ATLANTA — The fifth Democratic debate was a study in omission, with candidates revealing their strategies and theories of victory by what they chose not to say. Moderators set the tone, focusing on fresh topics (paid family leave, America's relationship with Saudi Arabia) rather than litigating the past few weeks of arguments.
The candidates largely went along, using the briefer format (two hours with overtime, rather than three) to make their preferred case for how the party can win. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) delivered a Medicare-for-all answer that would have silenced her critics in October; Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) made the kitchen-sink attack on Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii that she whiffed four months ago. And South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had been pointedly criticized by Harris and others in the last few weeks, took only a little incoming, toward the end of the night, after the ink was drying on stories about how Buttigieg was in the clear.
Joe Biden. He's become the most consistent debater in the field, and not always in a good way. Biden always emphasizes his long experience, and the easy-to-imagine work he'd do as a new president, undoing the Trump administration's work. But for the third time, Biden's campaign previewed a strategy that the candidate himself abandoned. An attack on Warren's Medicare-for-all "candor" never materialized, with Biden instead arguing that his own health insurance plan would "trust the American people to make a judgment what they believe is in their interest."
Biden also said something memorably confusing toward the end of the night, which has become a theme of these debates. Here, it began with a minor slip, saying he had been endorsed by the "only African American woman that's ever been elected to the United States Senate." He meant "first," and said so after a befuddled Harris threw up her hands up. But then he went on to suggest "one of the reasons I was picked to be vice president was because of my long-standing relationship with the black community," an intriguing remix of history; Barack Obama's 2008 campaign saw Biden as a running mate who could answer concerns about Obama's experience and appeal to Midwestern white voters, not fix any problems with black voters.
None of these debates has left Biden in a stronger position in early states; none has changed how Democrats see him, as the candidate most appealing to general-election swing voters.
Elizabeth Warren. She spent most of the past month answering the question that bedeviled her in October's debate: Could she be straight with voters about the costs of Medicare-for-all? Wednesday's debate gave her an answer, as her rivals had next to zero interest in re-litigating the Medicare-for-all fight and no rebuttal to her new transition plan. Warren got to deliver exactly the pitch she wanted: She'd quickly enroll millions of Americans in an expanded health insurance system with "vision and dental and long-term care," then move to universal coverage "when people have had a chance to feel it and taste it and live with it."
Some minor verbal flubs aside (a "billion" when she meant "million"), Warren executed her usual plan: Pivot to the deeper problems she wanted to fix and reject the idea that she was too left-wing. Only Warren was asked whether she'd "use taxpayer money" to unbuild new sections of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (she pivoted to attacking the "zero tolerance" family separation policy); only Warren was asked whether antiabortion Democrats had a place in the party. Several times, she made a specific argument for black voters (the wealth tax, for example, would help "stop exploiting the women, largely black and brown women," who work in child care), which was pitched to her potential audience, not debate commentators.
Warren's early success in these debates came with no fireworks, no breakthrough moments, apart from a quick put-down of former Maryland congressman John Delaney in July. Wednesday's debate was a return to the norm, with the candidate describing an agenda that could be passed with a few popular tax hikes on the rich. It worked before, and it's to be seen whether it works after a month of Medicare-for-all arguments.
Pete Buttigieg. His trajectory has been remarkably similar to Warren's in these debates — a steady rise, then one debate where the counterattacks are a little softer and more tentative than expected. That was what Warren experienced in September and what Buttigieg got Wednesday. There was just one question about his embarrassing "Douglass Plan" rollout, which counted endorsers who had not actually endorsed him, and Harris opted not to chase it. ("I believe that the mayor has made apologies for that.") Buttigieg's opponents mostly set him free to pitch his potential as a candidate and not bog down in his record.
"I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don't yet know me," Buttigieg said in what could have been the most challenging round of questions. "As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory."
The irritation other Democrats have for Buttigieg flashed only a few times, subtly (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey noting that he had run the "largest city" in his state) and less subtly (Sen. Amy Klobuchar contrasting her legislative wins with Buttigieg's aspiration). Going negative is risky, and Buttigieg, last month, was the first Democrat to do it effectively. No one tried to do it better Wednesday.
