Thanks to the all-female moderator panel, this was a historic debate. It was one more sign that party primaries and political media likely will never again be an all-male affair. The questioning was professional, brisk and enlightening; the next all-female panel can now be unremarkable.
In a refreshing change from some prior debates, the moderators let the candidates be the main show and kept their questions tight and punchy. For the first time, we heard questions on child care, family leave and housing, perhaps a function of the working women on the panel. With a veteran foreign policy reporter in Andrea Mitchell, the debate spent more time on foreign policy than previous outings, with topics ranging from China to North Korea to Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who needed a standout showing, started strongly by displaying her prosecutorial credentials and labeling Trump and his senior officials part of a “criminal enterprise.” She then slammed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) for refusing to call out war criminal Bashar al-Assad, buddying up to Stephen K. Bannon and bashing the Democratic Party. This was the Harris of the June debate in which she dominated and mounted forceful attacks against Trump and Biden. She also spoke authoritatively on her child care and leave policy, stressing her focus on working women and the extra burden on women of color who don’t get paid equally to men.
Given the opportunity to bash Buttigieg, Harris instead pivoted to admonishing the Democratic Party for taking women of color for granted. She declared, “The question has to be where have you been and what are you going to do?” She was able to show magnanimity but also tout her credentials with people of color. She spoke passionately about rebuilding the Obama coalition.
As for Buttigieg, he was challenged as to how he can bring the country together, at which point he immediately jumped to his defense of “Medicare for All Who Want It” and slighted Warren’s plan to force people off private health care. Challenged on his scant experience as mayor, he played the outsider card, touting his military experience and his Midwest roots. When asked about farming subsidies, he rolled out his agriculture bona fides, speaking of carbon-neutral farms. It was all a call-out to Iowa, where he has been surging.
To the surprise of many, likely including Buttigieg, his rivals only attacked him at the end. He was prepared. He retorted strongly to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) attack on his qualifications by pointing that Beltway experience is not the only experience. He bashed Gabbard for insinuating (falsely) he favored war with Mexico and for meeting with Assad. He showed tenacity and a willingness to defend himself against outrageous attacks, a skill he will need against Trump.
As for the former vice president, Biden started slowly but gave a strong answer on whether to prosecute Trump. “I would not direct my Justice Department like this president does. … I would not dictate who should be prosecuted or who should be exonerated.” He added, “If that was the judgment that he violated the law and he should be, in fact, criminally prosecuted, then so be it.” He also said Democrats should not model themselves on the MAGA crowd (“Lock her up!”) He shined on foreign policy, bashing Trump for hugging dictators and vowing to hold the Saudis responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. On China he declared, “We should be going to the United Nations seeking condemnation of China, what they’re doing with the million Uighurs that are there, essentially in concentration camps.”
Klobuchar had another outstanding performance. She made clear there is a double-standard for female candidates: “Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise we could play a game called name your favorite woman president.” She struck gold with one of her favorite lines: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.” Asked about family leave, she defended a three-month leave plan, stressing the importance of fiscal responsibility and realistic proposals (knocking free college for everyone). On foreign policy, she spoke in favor of the New START accord and formulating a coherent Middle East policy. She tested out her argument against Trump in the general election. (She made the case that voters are with Democrats on Roe and Planned Parenthood.) She made a pitch for her own experience, doing something on honest ads.
Warren rattled off particulars of her now-gradual plan, only to watch Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) race by her on the left, promising instant Medicare-for-all. She continued her speed-talking policy offerings on housing, spoke out in favor of national service/support for military families and made a full-throated defense of abortion rights without taking the bait to run out of the party the newly reelected, pro-life Democratic Louisiana governor.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) likewise had a strong night, taking issue with Warren’s wealth tax and making a pitch for wealth-creation. (“We’re going to have pathways to prosperity for more Americans. … We need to give more new entrepreneurs access to wealth.”) He spoke forcefully on China’s human rights violation and ending support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Advocating leading on American values, he made a compelling case for world leadership. Using humor, he obliquely chided Buttigieg for using a focus group to understand African Americans and hit Biden hard for not favoring legalization of marijuana, which disproportionately harms African Americans. (Biden insisted he was in favor of legalization, but weirdly insisted he came “out of the black community” — in terms of support. He incorrectly said he has the support of the only African American woman to be elected to the Senate, provoking a hearty laugh from Harris.) He concluded with a passionate final statement.
WINNERS: Harris, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden, Booker, foreign policy, the moderators
LOSERS: Gabbard, baiting candidates to quibble, Tom Steyer