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Here’s Who Won (and Lost) the Second Democratic Primary Debate

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With humanity trembling on the precipice of ecological disaster, and migrant children trembling in squalid detention centers at America’s border, ten of the Democratic Party’s top contenders for the presidency gathered in Miami to debate the many pressing questions facing our republic.

But the only question that really matters is this: Which candidates derived the most political benefit from the evening’s earned media opportunity, and which the least, as measured by the subjective impressions of an exceptionally unrepresentative white man in New York City?

Happily, I am well-positioned to answer this question. Here is how the ten Democratic candidates’ debate performances rank, from best to worst:

1) Kamala Harris

Early in Thursday’s debate, Harris broke through a shouting match between her rivals to say, “America does not want to witness a food fight.” About an hour later, she forced America to witness a premeditated murder.

The California senator had already put together a star turn in Miami before she left Joe Biden to bleed out in a pile of his own baggage. Harris’s canned zinger about the American people’s disinterest in food fights (“they want to know how we are going to put food on their table”) inspired raucous applause, even as other candidates’ one-liners drew respectful silence. When Kirsten Gillibrand or Eric Swalwell tried to steal airtime by speaking over the moderators, they sounded thirsty and rude. When Harris did it, she sounded like Lester Holt’s boss — and then promptly delivered a heartrending anecdote about an apocryphal parent who was, at that very moment, sitting in an emergency-room parking lot somewhere in America “looking at those sliding glass doors while they have the hand on the forehead of their child, knowing that if they walk through those sliding glass doors, even though they have insurance, they will be out a $5,000 deductible, $5,000 deductible when they walk through those doors.”

The senator’s performance over the debate’s first 60 minutes was enough to clarify why, not too long ago, conventional wisdom held that this would be her race to lose. Harris started 2019 with an enviable donor network, a flood of high-profile endorsements, strong opening fundraising numbers, and a post-launch polling surge. But in the ensuing months, her campaign sank back to Earth and stayed there. Those bullish on her candidacy assumed she would claim the lion’s share of the African-American vote, and a large swathe of the white liberal one. Then Joe Biden got a hammer grip on the former, and Mayor Pete, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders collectively commandeered the latter. Going into Miami, national polls showed Harris boasting a measly seven-percent support.

She will almost certainly leave Florida with more. After her notably strong showing in the debate’s opening half, Harris went in for the kill. Amidst a discussion of community-police relations in South Bend, Indiana, the senator asserted her prerogative as “the only black person onstage” to weigh in on this “issue of race.” The moderators gave her 30 seconds. She took as much time as she pleased; there are no rules on network news for those who deliver must-see TV.

In recent weeks, liberal commentators and some Democratic candidates had tried to make Biden pay a price for his record of opposing busing to integrate America’s schools, and his not entirely unrelated record of fondly reminiscing about his working relationship with white-supremacist senators (reminiscences that he frames as edifying lessons in the virtues of political compromise). But no one could make the left’s charges stick. It’s too early to say for certain whether Harris did. But if her cross-examination of Biden Thursday night didn’t draw blood, nothing will:

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 — and it’s personal and I was actually very, it was hurtful, to hear you talk about the reputations of 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 bussing. 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. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats, we have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.

There probably wasn’t any good way to respond to this onslaught. But Biden’s rebuttal was exceptionally weak. The former vice-president claimed that he’d never opposed busing, but had merely believed that it wasn’t the federal government’s place to force that method of desegregation on states and municipalities, a claim that was simultaneously dubious (in his 2007 memoir, Biden described busing as a “liberal train wreck”) and damning (“I didn’t oppose integration, I just supported states’ rights” is never a good look).

Harris built herself up, then broke her main competition down. It would be shocking if no witnesses were swayed by her performance.

2) Mayor Pete

Pete Buttigieg has no business being a serious contender for a major party’s presidential nomination. He is the mayor of a university town — and not an unambiguously good one! The fact that he has galvanized as much media attention and voter interest as he has is a testament to something broken in our democracy.

But it is also a testament to the fact that Mayor Pete is conspicuously intelligent and good at public speaking. And Buttigieg used those gifts Thursday night to address a controversy that probably should end his campaign — an officer-involved shooting in South Bend that suggests the mayor isn’t necessarily equipped to oversee a small city’s police department, let alone the world’s most powerful national government — in a manner that will probably allow him to keep that campaign going.

Plus, he heroically resisted the temptation to utter a word of Norwegian, or to drop a single reference to the works of James Joyce.

3) Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’s debate performances are like Starbucks locations. Each one may be distinct in peripheral ways, but they all serve up the same time-tested, bitter, energizing product. On Thursday night, the Vermont senator cited incendiary economic statistics, preached fire and brimstone sermons to corporate America’s worshippers of Mammon, and expressed his humble opinion that health care is a human right. Bernie’s brand is a bit less distinctive in 2019 than it was the last go-round, as its success has inspired many imitators. But in his closing statement, the Vermont senator spoke to the American electorate’s nagging sense of disillusionment in more bracing terms than any of his competitors.

