These were two different but fascinating debates. The first debate night with mostly second-tier Democratic contenders was quiet, polite society. But the gloves came off during the second debate when the heavyweights came on stage.
The second night was the debate to watch for its top-tier contenders, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The outliers, or those lower down in the polls, were New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Congressman Eric Swalwell of California, author Marianne Williamson and former tech executive Andrew Yang.
But it was Kamala Harris’ night to shine and she did so within the first half-hour of the two-hour debate when candidates Buttigieg, Sanders and Gillibrand engaged in crosstalk and nobody could be heard above the din.
“Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table,” said Harris to great applause. The former prosecutor often sounds as if she’s trying a case, in this case before the American people.
Her best moment came when she swiped at Biden for his pre-debate remarks about having worked with segregationists, ostensibly to underscore that he’d bring back bipartisanship. Harris said that Biden’s words were hurtful, asking voters to see beyond the intellectual debate to the impact of policy on people. She also proved why it’s important to have black and brown people in the room, or in this case the debate stage.
“I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe … it was hurtful to hear you talk about … two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me,” Harris.
Biden, the apparent Democratic frontrunner, seemed thunderstruck and couldn’t muster a comeback, except to say Harris mischaracterized his remarks. In fact, Biden underperformed the entire night, as did Sanders, the No. 2 among candidates in terms of polling. Biden and Sanders are the elders and it showed. Sanders didn’t speak much, ranking fourth in minutes used. And he has begun to talk about ageism on the campaign trail.
Pass the Torch – Not
Swalwell of California pointedly asked Biden to “pass the torch” to a younger generation, to which Biden responded, “I’m still holding the torch.” That may become a problem.
Biden later put down the torch, not using all of his debate time, almost unheard of among politicians. Gillibrand was the opposite, an example of politician-as-time-hog. A clear underdog despite fundraising prowess – she’s raised nearly $13 million, sixth highest among Democrats in the crowded field – she was the first to interrupt just 10 minutes into the debate, and kept at it during the entire night, to dubious effect.
Buttigieg, the youngest candidate, spoke for 11.2 minutes, behind Harris (12.2) and Biden (13.2), calling for refinancing student debt and Medicare for all who want it. He also attempted to inject some humanity into the issue of the police shooting in his city that has rocked his campaign.
“My community is in anguish right now … And I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community, all of the steps that we took, from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.,” he said.
Who Should Go
There were issues the candidates agreed on: health care for undocumented immigrants and decriminalizing undocumented border entries, a testament to the lasting impact of Julián Castro’s challenge to all the candidates the night before to make this a civil matter.
So who should exit the presidential race? Clearly Andrew Yang, who made no lasting impression; Bennet, Hickenlooper, Swalwell and Williamson. Gillibrand, who has not found her presidential groove, is a maybe.
That leaves Harris, Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg as well as Elizabeth Warren (who won the first debate night), Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar and, for now, Castro, the first debate’s breakout star. That would leave standing nine candidates out of the original 20 during the two-night debates.
Truth to tell, however, it’s donors who will decide which candidates stay in the race as they begin to financially choke off those who show little political promise. It’s brutal out there.
˜˜María Padilla, Editor