The real news from the Houston debate was not Joe Biden’s overpraised performance. He was OK for the first hour, not so much after that and that’s not even counting the late-breaking record player reference. Or the continued benefit to Elizabeth Warren for making Sanders’s points better, and more reassuringly, than Bernie can. Or Julian Castro’s cheap shot at Biden’s memory/age. Or the Yang Gang Lottery, now officially open. What more is there to say on Andrew Yang except how did this guy make the debate stage while a U.S. senator watches on TV?
And the real news certainly wasn’t the networks’ insistence that each debate begin with an extended take on health care reform even as all the candidates — OK, with the exception of Kamala Harris, of course — continue to say exactly what they had said in previous debates. By the way, when you’re thinking about this topic and Medicare for All, you might want to read a report cited by The Colorado Sun that the Denver metro area’s 27 for-profit hospitals made more than $2 billion in pre-tax profits in 2018.
No, the real news came from the third tier. And the reaction to that news may say much about the future of the Democratic primary.
History tells us that frontrunners often fade and that someone usually emerges from the back of the pack. The frontrunner argument is obvious. Jeb!, Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, Ed Muskie, on and on. And Gary Hart, the 1984 phenom who went to New Hampshire to endorse Michael Bennet, makes the come-from-nowhere argument come alive. Jimmy Carter could have done the same. In 2004, John Kerry went from leader to the middle of the pack to winning. John McCain took a similar path in 2008.
It’s probably a mistake to believe the field is already narrowed to three. If you watched the debate Thursday night, it looked like three third-tier candidates won some attention.
Cory Booker had another strong debate performance, funny and passionate. And yet, he was just as good in the second debate and that didn’t matter at all. In a post-debate interview on CNN, he joined Castro in taking a swing at Biden, citing the former vice-president’s tendency to meander, while questioning whether Biden can “carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling.” It was a hard shot — Booker said it wasn’t ageism, that Biden has always been this way — but it wasn’t a Castro-level cheap shot.
Amy Klobuchar had her best debate performance, meaning that for the first time anyone noticed, she was on the stage. But her platform seems to be that since she’s from the middle of the country — Minnesota — she, uh, can appeal to people in the middle of the country.
But, mostly, it was Beto O’Rourke’s best day in the race since his first one. Nearly everyone on the stage praised his response to the gun massacre in El Paso, his home town. The most remembered quote of the night will almost certainly be on Beto’s mandatory buyback plan of guns designed for use on the battlefield. When asked if that means he’ll confiscate weapons, he said — and get ready for the bumper stickers and T-shirts — “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
The questions now are whether Booker, Beto or Klobuchar get any kind of bounce in the polls and whether the race at the top — among Biden, Warren and Sanders — changes at all and whether Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, both sitting in the middle, moved the needle after relatively quiet nights.
If Michael Bennet was watching the debate, he has to hope for some kind of breakthrough from the bottom tier. Bennet has been praised by any number of pundits for his campaign, but he has yet to figure out a way to make any headway in the polls. It’s one thing to complain about the DNC trying to limit the field, as Bennet does constantly, and another to complain when you can’t make 2 percent in the polls.
My theory on why there has been so little post-Biden movement in the race, other than Warren’s rise and Harris’s rise and fade, is two-fold.
One, that between them, Sanders and Warren have a lock on the issues that move progressives and activists while the rest of the field is basically offering more pragmatic (read: less exciting) answers to the same questions.
Two, Biden is also going for the pragmatic vote, but that’s not why he’s leading the polls. Rather, it’s his success on two fronts — creating the perception, which may be reality, that he is the best choice to win back white working-class voters and, at the same time, building a huge polling lead in the African-American community, which is why he ties himself to Barack Obama in nearly every sentence. And yet, of all the candidates on the stage, he has the most trouble answering questions about race. Will this matter?
It’s easy enough to predict that eventually someone wins the Warren-Bernie fight, but will Biden hold up? It’s strange, but he seems to struggle most when answering questions about race. Late in the debate, he answered a question on what can be done to repair the legacy of slavery by suggesting that parents who live in segregated neighborhoods “don’t quite know what to do” and that one thing that parents in these neighborhoods can do “is make sure you have the record player on at night, make sure that kids hear words …”
Of course many parents in segregated neighborhoods are perfectly capable and don’t need parenting advice. Biden was saying that kid from disadvantaged families are often behind when they get to school because many haven’t been exposed to the level of vocabulary that kids with more advantages have been. Some modern studies question the concept of a word gap. “Record player” — at least he didn’t say 8-track — was a blip, but the rambling quote, in its entirety, will make your head hurt. It sounded a lot like straight-out paternalism to me, but that seems to have been lost in the record player discussion.
I’m still ready to believe, because the history is pretty clear, that by the time we get to Iowa, there will be unanticipated dramatic change in the race and that the Big Three of today are unlikely to finish 1-2-3 in the February caucuses. But I’m also ready to believe that this debate didn’t bring us any closer to figuring out what the dramatic change might be.