So it seemed like a good moment to change the lens and assess the Democrats as performers.
We asked a handful of experts who perform, teach performance or judge performers professionally, to give us their reactions. Our group included: Joan Cusack, two-time Academy Award-nominee; Chris Jones, theater critic of the Chicago Tribune; Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of the Second City improvisational comedy troupe; Anne Libera, director of comedy studies at Chicago’s Columbia College; Jon Maas, a Hollywood writer-producer; and Harvey Young, dean of the college of fine arts at Boston University.
For starters, who performed best?
Chris Jones: “Amy Klobuchar. This was the first time she actually seemed to inhabit the potential mantle of president. I think she had a transformational night, especially in her close, which was emotionally engaging, smart, practical and wise.
Kelly Leonard: “Bernie Sanders. He is listening and understanding everything that is happening in real time, and he knows how to turn the moment into his moment. Tight, clear messages delivered in a strong, commanding voice.”
Harvey Young: “Swagger. That’s what Bernie Sanders brought to the debate. At times, he made it seem like he was the only person on the stage. There’s something Trump-ish about him: a less brash over-confidence which, to his credit (and unlike the president), is measured by a commitment to creating opportunities for the least fortunate.”
John Maas: “A tie: [Pete] Buttigieg’s calm, reasonable and articulate way of answering every question, making you long to see Trump trying to stand on a stage with him, and realizing Pete won’t play his game. And Klobuchar schooling Tom Steyer about knowing how to make allies.”
Anne Libera: “Bernie takes the stage. He talks and dominates.”
Harvey Young: “There’s a thin line between steely determinism and ‘Get off my Lawn!’ anger. Joe Biden teetered back and forth and, in so doing, alternated between impressive, commanding authority and off-putting anger.”
Kelly Leonard: “Joe Biden. He can’t speak without flubbing and confusing his words. He ramped up his anger dial, and it didn’t make him seem presidential. It made him seem desperate.”
Chris Jones: “Joe Biden. He was shrill. Seemingly panicked. It was not a good night for him. Actually, it was a terrible night for him. He did not inhabit himself.”
Anne Libera: “Biden loses the stage. He talks, and we all stop paying attention.”
What was a notable moment or something that stuck with you?
Joan Cusack: Consider Brad Pitt, who has “the casualness of movement that expresses more than mere confidence, but a sublime lack of consciousness and self-doubt about taking up space.” Then, consider the Democrats: “Nobody moved comfortably walking on to the stage, except Andrew Yang, who had some swagger.”
Anne Libera: “Most interesting thing to me: [Elizabeth] Warren and Klobuchar are both stronger and more interesting to me than either of the men but somehow they don’t get the silence, focus, and attention that the men do.”
Chris Jones: “Mayor Pete was a better defender of Joe Biden's son than Joe Biden. What father would want that? It was hard to tell whether this was a moral position, or political expediency, on Mayor Pete's part, or both. But it served to highlight so many of Biden's problems.”
Jon Maas: “Joe Biden’s 'Stand up and clap for [Lt. Col. Alexander] Vindman’ moment was memorable. If Jimmy Stewart was around to play him, this election would be over.”
Harvey Young: “In the Olympics, the happiest people are those who win gold and bronze. Bronze medalists are the most interesting to me because they’re genuinely thankful to be on the podium and, of course, can be considered winners. Amy Klobuchar, often restrained, always authoritative, and enviably empathetic, took bronze … and I’d bet her campaign would urge her to take a victory lap, if candidates did such things.”
Kelly Leonard: “Thank you, Andrew Yang, for bringing up the importance of local journalism.”
Leonard, who found Buttigieg “inauthentically performative, feeling scripted,” nonetheless conceded that the exercise had its limits. “I do worry that we miss the substance of what is being discussed because the theater of these debates seems more interesting. Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang have some unique things to say, but we get sidetracked with Bernie and Biden because it makes for better television.”
The theater may get only more diverting as the Democratic cast winnows. Then, after the primary race concludes at the party’s convention in Milwaukee, one individual will be left to confront Trump, the very definition of an imposing political performer.