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What to Make of the Democratic Debates

AWalter Head
June 28, 2019

It is dangerous to read too much into any debate —especially one held more than six months before the first Democratic caucus in Iowa. Even so, these first two Democratic debates are instructive. First, they give us a benchmark for evaluating these candidates over time: Who wears well and who withers as the campaign gets into higher gear? They also put these candidates on the record. Finally, Democratic voters prioritize beating President Trump above all else. As such, they are looking to see how these Democrats literally held themselves on stage and imagined how they would look if they were facing off against Trump.

So, let's take a look at how the back-to-back debates set the stage for the next round of the campaign.

The polls have the race about right.

Yes, 25 candidates are running for the nomination. But, only five to six of them are serious contenders for the nomination. The RealClearPolitics average shows that five candidates combined—Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg—take between 71 percent to 76 percent of the vote in national and early state polling. Nothing that happened in these two debates changed that math. Senator Cory Booker and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro performed well in their Wednesday night debate. But, strong enough to break into the double digits—or overcome any of those five? I don't see it.

Will it rearrange the order of the top five? Maybe. But, not fundamentally. Biden came in as the frontrunner and took a lot of incoming flak on everything from his age, to his record on race, to his support for the Iraq war. He looked good on some things (he easily swatted down Rep. Eric Swalwell's ham-handed generational attack) but was shakier on race (Harris attacked him on his past record on busing and two Democrats commented to me post-debate that his "states rights" answer on busing was terrible). Overall, however, he took a lot of punches but didn't take on water.

Where we might see some movement is with Harris who put in the strongest performance of any candidate over the two nights. 

Republicans licking their chops on Democrats' answers on health care and immigration.

I'll be honest; I thought President Trump would be doing a lot more tweeting during these debates. He tweeted only twice. The first night, he put out  a one-word tweet: BORING. On Thursday night, he was a little more prolific: "All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first? That's the end of that race!"

What the president is referring to in that tweet was the fact that when asked by the NBC moderators whether "your government [health care] plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants," every candidate raised his or her hand. All but one candidate — Sen. Michael Bennet, also agreed "it should be a civil offense rather than a crime to cross the border without documentation."

In a post-debate panel I moderated here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp made the case that to win re-election, Trump needs to make 2020 a choice election, not a referendum. And, every Democrat gave him the opening for making that contrast. He will attack the eventual nominee as weak on border security, in favor of giving away 'free' stuff to people here illegally. Additionally, in the case of Sen. Sanders, Warren, and Harris, supportive of taking away American's ability to carry private insurance.

Going forward, it will be important to watch how the Democrats answer the attacks and defend their positions. And, to see how effectively Republicans will be at getting these attacks to stick. Can Republicans set the narrative about Democrats before the eventual nominee is able to do that him/herself?

Who passed the "electability" test?

The question post-debates shouldn't be who won, but who succeeded in proving that they could stand up to Trump — on a debate stage and on the campaign trail. The two who improved their marks on that ground were Harris and Buttigieg. Both looked steady, confident and prepared. Sanders, however, did himself no favors on that front. Though only a couple of years separate him and Biden, he looked significantly older and wearier than the former Vice President. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke also failed significantly on that front. He came across as passive and, despite his height, small. Booker, by contrast, filled up the stage and held his ground.