Bernie Sanders: In his first debate after suffering a heart attack, he seemed more lively than he has been at any previous one. He was also witty, joking with Biden after Biden gestured at him while talking about Vladimir Putin. “Are you suggesting I’m Vladimir Putin?” Sanders asked before the two men embraced. At another point, Cory Booker noted that Sanders supports medical marijuana, and Sanders responded, “But I’m not on it tonight.” Sanders has been accused of sometimes being humorless and a little dry — even overly angry. He also has a perception issue because of his health problem. Fighting that off was the most important thing he could do Tuesday.
Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator arguably made herself Warren’s chief foil in this debate, creating contrasts on taxes, Medicare-for-all and other issues. At one point, she rejected the charge that she was creating a Republican talking point by pressing Warren on whether her Medicare-for-all proposal would raise taxes on the middle class. “You are making Republican talking points right here in this room” by talking about getting rid of private insurance, Klobuchar charged. And she wasn’t wrong. All of this said, being the attacker in these debates hasn’t always meant much. See: Castro, Julián and Delaney, John. But Klobuchar needs to try something, especially since she’s fighting to make the fifth debate; we’ll see if voters are buying it. (One piece of advice, on behalf of all of Klobuchar’s fellow Minnesotans: The bad jokes need to stop.)
Millennials: There was a point in the middle of the debate when South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) had an impassioned debate about whether the United States should be in Syria. Gabbard was the most noninterventionist candidate on the stage, while Buttigieg said Syria was perhaps the one place in the Middle East where we continue to need a presence. That disagreement aside, this was two millennial veterans of Middle East wars — the only two combat veterans among the leading candidates — having that debate on a presidential stage. That’s quite the moment.
Andrew Yang: He makes this list solely because some of his top issues — automation and universal basic income — got a real debate. Candidates shared his concerns about the impact of automation on jobs, to some degree, and some on the stage, including Castro and Gabbard, were even open to his idea to give every American $1,000 per month.
Biden: Not only does he seem to no longer be the candidate his opponents fear most, he was again somewhat off his game. He offered some odd figures on the middle-class costs of Medicare-for-all. He said “expidentially” instead of “exponentially.” He mixed up Iraq with Afghanistan. He said he never discussed his son’s Ukraine dealings with him, even though his son has said differently. And at the end of the debate, Biden said he didn’t mean to disrespect his opponents but that “I’m the only one on this stage who has actually gotten anything really big done.” His opponents bucked, with Warren pointing to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — and then suggesting that perhaps certain members of the Obama administration could have been more supportive. Biden hasn’t really dropped in the polls as Warren has risen, but he is not showing the sharper version of himself that he probably needs to. And he seemed to be trying a little too hard at points on Tuesday.
Booker’s Biden question gripe: We get it; there’s no safer applause line than attacking the refs, and Democrats are angry about how 2016 was handled by the media. But some of the complaints about moderators’ questions on Tuesday night just didn’t really make sense. Booker took up the mantle we knew someone would when he attacked a question Biden faced about his son Hunter’s overseas work. He called it “deja vu all over again” from the 2016 election and accused the moderators of “elevating a lie and attacking a statesman.” Except that question was fair. Anderson Cooper rightly noted that the major accusations President Trump has lodged against the Bidens are unsubstantiated — twice. Cooper also asked a very fair question about why Hunter Biden is ruling out working overseas if his dad becomes president, when they say there was nothing wrong with him doing it when his dad was vice president. Calling that “attacking a statesman” was melodramatic.
Biden’s answer to that question: Biden was asked that question twice, and he said three times, “My son’s statement speaks for itself,” which isn’t really an answer. He added the second time, “My son made a judgment. I’m proud of the judgment he made.” It’s okay to point out Trump’s allegations are baseless while acknowledging Hunter Biden’s overseas work perhaps wasn’t a great idea — which is what his new pledge tacitly seems to acknowledge.
The question Warren won’t answer: Warren was given four chances to answer the question she has thus far refused to directly answer: Whether her Medicare-for-all proposal would increase taxes on the middle class. The fact that she passed each time wasn’t surprising — she instead focuses on total costs going down for the middle class, including health care — but she did get pushback from across the stage, including from Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and even gently from Sanders, who again forthrightly admitted taxes would go up under his plan.
Tom Steyer: The one complete newcomer on the stage Tuesday, he began by initially ignoring the question about impeachment (his pet issue) and saying that “everyone here is more decent and more patriotic than the criminal in the White House.” He then waited for applause, which was slow to come and tepid. There are no second chances at first impressions, and Steyer — a billionaire who Democrats have accused of buying his way onto the debate stage — didn’t do anything in the debate to overcome that.
Warren’s answer on the Middle East: Warren at one point said, “I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way.” The question was about Syria, but that is a very broad statement. She will need to expound. Expect to hear more on this.
Buttigieg: We have repeatedly had him in the winner category, even as he hasn’t really risen in the polls. On Tuesday, as in other debates, he was sharp and came prepared, but this time he was more combative. Some thought he was amazing; others thought he was grating. I actually come down somewhere in the middle.