s a serious candidate now? Well, no, but I can understand how it is that Andrew Yang in particular has stuck around in the race where all the other minor candidates and even a major candidate like Kirsten Gillibrand have dropped out. Andrew Yang only mentioned universal basic income (UBI) once tonight, and that was only when directly asked. This debate for him was about being forward thinking, and advancing a fundamentally different perspective than the other candidates. When other candidates want a wealth tax, Yang suggests a value-added tax (VAT). While other candidates debate about Facebook, Yang brings up screen time and its role on mental health. It’s like one of Andrew Yang’s advisors pulled him aside and was like “Hey Andy, people really like your ideas, but they think you can’t shut up about UBI. Can you give them the non-UBI Yang?” Andrew Yang took that advice, and it worked. While he’s still far from being close to any sort of top poller, I think  he’ll stick around, and we may see him in a non-presidential political role sometime soon.

3) Cory Booker

While I’m not sure exactly how to typecast Cory Booker as a candidate, he pleasantly surprised me this time. Of course, we got “I live in an impoverished neighborhood,” but in this debate Booker also stood up for other groups, such as the poor and women, a group he’s not even a representative for. Booker’s early willingness to discuss abortion both as a women’s rights issue and a poverty issue revealed a candidate with a fundamental civility and an ability to transcend identity politics. His comments against simply sniping at frontrunners served him well in a debate where Harris and Warren got into a legitimate argument about something as inconsequential as banning Trump from Twitter. I’m not sure why I would vote Booker over my favorite frontrunner du jour, but he put his crazier ideas on hold this time and allowed people to think of him as a mix of moderate and progressive. I won’t forget my past low scores of Booker (or of Andrew Yang) but in fairness ot both of them, they had good performances. 

4) Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar is not pleased. We know because she fell back on the meanest of midwestern insults, “Your idea is not the only right one,” and the well known “I’m SOAR-y.” Jokes aside, Amy Klobuchar is kind of the less popular, less progressive version of Pete Buttigieg, but also a person willing to step into a frontrunner role should Biden falter. Klobuchar realized she had a chance because of the Hunter Biden scandal, and so this debate she refused to apologize for her moderate views. The problem, though, is that so many times, Klobuchar would make a strong point and then immediately pivot in an obvious way, losing good ideas and failing to make the impression she could. The worst example was when she was asked about abortion, and was the first candidate to mention codifying Roe v. Wade. She was the first one on the stage to suggest that, and I was impressed….until she messed it up. Rather than emphasize that, she rushed on to criticize Trump, letting other candidates get credit for an idea she suggested first. I like Klobuchar, and I could honestly see myself voting for her, but she has no chance unless Biden falls, and if she wants to stay in, she needs to watch those flubs.

5) Elizabeth Warren

I’ll say it straight up: This was not a good debate for Elizabeth Warren. Warren is an impressive debater, and she managed to convert a center-lefter like me for a while with her inspiring language and perpetual preparedness. This debate, she lost a lot of that luster. Instead of the perfectly composed Warren we’ve come to know and love, we got a Warren who dodged a question about raising taxes over and over again. One dodge might have been fine, but when moderators pressed, Warren wouldn’t commit to a straight answer. This was made worse by Sanders’ frank admission that taxes will go up in his plan. For me, Warren’s whole appeal was her record and her experience. To see her waffle this way was painful. Warren still had her good moments–calling big businesses the umpire as well as the team really resonated–but she took a hit this time. She’s still at Number 5 because outside of healthcare, she did fine, but I don’t have the sort of glowing praise of a Warren debate performance that has become usual in these recaps. 

6) Bernie Sanders

It’s always so hard for me to review Bernie Sanders. I don’t like his style or some of his views, but I still want to avoid bias seeping into my analysis. To me, Sanders was just average this time, a solid Number 6.  There’s nothing new with Sanders, and his debate performances don’t inspire new voters to his side. Do I like that he was honest where Elizabeth Warren was evasive? Sure. Did he convince any voters at all who didn’t want a political revolution that we should have one? Not really. If Bernie’s going to win this cycle, it won’t be by his debating skills. It is a good thing he wasn’t on medical marijuana at the debate though (if there was ever going to be a debate inside joke, there it is). 

7) Julian Castro

I’m not really sure why Julian Castro is running for president. To be honest, I forgot he was even in the debate for most of the run time, and I was taking notes in order to write this article. Warren wants to tackle political corruption, Klobuchar and Buttigieg want to incrementally push liberal policy, Yang wants to bring us into the future, and Castro wants… what?  There’s nothing bad to say about Castro mainly because there’s nothing at all to be said about Castro. I will give him credit where credit is due for being the only candidate to completely destroy the mandatory buyback argument (Mandatory gun buyback means door to door collecting, leaving the door wide open for racist and/or aggressive cops to abuse citizens), and I appreciate his efforts to bring up police brutality in a debate where it was ignored. That’s really all I can say this time, though. Castro was useful in this debate, because someone had to explain how mandatory buybacks would work. He wasn’t really useful for much else. 

