democratic debates

5 Winners From the Fifth Democratic Primary Debate

Got to admit he’s getting Booker. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Here we are again. For the fifth time in five months, a bafflingly numerous bunch of Democratic presidential candidates just spent two hours engaged in the talking points-recitation competition we call a “debate” in our sorry excuse for a democracy. And now, once again, you’re shouting into the void (and/or, Google’s search bar), demanding answers to questions like “Who won the Democratic debate?” or “Who were the winners of the Democratic debate?” And you expect me, or someone like me — a college-educated, New York City-based journalist who reads about politics all day every day, and is thus uniquely unqualified to see this tedious carnival through the eyes of the median Democratic voter — to tell you what it all added up to, in the end.

Well, if you insist. Here are the five winners of last night’s fifth Democratic debate:

1) Cory Booker.

The New Jersey senator has made a regular habit of (figuratively) disembowling Joe Biden in the most jovial way imaginable. At debate after debate, like a psychopathic Ned Flanders, Booker has gone medieval on the old man without ever ceasing to smile or spout cringe-inducingly corny one-liners. In August, Booker took Biden to task for his record on criminal justice while dropping witticisms like, “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”

On Wednesday, Booker was at it again, ripping Biden’s failure to fully unlearn his drug-warrior ways while quipping, “This week, I hear [Biden] literally say that ‘I don’t think we should legalize marijuana’ — I thought you might have been high when you said it!”

Now, Booker has racked up more critically acclaimed debate performances this year than percentage points of voter support. The safe assumption is that his latest cheerful assault will prove as politically impotent as the previous ones. But there’s at least one reason to think his latest jab at Biden might prove more potent: Whereas previous attacks on the Democratic frontrunner have focused on Biden’s historic betrayals of contemporary Democratic orthodoxy — or else, the former vice-president’s spurning of today’s progressive vanguard — Booker targeted an issue where the elder statesman is truly behind the times: Two thirds of the American public supports marijuana legalization. Among Democratic primary voters, that percentage is even higher. Virtually every non-Biden candidate, from Amy Klobuchar to Bernie Sanders, is high on legal weed. Biden’s reluctance to make peace with marijuana legalization, like his constant struggles to find his way around an English sentence, is a reminder that there may be some downsides to nominating the oldest moderate on offer.

2) Amy Klobuchar’s hair.

It really shook things up.

3) Pete Buttigieg.

The South Bend mayor entered Wednesday’s debate riding high. In recent weeks, Buttigieg’s support has surged in both Iowa and New Hampshire. In the Hawkeye State, the most recent Des Moines Register poll found mayor Pete leading the Democratic field by ten points. Buttigieg’s rise was widely attributed to Elizabeth Warren’s recent decline, which was itself an ostensible product of the barrage of attacks her campaign had attracted following its own polling surge a little over a month ago. Thus, conventional wisdom held that Wednesday would be Pete’s turn to run the gauntlet: Surely, low-polling center-left candidates would relish this opportunity to expose the wunderkind for the underqualified, overpolished, ladder-climbing, backbiting McKinsey consultant he truly is.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Kamala Harris & Co. all played the debate equivalent of the prevent defense. Even when moderators tried to bait the California senator into taking a swipe at Buttigieg, she largely resisted. Apparently, while everyone wants to see Pete get taken down a notch, no one wants to sign up for that task themselves, given his high favorability numbers among Democratic voters.

The only candidate who really went after Pete Wednesday was Tulsi Gabbard — who also chose to frame herself as a staunch opponent of the Democratic Party.

With enemies like that, Pete doesn’t need friends.

4) People who are not professionally obligated to watch Democratic primary debates.

I’m so tired.

5) Joe Biden.

The former vice-president began his debate night in the early afternoon — when his campaign asked its supporters if he had made them proud at the future debate that had just passed.

Biden’s actual performance was about as smooth and coherent as that email. The Democratic frontrunner couldn’t even get through the first two sentences of his opening statement without stumbling, his remarks beginning with a tautology and ending in gibberish: “The next president of the United States is going to have to do two things: Defeat Donald Trump, that’s number one. And, number two, going to have to be able make be …”

Later, he argued that the only way to solve the problem of sexual violence was to “keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it.” He looked and sounded too old to be out past 10 p.m., let alone, to be president of the United States for at least four years, beginning over one year from now.

Which is exactly how he has looked and sounded in all of his previous debate performances. And yet, he still boasts a double-digit lead in national polls over his closest competitor, while no other candidate has showed any sign of threatening his grip on the African-American vote. So, this was, ostensibly, the ideal debate showing. You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like:

5 Winners From the Fifth Democratic Primary Debate