Gabriel Debenedetti, Intelligencer’s national political correspondent, attended the Democratic debate in Atlanta Wednesday night. I spoke with him about his impressions from an evening that came at the end of a long day of political drama in Washington — and seemed to suffer for it at times.
Ben: Given that we did a whole chat about how Pete Buttigieg would be the central target of attack at Wednesday night’s debate and then that didn’t really happen (except when Tulsi Gabbard rather incoherently went after him toward the end), I feel I have to begin there. Why didn’t everyone pile on the mayor, as expected?
Gabriel: Well, I’ll have a full story on this tomorrow (check back, folks!), but the short answer is that the other candidates basically calculated that while they want to see Buttigieg fall, it wasn’t in any of their individual interests to be the one to carry out the take-down. We saw something similar the first time Warren was considered a front-runner a few months ago — the real fire came the next debate.
Ben: Set your clocks to December 19, the date of the next debate. That is, if Buttigieg is still leading in Iowa at that point.
Gabriel: But don’t, like, sleep until then. There’s a lot going on, Ben!
Ben: The online consensus seemed to be that this debate — at least for most of its running time — lacked the spark and energy of some previous installments, almost as if the candidates were as tired as political journalists who had spent all day covering impeachment. (Not to make it about us or anything.) From your vantage point down there in Atlanta, did you feel the same way?
Gabriel: Here in the media filing center, it certainly felt like everyone was waiting for … something that just didn’t happen. But a lot of the debates have felt like that, in person. There were certainly lots of spicy moments, when you think back on it, but it’s hard to point to any one, or any single exchange that’s certain to break through in the daily news coverage. Feels inevitable that Gordon Sondland’s testimony — and tomorrow’s impeachment developments — have that space locked down.
Ben: The spiciest exchange may have been Tulsi Gabbard versus Kamala Harris, who went after the Hawaiian for cozying up with Steve Bannon and ragging on the Democratic party. That duo wasn’t exactly on the marquee.
Gabriel: Tulsi Gabbard versus Pete Buttigieg was also quite an event there at the end, and Cory Booker had a few memorable lines, there, too. But if we’ve learned one lesson from these debates, it’s maybe that it’s really very difficult to predict what’s going to matter to, or stick with, the actual voters.
Ben: In that vein, Joe Biden looked a little groggy at the beginning there, but, unlike in previous debates, seemed to gain strength as the night wore on. He did have a couple of cringey moments — he said violence against women was never okay but then specified that there’s an exception if it’s self-defense, and he said he had earned support from the only black woman ever elected to the Senate, seeming to forget that Kamala Harris was standing feet away. But given that similar or worse gaffes on debate stages have done nothing to dent his support, it seems unlikely that these will.
Gabriel: I think we’re well past the point where rival campaigns are expecting Biden’s gaffes, if that’s what we’re going to call them, to materially change the shape of things. And in fact, Team Biden is likely to be pretty happy with the way this shaped up — they were very eager to have Biden talk foreign policy on a national debate stage at some point.
Ben: To my eyes, nobody really damaged themselves in any major way, except maybe Gabbard — Warren and Bernie both turned in strong performances, Buttigieg did what he had to do. And some of the non-frontrunners did quite well, too. Klobuchar had an excellent night, Andrew Yang had some good moments, and Kamala Harris turned in her best performance in months. Do you think anyone who really needed a boost helped their case particularly well? (And do you disagree with any of the assessments I laid out?)
Gabriel: Fair to say Gabbard may have made it difficult for herself to gain a ton of new voters tonight, but her own core supporters tend to like performances like these, so I’m not sure she’ll see the evening as a terrible disaster. However, I think Booker in particular will be happy with his time onstage. He’s the one who maybe needed the most help to get on the next debate stage, and his ad-libbed closing — invoking John Lewis — seemed to really hit home here.
Ben: Oh right, him! He was good, too.
Gabriel: … and therein lies his problem.