Going into Wednesday’s Democratic Party presidential-primary debate, the focus was all on former vice president Joe Biden. Would he falter and show a terminal weakness? There were also high expectations for Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). She delivered a blow to the front-runner, Biden, during the last debate, and all eyes were on her to see whether she could continue the assault. But Harris is not as forceful and in-command as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). If Warren or Sanders had been onstage Wednesday night, they would have pushed Harris aside and directly challenged Biden on policy. To say the least, Harris’s performance was nowhere near a repeat of the success she achieved in the first debate. So, here’s my take on how Wednesday’s candidates did in comparison with each other, ranked from one (best) to 10 (worst).
1. Former vice president Joe Biden: Strong, solid start and his performance never diminished. His ability to speak with authority was impressive. He didn’t look particularly challenged or flustered in any way. Like Warren, Biden is in command of the facts. He knows what he believes. Even if it is lousy politics, talking about the cost of government programs is still the adult thing to do. Reasonable, forceful, well-organized. Belittled the suggestions that he is too old. He had a good mix of prepared responses but could also ad-lib in a nimble way. He had a rehearsed attack about Harris’s tenure as California attorney general, but you can tell he is not comfortable delivering the blows. Even when he’s on the back foot, Biden seems to keep his balance. He confirmed his position as leader of the pack.
2. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.): Did his best Barack Obama impersonation. He was sharper than I have ever seen him. Perhaps the top performance of the evening, but he didn’t dethrone the front-runner, so I give him second place. He spoke with authority and confidence — but so did Biden.
3. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii): She offered more than a blizzard of platitudes. Sounded credible. If there is any contest for a lane to run in between Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Gabbard, Gabbard wins. For Gabbard, it is Harris — not Biden — who turns out to be the most inviting target. Declaring that she would not maintain the Trump tariffs on China is something of a revelation, and will certainly be asked of the other candidates.
4. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.): She gets fourth place, but that is being generous. She seemed shallow, hesitant and tentative about her beliefs. Tagging Biden with having an anti-busing position in the 1970s was a surprise in the first debate, but on Wednesday it fell flat. Maybe she felt the burden of her previous good debate performance and wanted to inject herself a little too much. She kept repeating herself, suggesting that she does not have a deep reservoir of knowledge. There is such a thing as talking too much even for a presidential candidate. The only thing worse than having rehearsed responses is not remembering your rehearsed responses. Harris must develop a deeper knowledge of the issues, and she needs more than just faux outrage. That said, Republicans increasingly fear her as a formidable general-election opponent. Her performance on Wednesday made Republicans happy.
5. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio: Pointed delivery. Not shy. “We will tax the hell out of the wealthy” was a memorable line, but it sounded punitive rather than economic. He is an assertive and disruptive force who is never on the defensive. Why hasn’t he been a better mayor? He was confident in challenging Biden, and no one should expect him to drop out anytime soon.
6. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: He played the governor’s card effectively, but used some of his time for a weird non sequitur about the Senate filibuster. Isn’t he running for president? I cannot get it out of my head that if there is ever a movie of the 2020 campaign, Gary Busey would play Inslee — not good.
7. Andrew Yang: He had the night’s best line about being the opposite of President Trump — specifically about being Asian and liking math. He also kept trying to sell his $1,000-per-month giveaway to every American, which fits with the negative stereotype of liberal Democrats who want to distribute money and buy votes. Was there a formula for how the $1,000 figure was determined, or did he just make it up? Yang has no traction.
8. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro: He feigns earnestness better than former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), but he was evasive on open borders. He seemed like a much more a typical politician than during the first debate. Castro has been pushed to the sidelines, and he doesn’t seem to be able to get back in the game. He might be the most authentically liberal candidate, but he did not leave the debate with any new momentum.
9. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.): A sleepy version of former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.). He appeared to have just gotten out of the dentist’s chair. Note: Advise candidates to never go to the dentist immediately before a national televised debate. He looked exhausted and, at times, bewildered. He went backward tonight.
10. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): Constant nervous blinking. She was animated but synthetic. I think she has been rejected because her pandering is so inartful. She appears destined to join O’Rourke as the biggest flops of the 2020 campaign season.