Democratic Debates: Night Two Takeaways

The first round of Democratic primary debates concluded on Thursday night, bringing us one step closer to being done with this god-awful format of a ten-person joint press conference with moderators. That said, this episode of round one brought far more spice than its Wednesday night counterpart, in hindsight a somewhat predictable outcome of having the frontrunner and three self-perceived heavyweights all on the same stage. Below are some of my big takeaways.

Pete Buttigieg – A lesson in humility

I don’t quite know what to make of Mayor Pete as a candidate, in terms of what lane he might be able to claim and how long he’ll remain in the race. He’s polled fairly well thus far, vying for fourth with Senator Kamala Harris in most polls, behind Biden, Sanders, and Warren. He doesn’t quite own the professorial candidate, something I think Warren does better, and I’m not sure he can lead as the aspirational candidate after the first debates that both Senators Booker and Harris had.

That said, he had an ok first debate, though his most memorable moment came on what is currently his biggest weakness. When asked about the recent police shooting in South Bend and why the police force is not representative of the population of South Bend from a demographics standpoint, Buttigieg flat out owned the problem and made no effort to make excuses. He stated he had failed in his capacity as mayor and that he recognized that nothing he said could possibly rectify that with the family of Eric Logan. It was somewhat startling to watch, illustrating just how unaccustomed we can be to politicians plainly and openly admitting their faults and not trying to excuse them. None of this is to excuse his shoddy track record on the matter, but it was still noteworthy to see a candidate own and apologize for his mistakes without trying to divert blame or justify the failings.

Bernie Sanders – 2016 shaping 2020 in another way

Really consider the major issues at play in this race and compare them to those that Sanders ran on in 2016. In just four years, Medicare for All, free public college, and student loan debt forgiveness, have all become fairly popular ideas amongst Americans at large and are now the field on which these debates are taking place. Time and again, on both nights, Bernie was mentioned by other candidates in regard to some policy idea or proposal, and the role of socialism within the party arose on both nights. Regardless of the outcome of this run by Sanders, his campaign in 2016 will likely be seen as a watershed moment for the party.

Joe Biden – Countdown begins?

Biden came in as the frontrunner of the race and, for many, as a candidate that held a slight air of inevitability. He’s taken some hits recently but nothing that seemed likely to do him in or really affect his standing as a frontrunner.

That is until last night.

Where Biden has a long track record on a number of issues, some of it quite good, what is more likely to be highlighted by the primary process and the debates is the baggage that it represents. It’s a sword that can cut both ways, but Biden doesn’t appear to still have the dexterity to wield the edge that benefits him.

He was challenged on multiple occasions by a number of the candidates, a marked difference from the first night of the debates. Challenged on his vote in favor of the Iraq war by Sanders, Biden seemed caught off guard by the attack. Being one of the larger stains on Biden’s record, and an issue that has haunted him in the past, there’s really no reason he shouldn’t have expected a challenge on it. And yet, he appeared unprepared to answer for it.

Kamala Harris – Thriving in her best environment

The greatest and most impactful challenge to Biden came for the candidate two spots to his left, roughly midway through the debate. As the issue of race came up, Senator Kamala Harris cut in, asserting that, “as the only black person on stage,” she would like a chance to speak on race.

What followed was a powerful and moving attack on Joe Biden’s recent comments on working with segregationists. The ploy has no doubt been in the works since the initial controversy almost two weeks ago, further evidenced by the rollout of related merchandise later last night on Instagram, but that doesn’t really detract from the moment, in my opinion. Harris tactfully disparaged what Biden said without making it about him personally. It was an emotionally charged moment that deftly toed the line of being on the attack while still fully in control.

It’s especially notable coming from a black woman directed at a candidate whose support right now is stabilized by his strong popularity amongst black voters. With both Senators Harris and Booker having strong opening nights, it will be interesting to monitor that number for Biden.

The moment was a crown jewel in what was an all-around strong night for Harris. Harris has run an interesting campaign thus far. She opened in Oakland with incredible energy and turnout. She’s waivered a bit in polls, unable to maintain that early energy level, and seeing her numbers eclipsed by Warren and, at time, Buttigieg.

But this is her element. Harris’s star in the party was built on high profile events like this, namely congressional hearings of Trump appointees. She excels in front of the camera and in a staged setting with time to prepare. She was even cracking jokes with the moderators about the loose time parameters towards the end of the night. She was incredibly comfortable in the moment.

She also referred to the “climate crisis,” a phrase that I don’t believe was used by anyone else, on either night.

Harris landed a hell of a body blow on the current frontrunner, one that could have an outsized impact given who his supporters are. With the race picking up momentum, and more debates in the pipeline, it will be interesting to see if Harris can continue the momentum from this night.

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