Bernie Sanders. Like Buttigieg, he's sometimes ignored by opponents because they don't see him as a threat for the nomination. The tight format of a debate accentuates this; after Sanders made a historic defense of Palestinian "dignity" and called for "rethinking who our allies are around the world," moderators moved on and asked Warren about the virtues of military service. Several times, he was left out of discussions where his bigger vision — housing policy or immigration — would have separated him from the field.
Sanders, like Warren, also benefited from the strange way Biden and Buttigieg had set up questions about "division." It was simple: He was for a big agenda that most Americans already wanted. "Yeah, we've got to deal with Trump," Sanders said, "but we also have to have an agenda that brings our people together so that the wealth and income doesn't just go to the people on top." And he was not baited into an argument with Warren, whom he'd criticized over the details of her Medicare-for-all payment and transition plans. That arrangement, in the past, usually kept Sanders's support stable while Warren's increased. But that was before Biden et al began portraying Sanders as an honest candidate and Warren as not.
Kamala Harris. Harris's first answer, combining her "criminal living in the White House" with her plea for the "working people who are working two or three jobs," set the tone: She has overlaid her "3 a.m. agenda" of economic issues, which was not clicking anywhere, with a personal, impassioned promise to "prosecute" the president like a B-movie gangster. "He has conducted foreign policy since day one born out of a very fragile ego," Harris said, bringing back the diminution of Trump that made her initially so intriguing to Democrats.
Harris's decision to finally attack Gabbard mattered for the same reason. The Californian's pitch has always been more about electability than any particular policy; her mistake in July was allowing Gabbard to go unanswered. Harris corrected that error by filling one of the most popular roles for any candidate, defending Barack Obama from his critics.
Amy Klobuchar. She benefited last month from needling Warren on whether her plans were achievable, but she was more subtle Wednesday, the reward of finally taking up some head space for primary voters. "I am not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car," Klobuchar said, referring to no particular candidate. The senator from Minnesota is never going to compete for left-wing voters, not in the primary; her goal has been to paint a picture of how she would win a national election, so that nervous Democrats see an alternative to Biden.
Most Democratic primary voters are women, and in this debate, Klobuchar took and effectively used the most time to talk to them about electability. "If you think a woman can't beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day," she said, a line that's been incredibly effective on the trail — a line that voters, catching dribs and drabs of election information in between impeachment news, mostly hadn't heard.
Cory Booker. The ongoing mystery of these debates is why Booker, a powerful speaker with a compelling biography and long list of endorsements, cannot break out of the low single digits. He channeled his frustration into some memorably funny lines ("I happen to be the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on this stage") and an argument for why his personal, love-centric style could carry a national election. "I will do whatever it takes to make sure we bring this country together," he said, "but it's not for a kumbaya moment."
In a debate with fairly little negativity, Booker did the most to set up a contrast where voters took his side: marijuana legalization. "Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people," Booker told Biden, making use of a recent clip of Biden speaking about marijuana that got little attention before the debate. "The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people."
That resulted in Biden's defensive riff on his endorsements from black Democrats, allowing Booker to do what he'd tried to do all year: Contrast his more immediate, modern policies with Biden's long record with black voters.
Andrew Yang. In the past few weeks, he's tried to humanize his message of universal basic income, asking voters to imagine how their lives could change with $1,000 every month. He got and took every chance to do that, especially a curveball question on fighting the rise of white supremacy. "We have to get into the roots of our communities and create paths forward for men in particular who right now are falling through the cracks," he said, going further than the usual answer of stepped-up law enforcement.
Tulsi Gabbard. The defining moments of her campaign so far were the July attack on Harris and her weeks-long demand for an apology from Hillary Clinton, who had accused her of being "groomed" for a Trump-assisting third-party campaign. Both gave her an audience that overlaps hardly at all with her rivals: conservatives and independents who, like Gabbard, think the party is corrupt. Her problem Wednesday was that she got to talk about almost nothing else: A round on voting rights became an argument with Buttigieg over his "inexperience in national security and foreign policy." (Gabbard had jumped on a largely misreported Buttigieg point about cooperation between American and Mexican military forces.)
