democratic debates

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

Winning. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Days after a heavily armed sociopath unleashed hell on yet another American community — and the president directed yet another racist tantrum at his nonwhite constituents — another ten of the Democratic Party’s top 2020 hopefuls gathered in Detroit to debate the many urgent questions facing our sorrowful republic.

But the only question that really mattered Wednesday night was this: Which candidates will derive 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 query. Here is how the ten Democratic candidates’ debate performances rank, from best to worst:

1) Joe Biden

At Wednesday night’s debate, Biden told Americans who shared his vision for the country to “go to” his first name and then five random numbers. He promised to put insurance executives in jail for “the million opioids” that drug companies “sell out there.” And he referred to Cory Booker as the president, then corrected himself (and described his primary rival as the “future president”).

Faced with stinging criticisms of his unsavory record, Biden argued that only a cynical opportunist would censure a primary rival for decade-old positions that they had never denounced before running for president — and then censured his primary rivals for decade-old positions that he had never denounced before running for president. The former veep used Barack Obama as a human shield; right until defending Obama’s record appeared to be slightly inconvenient, at which point he threw his hero under the bus.

But Biden also made it through the entire three-hour debate without fainting, vomiting, or sharing fond reminiscences about a single segregationist. And the available evidence suggests that this was all he had to do to leave Detroit with a “win.”

“Go to Joe30330” aside, Biden’s senescence was more conspicuous at the first debate than it was on Wednesday night. Booker landed some punches in Detroit, but none more vicious than the one Harris handed Biden in Miami. And while she left a bruise on Uncle Joe’s candidacy, that mark only took a couple weeks to fade. The former vice-president was polling at about 32 percent on the eve of June’s debate — and that is precisely where he polls today. He is 16 points ahead of his closest rival nationally. And while he only leads by mid-single digits in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s 25 points ahead of the field in South Carolina, and boasts a similar advantage in just about every other southern state where surveys have been taken.

Biden’s constant cowering behind the sentiment “If my record is so bad, why did the most beloved man in the Democratic Party choose to put me a heartbeat away from the presidency?” may look pathetic from my perspective. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t persuasive from the median Democrat’s. Joe Biden is asking an electorate that adores Barack Obama to believe that their favorite president chose his running mate for the most high-minded of reasons, and then ran an administration whose policies were admirable in (almost) every particular. When attacking Biden Wednesday night, his rivals were effectively asking that same electorate to believe Obama had chosen to partner with a sexist architect of mass incarceration for crass electoral reasons, and then proceeded to needlessly deport millions of sympathetic immigrants for the same. There is no evidence that there is a significant constituency for the latter narrative among Democratic primary voters. On the other hand, there is a significant minority of Democratic voters with right-leaning views on a wide range of social and cultural issues who are more likely to see Biden’s history of supporting tough-on-crime policies, or his complicity in Obama’s hardline border-enforcement measures, as assets rather than liabilities.

It is still early. And Biden’s inability to recite prerehearsed texting instructions to his followers does seem ominous for his campaign (and potentially for Democrats in the general election). But it’s not that early. At this point in 2015, Donald Trump had already opened up a comfortable lead over the GOP primary field that pundits assumed would never last. Biden’s lead over the Democratic field today is more than twice as large as Trump’s was then.

2) Cory Booker

At the first Democratic debate, Booker did everything in his power to remind Democrats that he’s a gifted communicator who shares some of the attributes of the guy they wish they could send back to the White House. The New Jersey senator spoke eloquently about a wide range of issues, implored Americans to unite to defeat Trump by embracing a “common purpose” and their republic’s highest ideals, and spoke a few sentences of terrible Spanish.

And he gained roughly no support for his efforts. Coming into Detroit, Booker was neck-and-neck with Andrew Yang for seventh place in national polls of the primary contest.

On Wednesday, Booker did about exactly what he’d done during the last go-round, only this time, instead of speaking Spanish, he serially murdered the former vice-president of the United States in the gentlest possible fashion:

It’s hard to imagine how Booker could have acquitted himself better. The man managed to make the phrase “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor” land as a devastating insight. If Booker doesn’t gain steam after this showing, it’s safe to assume he never will.

3) Kirsten Gillibrand

On a night when some other candidates got tangled up in inscrutable arguments over minutiae, the New York senator kept her policy arguments accessible, human, and impassioned.

She also suggested that she was uniquely qualified to heal America’s racial divides because “as a white woman of privilege,” she “can talk to those white women in the suburbs that voted for Trump and explain to them what white privilege actually is, that when their son is walking down a street with a bag of M&Ms in his pocket, wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot.”

