democratic debates

Was Beto O’Rourke That Bad?

A small portion of the many Democrats onstage Wednesday night. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Josh Barro, Benjamin Hart, and Sarah Jones discuss who excelled at Wednesday’s debate (Castro, Booker, Warren), and who didn’t do so well (O’Rourke).

Ben: Will anyone remember this debate in three days?

Josh: No. Tomorrow’s debate has most of the heavy hitters in the field and was always going to be more important. And this one was less interesting than I expected.

Ben: It was kind of a snoozer, right?

Sarah: I do think Castro did very well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his performance spurs more public interest in his campaign, so as far as that goes, sure, people will remember it. But yes, otherwise it was predictable.

Ben: I agree: Castro did well. Who else did you think was effective?

Josh: John Delaney. He made the forceful less-left pitch you might have expected from Amy Klobuchar, who didn’t give a strong case about why she was there. Of course, it’s not going to get Delaney far, but he started from a place of very low expectations. I also thought Cory Booker was effective.

Sarah: De Blasio was a bit surprising! Though I don’t think it’ll salvage his campaign.

Ben: Yeah, earlier today I was saying that de Blasio had the highest potential to embarrass himself. And I have to admit — he didn’t. He was actually pretty decent!

Josh: Booker got the most speaking time of anyone, and he was one of the candidates who did best at generating Google-search interest. He has a strong presence, he kind of hasn’t been anywhere in the campaign, he took the weaker field and used it as an opportunity to reassert himself. I thought it was kind of a weird debate for Elizabeth Warren.

Ben: Yeah, probably a blessing for Booker to be placed in this undercard-esque debate. He would have gotten lost in tomorrow’s setup.

Josh: I thought Warren was very effective at the start of the debate. She has the advantage that her pitch in general has lots of specifics, so she doesn’t have to choose between speaking out of the can and speaking to specific questions.

The Gabbard campaign grumbled that all the questions were going to Warren, but Warren is by far the most likely person of anyone on that stage to be the nominee, so she should have been the key focus. But then in the second half … where did she go?

Sarah: I think Warren did fine, and that the main problem is that there are just too many damn candidates.

Josh: She ended up with only the fourth-most speaking time. Beto spoke for two minutes more than she did without saying anything memorable. But she was good at her pitch when she did make it. I guess the challenge for her is to break in, you sort of have to fight with others, and if she does that, she risks raising other candidates’ profiles.

Sarah: I agree that it was surprising she didn’t break in more often.

Ben: The CW seems to be that Beto had a bad — possibly very bad — night. Do you agree?

Josh: Yeah, he sucked.

Sarah: God yes, Beto was a disaster. Castro ate his lunch.

Ben: What did he do wrong, exactly?

Josh: It’s that line from Veep — he was producing “noise-shaped air.”

Ben: Haha.

Josh: Can you remember one specific thing he said?

Sarah: There was no personality. I have no idea why he wants to be president. Maybe he thinks it would be interesting? That’s about all I could get out of it.

Josh: I didn’t really get the Castro love, but maybe it’s just because I’m not far enough left and the pitch wasn’t aimed at me.

Ben: You’ve been fond of Klobuchar, right? I haven’t heard her discussed much — I thought she was pretty solid.

Josh: I have been, but I didn’t think she did a good job tonight. She got a couple of questions that were basically like, “Your opponent is for this big lefty thing, and you’re not. Why?” And she kept going with answers that amounted to “Well hey, my thing is pretty cool.” Which doesn’t really answer the question — you have to own your position. Otherwise, you’re just the person who’s offering less and can’t really explain why. I think she’d be a fine president, I just don’t think she made a strong case for herself.

Josh: I think — going back to how we started — this debate is not going to matter very much. When Warren was talking, she was very effective. And in most of the campaign, people will be hearing her talk a lot more than everyone else on this stage. I don’t think anyone did anything tonight that’s likely to shake up the order much.

Ben: What did you think of Elizabeth Warren’s answer that she wants to eliminate private insurance? Our colleague Jonathan Chait thinks it could be damaging for her in a general election. Agree? Disagree?

Josh: I’m not sure how much it matters because I think the candidates have in general found it’s pretty easy to fudge their positions if they want to. I think it’s hard for Trump to run on “That candidate will create uncertainty about your health insurance.”

Sarah: I’m familiar with the polling, but I don’t think it’s poison. She handled the issue really effectively — you have to turn it around and ask people if the private insurance they have is really working for them. And for a lot of people, the answer to that question is no.

People hear “Abolish private insurance” and think it means a loss of health-care access, which is not what would happen under Medicare for All.

Josh: That analysis I disagree with — it’s an informed ballot, the same approach Trump uses to claim he’s ahead if you only ask the questions right. There are arguments you can make to help people feel better about single payer, but there are also arguments the other side can make to help people feel worse about it.

Sarah: That’s true of just about any policy; I just don’t see it being fatal to M4A as Sanders and Warren define it.

Josh: I don’t think it’s fatal in a campaign because it’s easy to be vague. Medicare for All means different things to different people, and people can vote for Warren without defining it as she does. I do think it’s likely fatal in a legislative fight. But that’s the following fight.

Ben: What did you make of the fact that MSNBC spent only a few minutes on climate change? It felt like a topic that got lost in the shuffle. If the networks won’t make the issue a major focus, does that strengthen the case for a climate-themed debate?

Sarah: I think so! It’s very odd to just bury it in the middle of a debate.

Josh: It kept coming up in other parts of the debate. A lot of candidates talked about it in the “geopolitical threat” part, and Inslee brought it up whenever he could, and they also talked about it in the economic-policy section of the debate, about green jobs as an industrial policy.

I think it actually got a lot of time in total, and I think approaching it that way emphasized how climate change is an important factor in a lot of things we think of as “other issues.”

Sarah: I don’t think it’s a substitute for a climate-focused debate.

Ben: I do think it should be a bit more front and center than this.

Josh: Four percent of Americans name environment or climate change as the most important issue facing America in the latest Gallup polling.

Ben: True, though it is steadily rising among Dems’ top issues. I don’t think there should be a separate debate, but it just felt like they moved on from the core topic quite quickly.

Josh: I think the groundswell for more focus on climate is larger in certain parts of Twitter than for the broader electorate. There’s a lot to cover in two hours; it felt to me like the border situation and immigration was the issue that got less time than it should have.

I also think it’s difficult to discuss climate policy in a way that is productive in this sort of format. You can talk about how much you care about it, in which case everyone on the stage talks about how it’s very important. Or you can talk about policy-implementation specifics that will be heavily mediated by the political circumstances a president is in after the election. And I think the policy conversation they had around it actually was productive — might have been nice to hear more about what can be done through executive power.

Was Beto O’Rourke Really That Bad?