He had arguably his best debate, starting with a high-minded statement on impeachment. When asked next about the middle class, he came alive, speaking fluently about the disproportionate benefit the wealthy get. (“We have to eliminate a significant number of these god-awful tax cuts that were given to the very wealthy,” he declared.) This is the Biden many voters recall, sticking up for working people in plainspoken language. (“The middle class is getting crushed.”) He was equally articulate and passionate on climate change, showing a firm grip on details and his telltale optimism. (“We’re the only country in the world that’s ever taken great, great crises and turned them into enormous opportunities.")
Biden refused to be boxed into defending the status quo, saying we have to move “beyond normal.” He said no one had more reason to be angry with Republicans for attacking him and his son, but if we cannot reach some understandings then “we’re dead as a country,” he argued. Rather than accuse the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being a racist, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did, Biden boasted of his connection to Netanyahu and cheered for a two-state solution. On China, Biden spoke of rebalancing power in Asia and rebuilding alliances. He got off a witty remark, saying he didn’t think President Barack Obama’s remark that old men needed to get out of the way referred to him. He turned the question to his advantage, saying with age comes wisdom. He also got a big round of applause when he said he would not commit to run for a second term because he hadn’t won anything yet.
Most of all, the former vice president seemed relaxed and cheery. When necessary, he showed some fire, slapping down Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) suggestion that he was in the pocket of big donors. He deftly answered questions about our losing strategy in Afghanistan, he made the point (accurately) that he had opposed a big-footprint strategy. Ironically, the one issue on which he most vigorously opposed Obama may be one of the more powerful arguments in his favor. He also shredded Medicare-for-all with a flurry of details pointing out it is not feasible or affordable. He turned a final question into a paean to the people he comforts on the trail and still calls to check in on, a reminder of his strongest quality: empathy.
Sanders may have reminded his loyal followers how much they like him and his brand of undiluted socialism, but his problem was evident in Thursday’s debate: His floor may be slightly higher than previously thought, but his ceiling remains fixed. He railed against the new trade deal, insisting the United States had to end (!) job losses, as though the government has a spigot that can turn off the outflow of jobs. He got caught for sliding away from a question on race, and insisted we be “pro-Palestinian" in addition to being pro-Israel. That works like catnip with his left-wing base but doesn’t gain him new supporters.
As good as her summer was, the autumn for Warren has been dreadful. She repeated many of her campaign themes on Thursday, such as her wealth tax and anti-corruption measures. It was not anything new, so if you’ve seen a few of these debates, you might be wondering what else she has to say. She seemed to disappear for stretches of the debate, though she did get off a great line after a moderator noted that she would be the oldest person elected president. “I’d also be the youngest woman,” she cracked to laughter and applause. She went after South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg for “fundraisers in wine caves” and chided him for not holding open fundraisers, but seemed to lose the round when Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) slapped down her suggestion that they could be bought.
Coming into the debate, Buttigieg surely was ready for the knives. He got through an hour before the heavy fire started. The mayor made a plea to talk about the poor and not just the middle class, and used his roots in the Midwest to explain the impact of climate change. He was, as we have come to expect, cool and confident in his delivery. On foreign policy, Buttigieg rightly accused President Trump of interfering in Israel’s domestic politics and presiding over chaotic foreign policy. Rather than criticize Israel, he went after the president for embarrassing himself on the world stage. On China, Buttigieg made a plea for human rights, accusing Trump of “trashing” our values. He asked what message it sends when China hears “not a peep from the president of the United States”? He gave a full-throated, passionate defense of immigration, drawing on his experience as mayor interacting with children and families living illegally in the United States without harming anyone.
On the back-and-forth with Warren over fundraisers and billionaire donors, Buttigieg more than held his own, knocking her “purity tests" and reminding Warren that she transferred big-dollar fundraiser money from her 2018 Senate race to her presidential campaign. When repeatedly tested by Klobuchar, he forcefully retorted to her attack on his experience, reminding her he has risked his life to uphold the Constitution. Remaining poised, he showed he could take a punch without losing his cool.
Klobuchar, who needs a strong showing in Iowa, would arguably be the candidate most harmed by an impeachment trial in the Senate, which would demand her attendance in the weeks leading up to the caucus. This may have been her best chance to reach early-state voters before the voting in Iowa starts Feb. 3. The senator started off strong, laying into the president for blocking witnesses and calling the Ukraine scandal a “global Watergate.” On trade, she made a strong case for the pending trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada, with a shout-out to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who supports it, as well as the Iowa farmers who would benefit.
When it came to climate change, Klobuchar painted a horrifying picture of a father singing to his child to calm her while driving through a California wildfire. She stressed her electability advantage as someone from the heartland. Unlike some rivals, she does not recycle the same set pieces. Klobuchar chided Sanders for his Medicare-for-all plan, which is not acceptable to moderate Democrats. She closed strongly with an acknowledgement that she can be blunt, but emotionally spoke to the necessity of getting the right candidate. Her answers seemed fresh, her energy high.
On race, she tipped her hat to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams on voter suppression; and on foreign leaders laughing at Trump, Klobuchar all but called him a coward. (“He quit. America doesn’t quit.”) She took a slap at Buttigieg, emphasizing his title as mayor (read: not big enough for the job) for only using “talking points” in defense of the media while she was the daughter of a newspaperman. That one didn’t make a lot of sense, but she sounded feisty. She played the adult, stopping the food fight between Warren and Buttigieg on fundraisers to call for talking about what unties us. Clearly, her intent was to go after Buttigieg, which she did frequently on his experience and his denigration of Washington insiders. She certainly showed her toughness (even referring to her performance during the confirmation hearing of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh) and her determination to claim the role of effective lawmaker.
Business executives Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer were in the debate, but Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro were not. You cannot fault Yang and Steyer for navigating the rules to reach the debate, but with the exception of Yang’s answer on special-needs children, they did not match the seriousness and knowledge displayed by their peers. You were left wondering whether Booker, for example, may have added a lot more substance to the discussion on race, foreign policy and more.
Biden, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Judy Woodruff
Three-hour debates, Yang, Steyer, Warren, fighting about fundraisers, the wine cave business