Tom Steyer. The first negative exchange of his campaign so far, a back-and-forth with Biden, revealed less about Steyer than about what his rivals think about him: Why is he doing this? Steyer's fundamental problems are a business-experience-not-politics pitch, which most Democratic voters don't want, and a focus on term limits as his major structural reform. Democrats don't find that compelling, either. "Even Mayor Pete Buttigieg will not talk about term limits," Steyer said, a zinger with no constituency.
What didn't happen, and why it did matter.
“Democrats heed Obama's warning,” by John F. Harris
The declining interest in left-wing purity testing.
The race continues to diverge from Washington's big obsession.
“Why a left-wing nominee would hurt Democrats,” by G. Elliott Morris
The case against exciting the base (and thinking that would solve a party's problems).
“Candidates tout connections to Cummings in race to fill his Baltimore seat,” by Jenna Portnoy and Erin Cox
Yes, there are other elections happening next year.
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
2020 presidential election in Wisconsin (Marquette Law School, 801 registered voters)
Cory Booker: 45%
Donald Trump: 44%
Donald Trump: 47%
Joe Biden: 44%
Donald Trump: 48%
Bernie Sanders: 45%
Donald Trump: 48%
Elizabeth Warren: 43%
Donald Trump: 47%
Pete Buttigieg: 39%
Donald Trump: 50%
Amy Klobuchar: 36%
Wisconsin's gold standard pollster has found tight general election trial heats in the state all year, no matter what's been happening in the Democratic primary. This is the first poll to show most of the Democratic field trailing the president. The numbers for Booker and Klobuchar, based on a sample of just half these voters, have a higher margin of error. Just a few days after Democrats held onto the Louisiana governor's mansion, they are discovering panic again, nervous about the president's resilient poll numbers with Republicans and the independents who backed him before.
2020 New York primary (Siena, 380 Democrats)
Joe Biden: 24% (+3)
Elizabeth Warren: 14% (-7)
Bernie Sanders: 13% (-3)
Pete Buttigieg: 5% (+1)
Kamala Harris: 3% (-1)
Andrew Yang: 2% (-1)
Cory Booker: 2% (+1)
Amy Klobuchar: 1% (+0)
Tulsi Gabbard: 1% (+1)
Julián Castro: 1% (+1)
Michael Bennet: 1% (+1)
Apart from Warren's slide, the biggest movement in this poll was for uncertainty. Twenty-nine percent of Democrats had no candidate preference, up from 24 percent last month, with liberal voters becoming particularly unsettled. Sanders, who relaunched his campaign (after his heart attack) in Brooklyn, lost ground within the margin of error; the gains for middle-tier candidates seen in places where they've campaigned extensively didn't show up. New York's primary doesn't come until April, and states later on the calendar, seeing only a little candidate activity, may reflect what the many non-Bidens worry about: A national conversation about impeachment makes it tough for others to break through.
The sprint to December's debate in California started as soon as the lights went out in Georgia. Candidates know the rules: Getting onstage means attracting 200,000 donations and hitting 4 percent in four DNC-recognized polls or 6 percent in two polls from the early states.
After that? It's not settled yet. On Wednesday, after a DNC forum on voter protection, DNC Chairman Tom Perez told The Post that the rules will change again in January and might not include the same metrics.
“We have our rules in place for November and December, and those rules have both the grass-roots fundraising threshold and a polling threshold,” Perez said. “We haven’t set the rules for after the first of the [new] year, and that's something that we're doing right now. We always set the rules early enough so that we can give notice to the campaigns.”
Mike Bloomberg, who keeps moving toward a presidential bid, has said he will not raise money from small donors. Under current rules, that would prevent him from accessing any debate stage. But Democrats, said Perez, have yet to determine whether future debates will require small donations.
“One thing we will consider is, what should the rules of engagement be after people have started voting?” Perez said. “Because right now, zero votes have been cast. The voters haven't spoken. What should the rules be once the voters have spoken, and we have some actual data from states? That’s the question that we are considering now.”
