democratic debates

Why Didn’t Anyone Attack Joe Biden at Tuesday’s Debate?

Hey, I’m still polling pretty well! Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Ben: Who do you think had a really good night tonight?

Sarah: Bernie. Warren, too. But Bernie was really impressive tonight. Sharp, clear, consistent.

Zak: Agreed. And not long after a heart attack, too. You’d have trouble getting me out of bed, let alone subject myself to this.

Ben: As others have pointed out, he was slightly toned down — which made him seem more effective.

Zak: I was never that put off by his ranting-granddad vibe, but it’s true that toning things down made his arguments seem less like insistent diatribes and more like reasonable presentations of commonsense ideas, at least superficially.

Sarah: Bernie’s tone never bothered me, to be honest. I never found him to be particularly shouty, and in any case, his unvarnished affect seems to be part of his appeal. So my takeaway isn’t really that Bernie succeeded because he toned it down. His answers were tight, his comments were critical when they needed to be, and he ably defended his policies from attack.

Zak: And I’ll echo Sarah on Warren’s good night. She weathered the attention that comes with being the front-runner way more smoothly and graciously than Biden. Less rattled, better able to lucidly stay on message, and never seemed to take anything personally.

Ben: Unlike in some past debates, the central target of the also-rans wasn’t Joe Biden, but the newly appointed front-runner, Warren. In an early exchange, she once again did not say whether she would raise taxes to fund Medicare for All, earning some criticism from Pete Buttigieg and others. Did this, or any of the other attacks against her, draw any blood?

Zak: I think her refusal to answer that question on those particular terms is a reasonable gamble. It risks her coming off as evasive, but I think pushing people to think more about overall costs versus just taxes is a net positive and has the potential to shift the terms of the discussion in a way that helps her cause. Plus the accusation themselves just aren’t that meaty. We know what her answer is going to be, and at a certain point it starts feeling like the people to whom it’s most scandalous are the reporters who insist on asking it knowing what the answer will be.

Sarah: I’d like for her to develop a more detailed answer on Medicare for All but overall I think she handled herself well. She’s made her wealth tax such a centerpiece of her campaign that the typical “but how will you pay for it” line that always gets lobbed at left-wing candidates falls a little flat. One other thing I appreciate about Warren (and Sanders, for that matter) is that she has little patience for gotcha questions, and I think that trait’s been useful to her in the debates.

Ben: Pete Buttigieg was considerably more combative in this debate than in previous affairs. He challenged Elizabeth Warren directly on her refusal to say she’d raise taxes with her health-care plan. He told Beto O’Rourke that “I don’t need lessons from you on courage” during an exchange on gun laws. In an effort to break into the top tier, he’s positioning himself as a moderate who will not hesitate to criticize those to his left. Is this working for him or coming off as arrogant? Or something in between?

Zak: There’s always something so incongruous to me about being extremely combative in defense of moderation. It’s especially off-brand for Buttigieg because we’ve come to expect this pragmatic levelheadedness and desire to stay above the fray and discourage in-fighting and all of a sudden he’s scolding everybody.

Sarah: It didn’t work for him. Look, Sanders and Warren have a clear message. Everyone knows who they are and what they represent. It’s difficult to say the same of Buttigieg. His alternative to Medicare for All sounds like a joke people would make on Twitter, and the “I’m just a sensible man from the heartland” routine is a bit rich coming from a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar whose father was a Marxist professor at the University of Notre Dame. When Buttigieg speaks, I don’t hear anything that resembles the concerns of actual voters; I hear a wonk. And while that’s partly because I’m a socialist and have different politics, I don’t think Buttigieg’s smarm is entirely a figment of my imagination.

And I agree with Zak. I think the notion of a pugnacious moderate is a bit of contradiction in terms.

Ben: Why didn’t anyone (or almost anyone) attack Joe Biden? It seems that people have crowned Warren as the obvious front-runner — but he’s still doing very well in national polls and many state polls, too.

Zak: Probably reserved about the broader implications of fueling Trump’s attacks. There seems to be a tacit agreement among Democrats not to admit openly that the Hunter business is shady, paired with a willingness to take a “wait and see” approach to how it affects Biden’s campaign moving forward.

Sarah: Trump’s complicated that a bit by going after Hunter. I actually think there’s plenty to criticize about Hunter’s business dealings, and would’ve liked to see someone press Biden on the cronyism, but nobody wants to look as if they’re aligned with Trump. I think, too, that candidates do recognize that Biden has a healthy base of support, and they’re wary of alienating those voters. Perhaps they think that Biden will self-immolate, given enough time.

Ben: That has been the conventional wisdom with him for a while and it keeps not happening — though he has faded a bit in recent weeks.

Sarah: Yes, and I think that’s due partly to his performance in the debates. He’s incoherent much of the time.

Ben: What’s up with Kamala Harris? She went from dominating the first debate to having an extended exchange where she tried to “gotcha” Elizabeth Warren by accusing her of not being onboard with banning President Trump from Twitter. That was weird.

Zak: I think she isn’t sure what she stands for and is throwing a lot of different things at the wall to see what sticks.

Sarah: I don’t think she really knows why she’s running for president?

Ben: We’ve all been there.

Sarah: Haha.

Ben: Any other candidates you thought shone or did the opposite of that?

Sarah: Why was Tom Steyer onstage? I mean, I know why, but he has no business being there.

Ben: He did not talk much.

Sarah: Right, and when he did talk, he did not do himself any favors.

Zak: Tom Steyer was like the amalgamation of every white man who’s dropped out so far. Plus Howard Schultz. I like to think they all just jumped into the same body and put it on a plane to Ohio.

Sarah: This is a terrible Transformers movie.

Zak: I was gonna say I pitched this as a Being John Malkovich sequel. No takers so far, but I’m shopping it.

Ben: Haha.

What was the most glaring absence in terms of topics? Gotta be climate, right?

Zak: I think so, especially in the wake of the strikes and U.N. testimonies.

Sarah: Climate, yes. But housing, too. Kind of shocking that we’ve yet to get a single question about the housing crisis.

Ben: Lastly, we’ve all noticed that the debates don’t tend to change the underlying dynamics or numbers of the race all that much. Is there anything about this one that people will remember and that will really make an impression?

Sarah: No.

Zak: Nope.

Ben: So that’s a yes?

Zak: That’s a no, Ben.

Why Didn’t Anyone Attack Joe Biden at Tuesday’s Debate?