Littwin: Do the debates tell Dems anything about who can beat Trump or even how to beat him?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 19: Democratic presidential candidatte Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Seven candidates out of the crowded field qualified for the 6th and last Democratic presidential primary debate of 2019 hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 19: Democratic presidential candidatte Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Seven candidates out of the crowded field qualified for the 6th and last Democratic presidential primary debate of 2019 hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

If you’re looking for a Democratic debate winner, it was almost certainly Amy Klobuchar, the senator from the Midwest, for exceeding expectations while the rest of the field basically just met them. OK, Joe Biden exceeded expectations, too, but only by going through an entire debate without a truly cringeworthy moment. That should be enough, though, to maintain his national polling lead, for now anyway.

In Iowa, where Klobuchar was already showing some movement in the polls, the debate could help her raise some much-needed money and potentially give her a boost into the top tier of possibles, along with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That’s what a post-debate Ipsos poll (teaming with Nate Silver’s suggested in its comparison of voter preference before and after the debate. Notably, all the Democrats on the stage improved at least slightly — except Buttigieg. The biggest bumps went to Klobuchar, who’s running very much in the moderate lane, and Andrew Yang, who has his own lane altogether. Tom Steyer trails them all.

And yet. And very much yet.

If you’ve been watching, you know that one problem with the debates is that, in the end (and also in the beginning and middle), they shed too little light on, to cite a recently discredited president, the big stuff — meaning Trump. The policy differences this year are significant, but also, in most cases, a matter of degree rather than direction. And they hardly change from debate to debate. Even the moderates will insist they aren’t all that moderate. 

That there may be five potentially strong candidates in Iowa — with no one running away — suggests to me that Dem voters are not only undecided on who could beat Trump, but also how to beat him.

Whoever wins the nomination must be able not only to take on the colossus (I was going to say monster, but I’m trying to keep it semi-dignified here) in the White House and win, but then lead the difficult post-Trump restoration period and also get some vitally needed progressive legislation through Congress.

Can a debate or even a debate season tell us who that person might be? To this point, I’ll admit I have no idea which candidate would best fit all those roles. And the candidate leading the electability polling — Joe Biden — seems to me, at least, to be maybe the first or second riskiest choices among the top tier. But who knows? If Democrats voted on a winner for the week, it would be Nancy Pelosi. And did this debate really break through the sound and fury — this time signifying much — of impeachment?

If you accept the conventional wisdom, a tough primary campaign usually reveals what we need to know about candidates. But this time is different. This time is about Trump, who, we’ll agree, is more different from more norms than any president in modern times and who presents an enormous challenge with more-than-enormous stakes.

Here’s a hint about the stakes: In the latest issue of Christianity Today, an influential, if relatively centrist, voice in the evangelical community that was founded by Billy Graham, the editor calls for Trump’s impeachment and removal and says he is “morally lost.” The importance of election turnout is the great cliché in politics. But if there are so many pockets of anti-Trumpism — which is what his low approval ratings make clear — it makes it that much harder to know who could appeal to enough of them to turn out their vote.

The big pre-debate story was that the stage would be less crowded. Only seven candidates — much to the chagrin of Cory Booker, Michael Bennet and Julian Castro — made the December cut. (Only five have made the newly announced January thresholds so far, by the way.) Biden seemed more relaxed in the smaller field — and no one took shots at him. Bernie was reliably Bernie, although a little funnier. Someone said he had found his inner Larry David. And yet, the first half of the debate was deadly dull, more like a forum than a debate.

In the second half, the debate livened considerably, beginning with the Warren-Buttigieg set-to. Warren took a typical shot at big money in the campaign raised from billionaire donors, and Buttigieg, apparently ready for a fight, said he presumed Warren was talking about him, which, of course, she was. And off they went.

Buttigieg is today’s hot candidate, leading in many Iowa polls and doing well in New Hampshire. Warren, recently the hot candidate, has been slipping after taking way too long to come up with a good answer for how she would fund Medicare For All. She finally found a decent one — that her goal is to do as many good things on health care reform for as many people as quickly as possible and to get to Medicare For All eventually. But how much has that already cost her?

Since Warren’s message is basically anti-corruption, she talked about the corruption of money and how she is running a grass-roots campaign, not doing big-money fundraisers, and not selling access. She ended the attack, of course, talking about her long selfie lines. Buttigieg countered that Warren used to have big-money, closed-door fundraisers in her Senate campaign and now she’s a born-again purity tester, but only after putting $10 million of that Senate money into her presidential campaign. It’s a reasonable point. And Biden added that he was happy to do selfies, too.

But the big takeaway was Warren’s wine-cave line, noting the $900 bottles of wine and crystals at a Buttigieg fundraiser. And while Buttigieg held his own with Warren, it’s the wine-cave moment that will surely linger.

Making it worse for Buttigieg, though, Klobuchar then hit him for his lack of experience, for never having won a statewide race, for his perceived (by Klobuchar) slights on those who have served in D.C., even his failed run to head the Democratic National Committee. If this gives voters pause as to whether a 37-year-old mayor of a mid-sized town is prepared to lead the Democrats, then Klobuchar gets the win. Still, Buttigieg was well prepared, of course, and didn’t seem at all rattled by either attack. But he didn’t come out of the debate in happy-warrior mode either.