4) Michael Bennet

At Thursday’s debate, there were two forgettable white men from Colorado whom you aren’t going to vote for. Bennet did a nice job of establishing himself as the slightly less forgettable of the two.

5) Marianne Williamson

For decades, the paranoid New Age wine-mom community has lent its votes and positive vibes to the Democrats, without ever seeing itself represented at the party’s commanding heights. On Thursday night, that finally changed. On the stage in Miami, Williamson explained that “chemical policies” were giving the American people “unnecessary chronic illnesses,” and that the 2020 election would not be a contest between a Democrat and a Republican, but a war between love and fear. “Sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing,” Williamson informed the fearmonger Donald Trump. “I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field. And, sir, love will win.”

I think I speak for every American with a song in her heart, a healing crystal in her hand, and an elaborate conspiracy theory about vaccines on her blog when I say that on Thursday night, love already did.

6) Eric Swalwell

The California congressman successfully conveyed the core message of his campaign, which is that Eric Swalwell has many years left to live, and Joe Biden does not. In a cable-news interview Thursday, Swalwell noted that, unlike some of the Democratic Party’s 2020 candidates, “I’ll be a president who will actually have to live with the decisions that I make.”

At the debate in Miami, Swalwell told Biden to “pass the torch” eight seperate times, then used his closing statement to emphasize how young his children still are (“when I’m not changing diapers, I’m changing Washington”), and how sophomoric his sense of humor still is (“most of the time, the diapers smell better”). It’s unclear why the congressman believes that his relative youth is such a unique asset, particularly since he is one year older than Pete Buttigieg. But he did demonstrate a talent for message discipline.

7) Andrew Yang

The former tech executive used the extremely limited time allotted to him to reflect on the virtues of value-added taxes in a rapid monotone. Given the Democratic primary electorate’s well-documented enthusiasm for optimal taxation theory, this was surely a wise decision.

8) Kirsten Gillibrand

She did her best. Gillibrand said intelligent things about how to transition to Medicare for All. She celebrated the thousands of women who responded to Donald Trump’s election by redoubling their civic engagement, marching on Washington, organizing phone banks, and delivering the House of Representatives to Nancy Pelosi in the process. She even sketched out a vision for “a family bill of rights that includes a national paid leave plan, universal pre-K, affordable daycare, and making sure that women and families can thrive in the workplace no matter who they are,” which sounds like it would be pretty great!

But for some ineffable reason, the New York senator has been polling at 0.5 percent — nearly a full percentage point lower than Andrew Yang. And on Thursday night, for some inarticulable reason, that wasn’t so hard to believe.

9) John Hickenlooper

No one knows for sure who John Hickenlooper was, as the details of his existence fell out of collective memory ages ago. But scholars who have studied the few fragments that haven’t been lost to time say that he was most likely an older Caucasian man who did not like socialism.

10) Joe Biden

The former vice-president’s performance in Miami brimmed with a sense of cosmic cruelty. Biden was finally where he’d always wanted to be. At the dead center of the debate stage, and the very top of the primary polls. The longtime Delaware senator might have lacked the gifts necessary to win a presidential run without a head start. But all he had to do now was play the generic Democrat: speechify in a folksy manner, say “Barack Obama” in a reverential tone, and growl “Donald Trump” in a contemptuous one. Name recognition, the primary electorate’s anxious nostalgia, and strong general-election polling would do the rest. At any earlier point in his career, Biden could have won this thing without breaking a sweat.

But his moment came just a little too late. Even before Harris began bludgeoning him with the skeletons in his closet, it was clear that the man had lost a step. His voice sounded hoarse. He struggled to hear the moderators. The Democratic front-runner started strong on every answer, then began stumbling halfway through, his canned lines falling out of his mouth in haphazard fashion. Biden promised that “we can deal with the insurance companies by, number one, putting insurance executives in jail for their misleading advertising, what they’re doing on opioids, what they’re doing paying doctors to prescribe” — things that insurance companies had never done. He said he was running for president to help America’s “poor and hardworking middle-class people,” and “you can’t do that without replacing them with the dignity they once had.”

Shortly after Harris came after him, Biden launched into an indignant rant about his lifelong support for civil rights, saying, “I’m the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. We got to the place where we got 98 out of 98 votes in the United States Senate doing it. I’ve also argued very strongly that we, in fact, deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box. I agree that everybody, once they, in fact …” And then he stopped speaking. On a night when every other candidate had shouted over the moderators to get one more word in, Biden cut himself off. He then uttered what just might become his campaign’s epitaph: “Anyway, my time is up, I’m sorry.”

Here’s Who Won (and Lost) the Second Democratic Debate