8) Joe Biden

This debate should have been in the bag for Joe Biden. I mean, Trump clearly thought he was the best candidate enough that broke the law in order to get political dirt on the guy,. Biden could have played that to his advantage. Instead, he bungled his greatest advantage. When asked about the contradiction between his son’s position in Ukraine and his supposedly neutral vice presidency, he refused to admit any sort of fault. Instead of admitting his son may have acted with poor judgment (as Hunter Biden admitted) but that Trump’s fault dwarfed any action his son could have taken by orders of magnitude, Biden pretty much refused to talk about the scandal at all. This scandal could have cast him as the best candidate to beat Donald Trump. It makes zero sense why he would clam up on it. Worse, Biden continued to make his signature verbal flubs in a debate where his age and health were under intense scrutiny. Sorry, Joe, saying “We’re able to end Roe vs….oops, not that, I mean protect Roe” is not a good look. 

Let’s all take a small break here, before we get to the four worst candidates of the night. These candidates displayed far too many Trump-like similarities to be overlooked, so here we go….

9) Kamala Harris

Like Castro, I had such high hopes for Kamala Harris, and she squandered them. The last few debates, I criticized her for sniping at other candidates while refusing to respond to her own hypocrisy, and thus appearing petty. This debate, the issue she chose to go after Elizabeth Warren on was, weirdly, Trump’s Twitter account. Not to say this is a stupid issue, but, it’s a pretty dumb issue to pick a fight on. I legitimately don’t think a single voter changed their minds about voting for Kamala Harris because she took a strong, principled stand on banning Donald Trump from Twitter. Worse, she repeated her tactic of making strong use of executive orders. This, combined with her support for a mandatory gun buyback achieved through executive order is incredibly Trump-like in the sense that it erodes democratic norms and freedoms in a dangerous way. Using executive power to circumvent Congress, go into people’s houses, and take away their property opens the door for completely unchecked executive power. We are a nation where the president cannot make laws, and certainly should not plan on unilateral lawmaking without Congress. Harris’s willingness to prioritize her priorities over the public and to snipe personally at other candidates recalls Trump in a very unappealing way. 

10) Tom Steyer

Steyer somehow met the threshold for this debate and I’m really not sure how considering how low-profile he’s been in past debates and polls. Well, he’s here now, I guess. He’s not my favorite candidate for one big reason thus far. Tom Steyer loves to talk about how the government has failed, and that’s not what Democrats do. Describing the government as a failed experiment is a Republican talking point, and a pretty standard one at that. If the government has failed, how can one put in new programs or initiatives? Steyer is new on the scene, and I can’t see him getting support when his dominant message is one that basically endorses gutting the government. 

11) Tulsi Gabbard

While we’re on the subject of Republicans in Democrats’ clothing, let’s talk about Tulsi Gabbard. This debate really separated Tulsi from standard Democratic thought, and not in a flattering light. Donald Trump just abandoned the Kurds by supporting Turkey in Syria over Kurdish allies. All the candidates acknowledged this horrible decision, but only Gabbard argued that the United States should abandon the region altogether. Her Trump-style isolationism was thoroughly attacked by Buttigieg, himself a veteran, who reminded Gabbard that she was in effect encouraging ISIS. Unfortunately, foreign policy was not the only area where Gabbard presented herself as a conservative Democrat without the “get it done” appeal of someone like Klobuchar. On abortion, where every other candidate had fresh ideas and was infuriated at the conservative attacks on Roe v. Wade, Gabbard was much more restrained. Her attitude towards abortion seemed to be less focused on preserving the right and more focused on regulating it further, as evidenced by her proposal of banning third trimester abortions and keeping abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” Tulsi Gabbard’s debate last night identified her as far more socially conservative than I think is acceptable this election cycle, and in the current debate environment, it really stood out.

12) Beto O’Rourke

Last but not least is Beto O’Rourke. Last debate, Beto branded himself as “the gun control guy.” I was excited to see him this time outline his policies for gun control and delve deeply into how he would reduce gun violence. Suffice it to say, we did not get that. When asked how mandatory buybacks would work in practice, Beto explained that people would turn in their AR-15s and AK-47s simply because “they follow the law.” Even when pressed that he had no idea who had the guns and no way to collect them other than door to door, Beto simply relied on good faith as a way to enforce a deeply unpopular policy. This sort of inability to discuss political logistics on what has become Beto’s signature policy was astoundingly bad debating, and I wasn’t the only one to see it. Immediately after Beto refused to discuss the logistics of the buyback, Pete Buttigieg criticized Beto for making empty promises. Beto’s response? Using emotional appeals about weapons of war in order to justify a policy he has no clue how to implement. Beto O’Rourke’s handling of his signature issue is a bit of a litmus test for the candidate himself: he’s all promises and emotional appeals with zero concrete policy. That’s why he’s on the bottom of this list. 

We’ll see how the candidates fare  (and who’s still even on the stage) at the next debate in November!

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  • comment-avatar

    An Amazing, Insightful, Spot on Analysis. Very Good Job!