It seems unlikely that the Democratic Party will win back many Trump voters by having privileged ladies knock on doors in Republican suburbs to raise awareness about how outrageously few white suburban teenagers get shot for eating M&Ms nowadays.

But it’s conceivable that Gillibrand’s otherwise strong performance could win her enough voters to keep her on the debate stage in September.

4) Tulsi Gabbard

Gabbard is a strange person who has advanced very bad views on a strange list of issues. But she performed a vital service Wednesday night by forcing Kamala Harris to answer for the more draconian aspects of her prosecutorial record.

5) Andrew Yang

Just about every time Yang spoke Wednesday night, he described an under-discussed policy challenge in bracingly clear and concise terms — and then implausibly suggested that giving every American $12,000 a year would make the problem go away.

The dissonance between the entrepreneur’s clear-sighted diagnosis of our polity’s ailments — and his psychotically single-minded prescription for curing them — was most conspicuous on the subject of climate change:

[T]he United States was only 15 percent of global emissions. We like to act as if we’re 100 percent, but the truth is even if we were to curb our emissions dramatically, the Earth is still going to get warmer. And we can see it around it us this summer. The last four years have been the four warmest years in recorded history. This is going to be a tough truth, but we are too late. We are ten years too late.

Here, Yang spoke truths inconvenient to all participants about America’s climate debate: While reducing emissions is vital, there is little our nation-state can do by itself to avert catastrophic warming. And even if we do get our house in order, and can put together a coalition of the willing to take on CO2, the carbon we’ve already burned will (almost certainly) condemn us to an increasingly inhospitable climate for centuries to come. A normal politician capable of ascertaining this grim fact might propose redoubled efforts to fortify or relocate frontline communities and to draft comprehensive federal, state, and local climate-resiliency plans. Yang, by contrast, recommended using your $1,000-a-month basic income to purchase guns, canned beans, and a cabin in the hills:

We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction, but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground. And the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.

Yang made compelling points on a wide range of issues. But his performance added up to a persuasive argument that “single-issue outsider candidate” is one job that can’t be automated out of existence fast enough.

6) Julián Castro

Castro turned in another perfectly fine showing. Although, his (substantively commendable) advocacy for decriminalizing illegal border crossing has now led both CNN and NBC to treat the question “Should illegally crossing the U.S. border be a civil infraction punishable by deportation or a criminal misdemeanor that is very selectively prosecuted?” as a matter so accessible and consequential to ordinary Americans that it merits roughly as much debate time as climate change. Which is annoying.

7) Michael Bennet

The Colorado senator came into Detroit polling at approximately zero percent, and nothing that happened Wednesday night is likely to change that. Still, Bennet made a unique and worthwhile contribution to Wednesday’s debate by forcing CNN’s audience to grapple with the question of whether his voice sounds more like that of character actor John C. Reilly or an old and grizzled Kermit the Frog.

8) Jay Inslee

Inslee is an accomplished governor of a mid-size state whose plans for addressing the most important policy challenge facing humankind are more comprehensive than any other candidate. He did a solid job conveying both of these facts Wednesday night. But he didn’t say anything about how he would extinguish Donald Trump’s dark psychic energy through the power of love, so he’ll probably be polling a shade behind Marianne Williamson by the middle of next week.

9) Bill de Blasio

Come home and fix the subway.

10) Kamala Harris

Minutes after taking the stage, the California senator tripped over her own triangulation and never quite regained her balance. Earlier in the week, Harris’s campaign had released a plan for providing the candidate with a way to effectively abandon her support for Medicare For All without officially doing so. Designed to reconcile Harris’s past endorsement of Bernie Sanders’s single-payer plan with her current desire to avoid defending its least popular provisions, Harris’s proposal looked convoluted to policy analysts examining it on paper — and sounded utterly incomprehensible to CNN viewers trying to piece it together through 30-second sound bites. As the senator struggled to explain that her policy would not force all Americans onto Medicare for (at least) ten years — at which point they would still have the option of choosing a “private” Medicare plan (whereas, “4 million babies” would immediately gain access to the public Medicare plan), her rivals attacked her mind-boggling, middle-ground policy from both right and left. The best Harris could manage in response was to assure voters that Kathleen Sebelius had endorsed her plan, which was surely a meaningful and comforting piece of information to at least five or six people in CNN’s audience.

Harris’s core strength in the 2020 race has been her exceptional poise and stage presence. In her closing statement, the senator tacitly acknowledged this fact, inviting Democratic voters to fantasize about how she would deploy her prosecutorial acumen against Donald Trump in a general-election debate. But by that point, she had spent nearly three hours undermining her own case.

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