On the Democratic Debates: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there 😉

Former HUD Sec. Julian Castro: I thought Sec. Castro had a good night, bordering on very good. I suggested earlier that to maintain a viable candidacy he needed to gain traction among Hispanic voters that had theretofore eluded him, but I didn’t then appreciate his strategy for winning the Texas primary by disrupting the candidacy of former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Mr. Castro looked strong on stage, and the contrast he drew between himself and Mr. O’Rourke regarding 8 U.S.C. 1325 (the federal law criminalizing the act of illegally entering the United States) was great theater. He has seemingly taken ownership of the progressive position on the immigration debate — clearly the strategic place for him during the Democratic nominating process although not necessarily helpful in the general election.

South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg: I hope that the Mayor is President of the United States one day. I nonetheless don’t feel that he had a strong performance. For much of the night, he was good at “Being Pete” by tactfully invoking the future and in his articulate expositions while adeptly avoiding the Green New Deal and Medicare for All political landmines. I liked his statement that the No. 1 issue facing us is, “Fix our democracy and we can handle the rest” — because I share his view. Someone very close to me – another Buttigieg fan – thought he perhaps looked too young, but that could cut either way with the Democratic electorate and against President Trump. That said, I thought he failed to communicate sufficient empathy on racial issues, which I believe should have been his core debate objective. His response – “I didn’t get it done” regarding South Bend Police Force integration during his Mayoralty, followed by platitudes about the need to rid policing of racism – seemed rote, antiseptic. As I’ve submitted earlier, no Democrat appearing half-hearted in support of minority rights will win the party’s nomination or the Presidential election. Since Mr. Buttigieg is not emotive, I’m not sure that the necessary overtures are within his compass.

VT U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders: Had I extended an Award to Sen. Sanders as I did with some candidates in Part I of this note, he would have received the “Lion in Winter” Award. While retaining vigor, snarl, and bite, he, like Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, seemed to sense that a party moved by his ideas is passing him by. Although he stressed his normal themes, MA U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren seemed to do it better on the first night and CA U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris did it well on the second night. He (unfortunately for him) never got a chance to describe his brand of “socialism” to sound as benign as it did in his Fox News Town Hall. He was effective at attacking President Trump, but on that Democratic stage, all the candidates attacked Mr. Trump. I will not be surprised if Ms. Warren’s support in the Progressive Lane rises at Mr. Sanders’ expense in the coming weeks.

MA U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren: I suggested in an earlier note that if either Sen. Warren or Sen. Sanders was going to gain support as a result of the first round of debates, it was likely to be at the other’s expense. In my view, Ms. Warren won the contest. From a nomination handicapping standpoint, I believe that she was the overall winner of the first night through her passionate advocacy of progressive policies. That said, she referred to her teaching background – to me, a negative, since it invokes the impression of her as the imperious schoolmarm – and didn’t have a chance to discuss her Native American ancestry snafu. Her performance didn’t make her a bit more electable in November, 2020, but if at this juncture she couldn’t gain support at Mr. Sanders’ expense, her candidacy was perhaps going to stagnate, and I thought she achieved that goal.

Former Vice President Joe Biden: The former Vice President reinforced voters’ concerns about his vitality by at times seeming defensive, tentative, a bit frail. Surprisingly, he wasn’t ready for his competitors’ predictable race-related barbs; his straightforward response should have been that unless anyone was calling him a racist, his adversaries were simply attempting to score political points. Although no one could have been ready for Sen. Harris’ busing thrust, he erred by trying to hide behind a “local decision” response. It was similarly predictable that someone might allude to his age; he could have quoted President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 debate rejoinder about not wanting to exploit his opponents’ youth and inexperience. He didn’t. All that said, such a mediocre performance that might have doomed a less-well-positioned candidacy may only be a momentary setback because Mr. Biden retains a tremendous reservoir of good will with a significant swath of Democratic voters rooting for him. The reference to President Reagan is apt; after Mr. Reagan delivered his line about youth and inexperience, he cruised to re-election because our people were reassured that he was still in command. Although Mr. Biden will undoubtedly suffer some degradation of support because of the debate, if he is ready the next time, he’ll recover. The question isn’t whether he’ll understand how important it is to do well the next time; it is whether he can.

CA U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris: Sen. Harris unquestionably won the second debate. Her exchanges with Mr. Biden on race and deportation policy were masterful. She knew that she needed to pry away some of his black support while giving herself the edge over NJ U.S. Sen. