Littwin: Dem debates haven’t mattered much so far, and it may be awhile yet before they do

WESTERVILLE, OHIO - OCTOBER 15: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) looks on as South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. A record 12 presidential hopefuls are participating in the debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WESTERVILLE, OHIO - OCTOBER 15: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) looks on as South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. A record 12 presidential hopefuls are participating in the debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It was another big debate night, and the key question after it was finally over is whether these debates, particularly one with 12 people on stage for a three-hour slogathon, matter very much or, possibly, at all. The Nielsen ratings pegged the TV audience at 8.3 million, the smallest viewership of the debate season so far.

If there seemed to be one settled matter Tuesday night, besides the unanimous verdict that Donald Trump is a crook, it’s that Elizabeth Warren is now the Democratic primary frontrunner. 

Which she is. Sort of.

But maybe not enough to matter.

She got the frontrunner treatment because she’s doing reasonably well in the polls and somebody — come on, it’s entertainment — has to play the role. No one wants to go after Joe Biden, who has enough problems. I mean, are you going to defend Biden against Trump’s baseless attacks, particularly while there’s an impeachment inquiry ongoing, and also go after him for, say, a decades-old crime bill? Not likely. And Sanders, the other top-tier candidate, just had a heart attack.

What’s strange, though, is that this deep into the primary season, with 19 candidates still more or less in the race, no actual frontrunner has yet emerged. Yes, it could be Warren. She has passed Bernie Sanders for now in the left lane and has basically pulled even with Biden overall. She clearly has the momentum, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, but October momentum is more important in baseball than in primary races where no one votes until February.

Everyone keeps waiting for Biden to fall in the polls. But I seem to remember when everyone kept waiting for Donald Trump — not that the two are in any way alike; I’m pretty sure Biden never called any speaker of the house a third-rate politician — to fall in the polls. But the question that lingers from the latest debate is who— among Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and maybe someone else — could inherit Biden’s support if he does slip. Buttigieg and Klobuchar had the best nights of those whom Charles Barkley likes to call the “others,” but if past debates are any indication, that guarantees little. The goal, though, was plain — moderates attacking Warren to show they were better equipped to take her on than Biden is.

Warren held up well, although with several of her vulnerabilities — she had a bad moment on Middle East policy — more clearly visible. She’ll probably gain more from being recognized as the frontrunner than anything she might lose by being attacked. In any case, I doubt her poll numbers will move much. And if hers don’t move, will anyone’s? Remember Harris’s strong debate? Her numbers actually went up and then came crashing down. Remember Cory Booker’s strong debate? He got nothing. Julian Castro’s? He got nothing.

And yet it’s not as if we didn’t learn a few things from the debate.

Sanders put to rest concerns about his stamina. He was the same old relentless Bernie. Biden, who seems to have trouble keeping up with the pace the longer debates go, had a late-debate, you’re-likable-enough moment with Warren. Mayor Pete used his good fortune of standing next to Warren to show voters his confrontational side. Harris — who all but said, “I was that little Twitter user” — tried repeatedly and bizarrely to get Warren to join her in calling for Twitter to ban Trump. Klobuchar had her best, and maybe last, debate (she hasn’t yet qualified for the November debate).

First to Buttigieg and Klobuchar. On CNN before the debate, David Axelrod said Buttigieg had yet to show in the campaign that he could be the alpha dog. Well, he came out barking and was particularly biting in his criticism of Warren, especially on the issue that she has allowed to fester, whether her Medicare for All plan will raise taxes on the middle class. He was definitely feisty, with Beto O’Rourke (of course), with Tulsi Gabbard (because someone had to be). If he doesn’t get a bump in the polls, it could mean one of two things — people don’t like Buttigieg when he’s being Mean Pete or that at this point the debates don’t really matter all that much.

Klobuchar took umbrage that Warren basically dismisses ideas not her own as not sufficiently bold. Klobuchar insists she’s bold and said it as many times as she could. She hit Warren for advocating pipe dreams, claiming her plans are not politically realistic. If Klobuchar doesn’t get a bump in the polls, which she needs to qualify for the next debate, it could mean one of two things — Democrats generally like the idea of dreaming big or that at this point the debates, as I might have mentioned before, don’t really matter all that much.

For Warren, the health tax is a gotcha question, because if your total costs go down — as Warren promises — and the only people who will pay more are the rich —as Warren promises — all the question does is offer Republicans a sound bite of Warren saying she will raise taxes on the middle class.

Everyone understands this, but Warren, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to have a plan to counter the charge that she’s being evasive. She has an an easy answer — just to say it’s a gotcha game. She acknowledges that there are wide differences, accounting for trillions of dollars, in cost estimates for the plan, that there are various revenue streams, and the answer of how to pay isn’t yet determined. Meanwhile, some nonpartisan analysts think that taxes would have to be far higher than Sanders and Warren believe.

If Warren is going to say that everyone making under, say, $200,000 is guaranteed to see a significant reduction in overall medical costs, she is obligated to show how it would work. On paper. Doing the math. With a Warren-style plan. It’s what she’s known for, and it’s what many expect her to do.

Or maybe she doesn’t have to. She has been facing the same issue for months and her poll numbers keep improving. Her second-tier rivals, polling at 5 percent or less and who need something to change, desperately need the debates to matter. I’m guessing when the field shrinks to a manageable size, they will. That may not solve everything, though. The challenge then for the rest of the field is not just that Warren might still be the maybe-frontrunner, but also that she’ll still be the best debater on the stage.


  1. One other possibility beyond “the debates, … don’t really matter all that much.”

    The debates matter in firing up those already for a candidate, spurring them on to give more money and be willing to share their views about that candidate. Buttigieg’ & Klobuchar announced they had raised over a million each in the 24 hours after the debate. That is about five times the daily average of the Buttigieg campaign, For Klobuchar, who raised only $4.8 million in the third quarter, or a bit over $53,000 a day, it is nearly 20 times the average daily take.

  2. When both Littwin and David Brooks agree on something, there might be a valid point hiding somewhere in the chaff. The something, in this case, is Warren’s M4A. I doubt that she has worked up a proposal. Let me suggest one. Remember that big tax cut that went to corporations ( and individuals who portray themselves as business) we could take that back or otherwise incentive the above to actually return the saving they would get from not paying for health insurance. Cuz otherwise they pocket the change. I could go into more detail but then y’all would get los ctin the weeds.

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