For those watching Debate Night 2 from Colorado, there were at least two races in play. In the first, let’s agree that Kamala Harris had a remarkable night, dominating a stage with 10 debaters — some of them quite good — in the mix, taking on (and, for a night, taking down) poll leader Joe Biden with a personal story pitting little-girl Kamala being bused to school against all-grown-up then-Sen. Biden fighting against busing alongside some of the worst racists in the Senate.
Biden argued about de jure and de facto segregation — a distinction remembered only by us old folk — and for local control, which was, of course, the way for many localities to keep schools from integrating. It was a terrible argument at the time and a disastrous one in these woke times.
Harris had many good moments, which must have surprised those who have seen her so cautious in her town hall meetings. I’m sure viewers can now see her taking on Trump in a debate, which is probably the most that anyone could accomplish with 10 people debating — and often shouting — at once. There was chaos, there was a stage full of people fighting to be heard, there was Marianne Williamson for comic relief, there was Chuck Todd asking for absurd one-word answers to complex questions, there was Biden who seemed, somehow, worryingly unprepared for the hits he took, and there was Harris, who was, for most of the night, the only person you could see.
OK, Mayor Pete had a decent night. He had a great answer on the police shooting of a black man in South Bend, Ind., admitting that the uproar was on him — that he hadn’t gotten it done. John Hickenlooper jumped in to claim credit for cop-versus-community success in Denver. It was easily swatted away. Buttigieg’s answer on GOP religious hypocrisy was quite good. Buttigieg has had better nights, but he showed why he’s been the breakthrough candidate in the race and must be accounted for. And Bernie Sanders was dependably Bernie, which may or may not have been a good thing in a debate with a bunch of new faces.
But for Coloradans, there was another race: Michael Bennet vs. John Hickenlooper, and this was nearly as easily decided as the main event. There are consequences here, too. Not sure how much longer two moderate Democrats from Colorado can stay in the race. To that end, Bennet was the easy winner. I tend to forget sometimes just how bad Hickenlooper is in this format. He’s not a good debater. He speaks too fast. He fumbles. He looks like he’s struggling to do a better job of speaking when he should be struggling to get his ideas a fair hearing. And so, he swung and missed on an early and easy question on Bernie’s Democratic socialism, and he never quite recovered.
Bennet, on the other hand, showed he belonged on any debate stage. When Biden tried to take credit for the 2012 fiscal cliff deal, Bennet jumped in and hammered him, noting the deal was a disaster for Democrats and a clear win for Mitch McConnell. Bennet didn’t get the immigration question, but he answered it anyway on this next question — telling the story of his mom, a Polish Jew, surviving the Holocaust, lamenting the deaths of a father and daughter on the banks of the Rio Grande, and pointing out the disgrace of a president embracing an unnecessary wall over the welcoming sight of the Statue of Liberty. Bennet got a small buzz going in the political press, which can only help.
Assuming the TV audience numbers were high, with four of the top five contenders on the stage, including Bernie and Biden, I’m wondering if Bennet’s solid performance gives him a slight uptick in the polls. He’s struggling at under 1% — along with Hickenlooper and about half the unwieldy field — but I could see him adding a point or two, which would be a big deal for now. I could also see him completely overshadowed by Harris’s smack down with Biden, and the pig-tailed photo of little Kamala Harris, the bused student who said that experience changed her life. You can already buy the T-shirt: That little girl was me.
This debate was hardly fatal for Biden. Think back to Obama’s two terrible debates, one in a primary debate in South Carolina and one in the first general election debate against Mitt Romney. He recovered and would eventually dominate debates. But there were already anonymously sourced rumblings from Biden’s staff that he had resisted preparing.
The real danger for Biden is that black women are his No. 1 support group and Harris’s “That Little Girl Was Me” has a chance to make a significant dent in that support, which could well swing to Harris. If you’ll recall from 2008, Hillary Clinton was polling well ahead of Obama with blacks in South Carolina until he won Iowa. And then it all changed. Bill Clinton tried to minimize Obama’s candidacy, which was a political disaster for the Clintons.
I would guess that most Democrats were happy enough with both debates and hope that, sooner rather than later, the field is much reduced. I think money will start to dry up for candidates who don’t make a move by at least the second round of debates later this month.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump was in Japan for a G-20 meeting, not at all worried that he had criticized three of the leaders on the Twitter machine before arrival, and then joked — yes, joked — when a reporter asked whether he would ask Vladimir Putin about meddling in American elections. With a smirk, all caught on video, Trump jokingly told a laughing Putin, “Don’t meddle in the election.”
After Thursday’s debate, it would be easy to envision, say, Kamala Harris on a stage asking Trump just what he thought was so funny.