democratic debates

How Badly Did Kamala Harris Stumble at the Democratic Debate?

Joe Biden taking malarkey from all sides. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Ben: The theme of tonight’s debate was the nine other candidates onstage going after Joe Biden, on everything from his health-care plan to old comments about not wanting women to work outside the home to … well, just about everything. Biden stumbled a bit, but did not appear as lost or unprepared as he did during the first go-round last month. In your view, did anything that happened tonight dent his front-runner status?

Zak: His polling lead has seemed pretty resilient in the wake of other attacks, but my personal impression is that he still looks totally unequipped for what’s coming in the general. Even if this was an improvement over last time.

Josh: I think it was a good debate for Biden. Partly because I think he was a lot stronger than last time, and fought key exchanges to either wins or draws, and partly because it was a good night for Cory Booker and a bad night for Kamala Harris — further scrambling the field of people who could challenge him for front-runner status.

Ben: Harris had so much momentum after her successful attack on Biden, but tonight she was far less steady and articulate about her own plans. Did this solidify the impression some have of her as something of a political cipher?

Josh: Yes. She is giving more evidence for the narrative that she changes positions for political expediency and positions herself to the center or the left, whichever is convenient at the moment.

I think she’s done usually (though maybe not tonight) a good job threading this needle on criminal justice. But it’s clear she’s not very interested in health care, she’s running on a huge tax cut that makes her health-care plan mathematically implausible, and tonight she split hairs about the plan in a way that I can’t imagine pleased either supporters of Medicare for All or people who like Biden’s appeal to an incremental approach.

Zak: I think it definitely hurt her case as the most credible challenger to Biden’s lane. Her attacks on him resonated less in part because there were fewer opportunities to demonstrate her moral superiority on a galvanizing topic like busing. She looked less distinguishable from him tonight than before. I think she was both lucky and smart to keep relatively quiet during the criminal-justice question because that would have narrowed the distinction even more.

Josh: She also over and over just said things weren’t true without explaining her position. She didn’t explain where she is on busing now, and she didn’t really respond to Gabbard’s critique of her criminal-justice record. She also got into a bizarre exchange with Michael Bennet where he accused her of wanting to get rid of employer-sponsored health insurance and she said that was not true and what she would do is end the link between employment and insurance. Biden (and also Booker) were a lot better at defending their positions.

Ben: Did Booker stand out the most among the non-front-runners? Who else impressed you?

Josh: Other than those three, people on the stage only mattered for how they affected those three.

Zak: I think it’s fair to say Booker stood out the most. That said, this is a format he should’ve been dominating all along. It’s a soap box from which he can deliver viral sound bites.

Ben: I thought Andrew Yang was also solid. No love for him?

Josh: I don’t get the Yang thing. I find him to be a gimmick candidate, and he doesn’t have the aura that Marianne Williamson does. He wants to be about “big ideas,” but universal basic income is such a big idea it just sounds silly, pie in the sky. It also doesn’t match the mood of the party, or the moods of the party, I should say. There’s a big philosophical fight over what the Democratic Party should stand for. Yang doesn’t speak to any of the parts of that fight.

Zak: Yang seemed far more poised and on his game tonight, at least compared to last time, when I was baffled as to why he was on the stage at all. (I haven’t followed his campaign super-closely.) But his constant pivots to AI started to seem incongruous to me. I get that’s his issue, but he didn’t do a great job making the case for its applicability at too many junctures.

Josh: There isn’t a good case for its applicability at most ventures, that’s why.

Zak: Haha.

Josh: I’m serious. There’s no “Robots are taking our jobs, what should we do to get to luxury socialism?” constituency in the Democratic Party.

Ben: I also think Gillibrand did quite well. But it’s almost certainly too late for her to capitalize by making the third debate.

Josh: I didn’t think she did that well. Her problem remains as always: She has no story about why she should be your first choice.

Ben: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think she’s going anywhere, but she had a couple of snappy answers and appeared far more animated and less wooden than last time.

Zak: Gillibrand redeemed herself to me in much the same way Yang did. She finally looked ready but was still unconvincing.

Josh: I can easily imagine voters who watched this debate and viewed her positively, but who is the kind of voter who watches this and decides to vote for her?

Ben: Back to the heavy hitters: How lucky is Biden that he didn’t match up with Warren or Sanders? And will he be able to take the inevitable heat they’ll bring at him when they’re all onstage together?

Josh: I think he’s quite lucky. He let John Delaney and others lob his shots at Warren, and she couldn’t hit him back. And I think Biden’s hit back at Gillibrand was essentially correct: These are people who felt good about Biden when they weren’t running against him, and they have turned to attacks at him that are (1) about things that happened before they had that positive view, (2) are totally incongruous with the image he cut in the Obama-Biden administration, and (3) imply that he’s a person of bad character. He’s right to say those attacks are coming just because he’s leading and they need an argument about why not him.