My biggest takeaway from the debate, though, was that there was only one question — the first question, as if to get it out of the way — about impeachment. That’s not an indictment of the moderators, but of the fact that Trump’s impeachment tells us nothing about him — or how to defeat him — we didn’t already know before the debate began.


  1. The issue can’t be Trump. The issue is that we need to stop electing representatives that allow corporations and the wealthy to dictate their policy decisions. The people need to take back their government, at every level.
    Please, get involved, support and vote for candidates that support the Green New Deal. Next year’s primary elections and caucuses will determine if we’re going to have the right candidates on next November’s general election ballots.
    As Bill McKibben said earlier this year, “We’ve run out of elections to waste.”

  2. “Christianity Today, an influential, if relatively centrist, voice in the evangelical community”

    I’d disagree — CT isn’t a particularly influential voice. It’s circulation is now down to 130,000 (90,000 paid), and it continues to focus on pastors and lay leaders of congregations. Even now, with their post-editorial bounce, they have 338k twitter followers — and they were not even tracked by

    CT is “relatively centrist” only in the sense that virtually all other Evangelical media sources are full-on Trumpist. They continue to appeal to what one sociologist calls “cosmopolitan Evangelicals,” But they are still conservative Evangelicals — for example, their current Testimony section tells of someone growing up “to associate progressive politics with Christianity.”, being convinced she was a sinner in need of forgiveness, and now reading with approval “I see my story in most Testimonies I read: one of brokenness, depravity, and rescue. I read the testimony of a woman who left her lesbian lifestyle for the joy of the gospel and realized my friends with the same hindrance were not beyond His reach.” They keep the same statement of values. They see their mission as leading a way out of “… the world today, you see a turn toward ugly orthodoxy and attractive heresy—truth spoken in shrill and unloving ways, falsehood spoken in winsome and compelling fashion.”

    The editorial resonated because of the departure from Billy Graham’s tradition of trying to get along with everyone. It does not indicate a shift away from CT’s long history of cultural conservatism.

  3. Thanks for the corrective, John. I used “relatively centrist” to convey that it was centrist only, as you note, in opposition to full-on Trumpism. But you make the point far better. I borrowed “influential” from Times and Post and others, and I confess I’m not well informed on what magazines or web sites have much influence in evangelical communities. But I would note that circulation is not necessarily a good measure. For example, two relatively low-circulation magazines, The Nation and National Review, are both extremely influential.

  4. The green new deal, is much like unicorns, in NY Park, where Hillary went looking for them. She is delusional, and so is Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer. The script that was used by Harry Reid, does not work for Schumer, or Durbin. And Maxine Waters is old, over the hill, and afraid to live in district she supposedly was elected from. Democrats are too long in the tooth, and the genders have not aged well. I did not watch the debates, since there was nothing to learn from them. All Democrats are running on versions of same ideas, which have been tried in past elections, and never got support from entire country. What works in NYC, SF, SD, Philadelphia, NJ, does not work across this country, and the real voters- tax-payers among the working class, of middle America is not buying it. Been to same show, too many times, and the program has not changed. DNC still think and talk, of KKK years, when voting was controlled in the South.
    ——–Now voting tries to control with free education, free phone time, free phones, and pay to stay home, and kill any children born to women not wanting them. Really tough being a child, who does not know who father is, but when they don’t who the mother is, creates different problems. And too many youth, are involved in killing other youth, of same race, color, or culture. Where is the self control, morals, civility, religion, education, in that function in the coastal states, controlled by Democrats. When children kill their own parents, or ones listed as their parents, what does that speak of family love and nurturing?
    ——–And Jim, thoush you do not like Trump, what do you personally know by study or any research, of how he has damaged USA, or been in violation of Constitution or Bill of Rights. And if you are still convinced of this, why did you not question Obama, Hillary, Dempsey, or DIA, CIA, FBI, or any of the others 14 Intelligence Agencies, during the Obama Years? You and DNC administration, let country operate on Executive Orders or Executive Memorandums, with many of those being written, distributed, and enforced by same Petty Tyrants, on local, city, county, state, federal levels. And taxing middle class and rich people, to pay for over half of population, not employed, but living on Government Dole, Food stamps, early retirement, or Welfare. And who wanted work, when Unemployment paid more than the low-income jobs paid, with advantages of not meeting a work schedule, buying work clothing, transpiration, or other expenses.

  5. Magazine and the readers now, are not Conservatives of the Billy Graham days. There are conservatives in DNC now, which is causing splits within the party, just as so many Democrats have switched to Communist party or Socialist Party. Those two have gained enough members now to challenge DNC in California, Colorado, NYC, NJ, and other large cities, or areas, that have so many illegal aliens, joining unions, and exerting muscle, in elections. DNC has encouraged the increase of illegal immigration, by not enforcing the laws, and protecting with Sanctuary cities or states, or areas within the states.
    ——–Reason that Obama will be known, for forcing more people into being homeless, or working in drug trade, or working in sexual trade. Encourage and support the drug cartels, and the drugs will kill off DNC voters.

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