Ten Democratic candidates stood shoulder-to-shoulder Wednesday night, trying to impress and distinguish themselves from their competitors. Another 10 candidates will go at it Thursday night, and the analysis will congeal over the next several days. It is easy to overestimate the impact of these debates in the moment. Remember, only 5 percent (at most) of what will matter when the voting starts next year has occurred. Ninety-five percent of what matters in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination lies in front of us, not behind us.
But here is a first take on how the candidates did. As a partisan Republican, I have taken the liberty of ranking the performance of each candidate from 1 to 10 (1 being the best, 10 being the worst) and offering some brief commentary on each of their performances.
- Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro: Beat expectations. Poised and broke through a couple of times. He set the left edge for Democrats on immigration and was perhaps the best performer.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.): Able and confident, perhaps even a little intimidating. Moderator favorite. Her momentum continues.
- New York Mayor Bill de Blasio: Better than I expected. Successfully asserted himself. I wanted to think he was a joke, but he came across as forceful and credible.
- Sen. Amy Klobucher (Minn.): Nervous, earnest, rehearsed. But a net-plus performance. She is among the serious candidates.
- Former congressman John Delaney: Knowledgeable. Sensible. The most like a Republican.
- Former congressman Beto O’Rourke: Awkward buzzwords and platitudes. Awkward buzzwords and platitudes in Spanish. Lightweight. Please, no more Kennedy comparisons.
- Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.): High word count, but low content. Panders more than others but got better as the night progressed. Looks a little frightening — and the most like a Marvel comic character.
- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii): Hillary-esque. I thought she might be the “breakout” performer, but she was mostly a bore. A dud.
- Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio): Seemed like a high school coach. Lame sympathy for school shooters? Bragged about his long tenure in Congress. What is he doing here?
- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Very flat, not quite ready for C-SPAN.
As for the field as a whole: Democrats’ positions on the economy are tepid and blurred because of the current prosperity fostered by the Trump economy. On the other hand, their aggressiveness on immigration appears to be a defining issue where the contrast with President Trump will be clear. The Democratic Party is getting very close to matter-of-fact support for open borders.
Tonight’s debate helped a couple of candidates and hurt a couple of others, but overall, all the candidates moved sideways and any potential consequences of tonight’s debate will be quickly overwhelmed by tomorrow’s debate and maybe even by a sudden tweet.