On the second night of the second round of Democratic debates, the clear winners were Cory Booker, who arrived just in time, and Elizabeth Warren, who wasn’t even there, which is a hell of a trick if you can pull it off.
The clear loser was the format, which still hasn’t allowed Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders to share a stage, at which point the debate season can officially begin.
There were other losers, those 1-2 percenters who made little to no progress in moving the needle, which includes nearly all of them, with the possible exceptions of Booker, Julian Castro, who had a good night, and maybe even Andrew Yang. Meanwhile, Michael Bennet had some good moments, including one really good moment, but also some fairly lackluster ones. Unfortunately for Bennet, the lackluster ones came early in the evening. He didn’t really break through until he started yelling about Trump and kids and segregation. When Bernie yells, it’s just the way he talks. When Bennet yells, he’s trying desperately to be heard.
The news from the debate was twofold — that Biden, though his performance was much improved from Debate 1, gave no indication he was ready to handle Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in Debate 3; that Harris is not as good in taking criticism as she is in giving it out, but, then, who is? Harris had what the critics like to call an “uneven” debate — meaning she wasn’t so good — after her great success in the first round. My guess is it won’t change her standing.
Here’s my still-way-too-early handicapping of the race after two debate rounds:
1. Warren. She wiped the floor with third- and fourth-tier candidates on the first night, and she looked like she was eager to go after Biden (and maybe Harris) next. Did you see her rub her hands in excitement before she went after John Delaney on her wealth tax?
2. Harris. Tulsi Gabbard attacked Harris with very tough questions about Harris’s record as attorney general and San Francisco DA. Harris didn’t really engage with the third-tier candidate. Was that a mistake? These questions will come back, and Harris will need to have answers. Also the debate opened with Harris’s newest Medicare for All plan. The argument, which took up much of the first half hour, did little to clear up what the plan actually does. I mean, who cares if former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius likes it, as Harris kept insisting?
3. Biden. He had to do better than his lackluster performance in Debate 1. He did. He wasn’t great, but he was OK. He looked not at all sleepy (Note to Mr. Cheap-Shooter-in-Chief) and was clearly engaged for much of the debate. He generally tried to turn attacks on him — on immigration, on criminal justice, on women’s rights — into attacks on Trump. He defended his positions as those, in many cases, he shared with Obama. This has been a problem. The debates, to this point, have seen a lot of shade thrown on Obama, who remains extremely popular with Democrats and many other Americans. It’s not about Obama, though. It’s about Biden, who wants to run as Obama’s stand-in. Moving on from Obamacare is not a criticism of Obama. If Obama were running today, and if he hadn’t written the law, he’d be calling for moving on from Obamacare. Biden will still lead in the polls, but I’m guessing he’s nowhere close in the enthusiasm factor. Does anyone have the analytics on that?
4. Booker. One of the mysteries of the race is why Booker hasn’t done better. He’s smart, he has charisma. His one-on-one moments vs. Biden, especially on criminal justice, were clear wins for him. I mean, you have to be the winner when you drop “There’s a saying in my community — that you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” on your opponent. Even the Kool-Aid Man endorsed the line. Biden, maybe somewhat flustered, first called Booker the president and then amended it to “future president.” If Booker’s numbers don’t grow now, it’s just possible he’s not going to be a serious contender.
5. Bernie. He’s actually higher than 5th, but I put him here because I don’t really see a path for him to win the nomination. You just can’t dismiss the difference between where Bernie finished in 2016 and where he is now. He and Warren are virtually tied for second place in the polls, and Warren, who makes Bernie’s case better than Bernie does, will probably pass him in the next round.
Which brings us to Bennet, the 1 percenter, who needed, like Hickenlooper in Tuesday’s debate, to break out. I don’t think he did, although he came much closer than Hick. And he did have one of the best answers of the night. When asked about racial injustice, he turned it back to his favorite topic — education. It’s worth quoting in part:
“This is the fourth debate that we have had, and the second time that we have been debating what people did 50 years ago with busing, when our schools are as segregated as they were 50 years ago. We need a conversation about what’s happening now, and when there’s a group of kids in this country that don’t get preschool through no fault of their own and another group does—equal is not equal.”
He went on to argue that the trillions in tax cuts given mostly to the wealthy in the last two decades and the trillions spent on useless wars could have gone to curing many of the country’s present ills. And he was effective in attacking Trump, particularly with his much-cheered line that “kids belong in classrooms, not in cages.”
He was strong in the second half of the debate, but in the first half, he was, with Biden, the lone critic of Medicare for All. And Bennett, in defending the public option and the right for people to choose if they want to keep their company-provided insurance, failed to emphasize just how bad the health insurance industry actually is, which seemed to cheer Republican Twitter.
So, now Bennet, after his late start due to his surgery, is unlikely to qualify for the third debate in September and will have to spend that time trying to qualify for the fourth round. That’s a real problem. In the meantime, his entire campaign strategy depends on Biden imploding. That could happen in a couple of ways. If Booker and Harris do well, they could severely cut into Biden’s African-American support. And Biden will finally have to take on Warren in the next round of debates. She and Sanders will both strongly question the notion of whether Biden is the best candidate to take on Trump.
But if Biden does falter, there’s Pete Buttigieg, who’s a solid fifth in the polls, in the same lane as Bennet. Both Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, for that matter, will be in the third debate. Amy Klobuchar, another moderate, probably will, too. In other words, Bennet started the race as a long shot and, two debates in, he remains one.