Sometime between his campaign announcement and his Medium post announcing that the campaign had ended, Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam stopped running for president. He held no events after a mid-July fun run in South Carolina; he hurriedly hired and fired campaign staff who accused him of stiffing them; he raised just $15,000 in his final quarter. (For the second consecutive quarter, he actually misreported the total and later corrected it.)
“Despite not getting the same early media exposure as other candidates were freely given and transferring millions of dollars from existing federal campaign accounts as many of the candidates did,” Messam wrote on Wednesday, “my campaign shocked many by being recognized as a credible candidate, registering in polls in early states, nearly making the first debate and polling just behind the top four candidates in my battle ground state of Florida in a recent Florida Atlantic University Poll.”
Mike Bloomberg. His long, slow journey toward a presidential campaign got longer on Thursday: He filed Mike Bloomberg 2020 Inc. with the Federal Election Commission. But, no, he’s not running yet; while Bloomberg has now filed for president in three states and federally, his political operation said that it was not a final decision.
Joe Biden. On Thursday morning in Atlanta, he met with black mayors who had written an open letter asking Democratic presidential candidates to sit and listen to their concerns.
Pete Buttigieg. He closed out his Georgia visit with a stop at a National Action Network breakfast, where he responded to some criticism of how he invoked anti-gay bigotry he’d experienced in a debate round about racial discrimination.
“What I do think is important is for each of us to reveal who we are and what motivates us, and it's important voters understand what makes me tick, what moves me and my sources of motivation in ensuring that I stand up for others,” he said.
Buttigieg was introduced by NAN President Al Sharpton, who said “cynics in the media” sometimes suggested that “homophobia in the black community is different than homophobia in America.”
Cory Booker. He’s heading back to New Hampshire for two days of events, working to capitalize on his debate performance in a state where he’s won plenty of early support from elected officials.
Elizabeth Warren. She’ll rally in Atlanta on Thursday night for the third major set-piece speech of her campaign, about the legacy of black labor movements. From there she’ll head back to New Hampshire for an organizing launch and a town hall.
Bernie Sanders. He held a post-debate rally at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, promoting a plan to make all historically black college and universities tuition-free and make billions in strategic investments. He’ll then spend the weekend in New Hampshire on a “labor appreciation tour.”
Kamala Harris. She sat for a Thursday morning interview in Atlanta with Higher Heights, a female black empowerment group that endorsed her last week; over the weekend she'll campaign in Iowa, then South Carolina.
Amy Klobuchar. She joined other Democrats at Sharpton's breakfast and will return to New Hampshire for campaign events over the weekend.
Deval Patrick. He wrapped up a whirlwind tour of early-voting states Wednesday and intended to cap it with an appearance at Atlanta's Morehouse College. The problem, per CNN's Annie Grayer: Just two people showed up for Patrick's appearance, and he hurriedly scrapped it.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
Indivisible, the grass-roots group launched to pressure the last Republican Congress to stop the Trump agenda, is holding a series of interviews with Democratic candidates for a potential endorsement. The process began with a questionnaire that only a few candidates answered and will continue on Thursday with in-person candidate interviews: Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Tom Steyer, from Atlanta. A central focus of the interviews will be getting candidates to commit to "democracy reform" in their first year as president, passing campaign finance reform, giving statehood to Washington, D.C., and breaking the Senate filibuster to do it.
“The establishment forces within the Democratic Party will focus on something like, how can we pass a reconciliation package a bit and invest in infrastructure,” said Indivisible co-founder Ezra Levin, shortly before the interviews began. “That will be the push. The only way this gets done is if whoever gets elected says, this is my top priority, and if you don’t do this, you will make my presidency a failure.”
By the end of 2018, there were well more than 3,000 Indivisible chapters around the country, filling a large and complicated role in the Democratic Party by mobilizing new activists, mostly women, who came off the bench after 2016.
... 28 days until the sixth Democratic debate
... 74 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 82 days until the New Hampshire primary