democratic debates

Steve Bullock’s Big Introduction

Democratic presidential candidate Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (R) speaks while former Maryland congressman John Delaney listens during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Montana governor Steve Bullock, right, and former Maryland congressman John Delaney, left, at the Democratic primary debate July 30 in Detroit. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For months now — and, in some cases, years — a handful of senior Democrats have been whispering to donors, activists, strategists, and pundits that they should take a serious look at Montana governor Steve Bullock. Here’s a guy who’s actually won a statewide race deep in Trump Country, an anti-dark-money crusader with a solid liberal record, who could be the non–Joe Biden, folksy sorta-centrist voters might be looking for, they said. In a normal political world … they’d muse about his prospects, their voices trailing off wistfully. Despite the latent potential, Bullock was one of the last candidates to jump into the 2020 race, and as a result, he didn’t even qualify for the first set of debates in June. He’s polling between zero and one percent, and everywhere he goes, he faces questions about why he isn’t just running for a Senate seat.

So Bullock knew that Tuesday night — his first big chance to introduce himself to voters — would be his best chance at turning his long-shot campaign into one that gets taken seriously. Both the governor and his advisers saw the debate draw — pitting him against Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but not Biden — as a clear opportunity to present himself as a pragmatist.

But they also knew his first shot was probably his only shot: If he didn’t make huge waves, it’d be hard to see how he could make it to the next round of debates, which will require higher levels of polling and donor support for qualification, in September. And every day it looks more like qualifying for the September stage is a prerequisite to keep going in the race: How else are candidates supposed to keep growing their base or, crucially, keep their campaign cash flow going?

When he finally took the stage, he went with an “Are you people serious?” posture, clearly trying to position himself as a more interesting, more realistic, and more compelling candidate than the other non-Sanders, non-Warren, white moderate men on the fringes of the race — John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, and Tim Ryan on Tuesday’s stage, and Michael Bennet on Wednesday’s.

From the start, it seemed like Bullock might, at any moment, look straight into the camera and deliver a deadpan shrug. “I come from a state where a lot of people voted for Donald Trump. Let’s not kid ourselves, he will be hard to beat. Yet watching that last debate, folks seemed more concerned about scoring points or outdoing each other with wish-list economics than making sure Americans know we hear their voices and will help their lives,” he said, hoping an “adult in the room” message would come across as mature and not condescending.

And he demonstrated a potent ability, and willingness, to personalize difficult topics. “Health care is so personal to all of us. Never forget when my 12-year-old son had a heart attack, within 24 hours of his life. Had to be life-flighted to Salt Lake City,” he said, when asked about why he doesn’t support Medicare for All. “But because we had good insurance, he’s here with me tonight. At the end of the day, I’m not going to support any plan that rips away quality health care from individuals. This is an example of wish-list economics. It used to be just Republicans who wanted to repeal and replace. Now many Democrats do, as well.” The debate hall then fell silent when, speaking about gun control, he revealed, “Like 40 percent of American households, I’m a gun owner, I hunt. Like far too many people in America, I’ve been personally impacted by gun violence. Had an 11-year-old nephew, Jeremy, shot and killed on a playground.”

But as the evening wound down, his exchange with Warren over nuclear policy highlighted the sheer scale of the task he still has ahead of him. And it reminded his advocates that this world probably isn’t the one of their wistful musings.

For one, it was one of the few clear opportunities he had to go head-to-head with one of the top-tier contenders — he surely would have loved one of the chances to spar with Sanders or Warren that the moderators repeatedly afforded Delaney.

And Warren seemed incredulous that she even had to make the case the United States should never strike first with a nuclear weapon, arguing that Bullock’s counterproposal would cost the country the trust of other nations. Bullock then slipped up and appeared to misspeak: “We need to get back to nuclear proliferation” — before correcting himself — “de-proliferation, reducing it,” but not before Warren cut in with a disbelieving, “Why?”

The exchange was his last chance to speak before his closing statement.

If Bullock’s goal was to convince voters who hadn’t heard of him to give him a look, he may have achieved it. But the debate was nonetheless dominated by Warren and Sanders. Bullock got less speaking time than Pete Buttigieg, too, though he talked more than both O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar. What’s less clear is whether enough voters will take that look and then give him a chance to keep making his case on the national stage.

Hi, I’m Steve Bullock, Nice to Meet You