All that said, Elizabeth Warren has very longstanding policy disagreements with Biden about the bankruptcy bill and other matters. She’s always been clear that she has a different worldview than Biden. And eventually she’ll make the case that she’s with ordinary people and he’s not, and it’ll be a stronger case than what’s come from Gillibrand or Harris.

Zak: Agree that Biden was lucky. I think at the very least, last night’s debate demonstrated how uninspiring and dare I say anti-telegenic the whole “Here’s all the things we can’t do to fix health care” position is when confronted by Warren and Sanders. It’s a topic and format in which they’ve been at their most inspiring, to me at least. They would’ve eaten Biden alive.

Josh: I think Biden’s best line on health care is that Obamacare is good. Republicans are trying to tear down Obamacare, so why are you bad-mouthing it? And I also think the debate last night on health care has been misread. There is polling that suggests this is a risk-averse electorate. As the moderators have noted, a majority of voters tell pollsters they care more about winning than ideological alignment. Democrats are desperate to beat Donald Trump. “We shouldn’t be afraid to be bold progressives” is a good line to get applause in a debate hall, but that doesn’t mean it’s playing as well with voters as you’d gather from Twitter.

There is more broadly an issue that so much of the media analysis of this primary is occurring among journalists and activists who are somewhat baffled by Biden’s persistent lead.

Zak: I ‘m not especially baffled by Biden’s lead, but even if it has bounced back after exchanges like the one with Harris on busing, I’m not convinced it won’t keep narrowing under prolonged exposure to a universal health-care argument of the kind Sanders and Warren have delivered.

Ben: Even though polling shows more people may be comfortable with a public option of the very kind he’s offered?

Zak: I think it comes down to them being great evangelists for their position and him coming off as a shaky and inarticulate spokesman for his.

Ben: Once again we had long exchanges about the specificity of people’s health-care plans, and then we got into the policy weeds on some other issues. I saw one reporter remark, “It is really striking how much of this debate has focused on subsets of issues that are far, far from top of mind for most voters.” Do you agree?

Josh: Yes. The amount of time spent on health care was appropriate. But there was far too much time on immigration. Only 7 percent of Democrats tell Gallup that immigration is the most important issue facing the country. And then the immigration time was in turn spent on a narrow issue — criminalization of illegal border crossing. To some extent, the latter part is an artifact of the format and the huge stage. You ask a question, and you try to get almost everyone in on it. And you want to talk about issues where the candidates differ, rather than just having them all talk about how bad Trump is, which teaches nobody anything.

More broadly, the immigration discussion among Democrats is very often (including tonight) framed primarily as about the concerns of people who are not American citizens and therefore won’t vote in this election, which is a problem with the party’s marketing on the issue. They don’t talk enough about what their immigration policies will do for Americans, which is partly an issue with the questions but also an issue with where they go when they have the opportunity to answer.

Zak: I think its defensible to try teasing out substantive differences between the candidates on immigration and how fundamentally they differ from Trump. Even if immigration isn’t the top issue for most, it was the top issue for Trump supporters in 2016. And his treatment of the issue (kids in cages) seems to be among the most galvanizing for Democrats insisting on the moral atrocity of his presidency.

And I read that immigration exchange as more of a proxy debate over the criminalization of undocumented immigration more broadly. Which isn’t necessarily a defense of how in the weeds it got, but at the very least it revealed that almost all the candidates would almost certainly still imprison immigrants for not having papers, and that Biden and Yang believe Ph.D.’s and business acumen are what makes immigrants worthwhile.

Josh: Yeah, Biden and Yang spoke to how immigration can benefit American citizens.

Ben: At least Robert Mueller’s name came up this time, though right at the end — and there was quite a bit about climate change.

Josh: I don’t need to hear them talk about Mueller.

Ben: I think it merits mention, at least — don’t need much, but it’s strange to ignore the impeachment question completely.

Josh: That’s fine, but they ended up spending several minutes essentially debating whether you need to change this specific law so a future Republican president would be prevented from doing what Trump is doing after a future Democratic president has an opportunity to change the law. It’s quite a few steps removed from the current crisis

Ben: I did feel that many of the exchanges could be described that way — “removed from the current crisis.”

When all is said and done, how much did any of this move the needle?

Zak: Someone on TV just said Booker will raise more money than he has before or will moving forward off the strength of this debate performance, and I’m realizing I agree.

Josh: I think the importance of debates is overrated in general. Remember, the last one was supposed to have gravely harmed Biden and vaulted Harris to second place. Now the polls are back where they were before that debate. So my usual assumption is that the effects are small. But the main small effect here is a boost to Booker — it gives him a chance to snowball, raise money, gain more media attention, and use that to climb up into the tier below Biden. Which he may or may not capitalize on. And the other main effect is that every day Biden does not lose the lead is a day he is closer to the nomination.

How Badly Did Kamala Harris Stumble at the Dem Debate?