I put “debate” in scare quotes because what we saw this past week of course weren’t debates in any meaningful sense but forums–opportunities for the many Democratic presidential hopefuls to gain free public exposure. This is a generally very talented and decent bunch of people, any one of whom would be vastly preferable to the current grotesque occupant of the White House. I wish there were fewer of them. Since each candidate would have an average of less than 10 minutes spread out over 2 hours, it seemed unlikely that really substantive discussions could happen, or that anybody could really stand out. As it turned out, probably most of the contestants didn’t either help or hurt their prospects, but there were some informative and potentially consequential moments.
In one of those moments, Julian Castro challenged Beto O’Rourke over the issue of illegal immigration. O’Rourke floundered and Castro looked good. This could be the beginning of the end of O’Rourke’s candidacy, who more generally came off as a well-poised but somewhat empty suit. Meanwhile, Castro raised his profile, maybe giving himself a shot at entering the category of candidates to be taken seriously.
Genuine differences among the candidates emerged over health care. Sanders, Warren, and DeBlasio affirmed their support for a single-payer system that would abolish private health insurance. The others supported a range of more incremental approaches. Warren remains my favorite, but her position on this issue worries me—as I’ve explained before, I think it’s a vote-loser. In the past, she’s taken a more equivocal—I would say prudent—stance, but now she’s making it harder for herself to pivot back. I hope she still can do so.
The most consequential exchange of the two evenings was Kamala Harris’s takedown of Joe Biden for civil rights shortcomings. Fair or not, her attack was effective, and Biden’s fumbling response was probably the nadir of his otherwise mediocre performance for the evening. I’m not a great fan of Harris’s, but her performance was generally very impressive. She’s smart, articulate, tough and extremely well-poised. I can more easily see her than Joe Biden putting Trump down in a debate. I think she was probably the single biggest winner of the event.
The biggest loser of the two evenings was foreign policy, which got precious little attention. The closest thing to a real debate during the whole event was the exchange between two very long-shot candidates—Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan—over Afghanistan. Gabbard said we need to get out and Ryan insisted we need to “stay engaged.” I would have liked to hear more on this from the other candidates, but that didn’t happen.
So, this is how the race looks to me right now:
Leading Candidates–Biden, Sanders, Warren
Plausibles--Buttigieg, Castro, Booker, Gillibrand, Klobuchar
Long Shots–All the rest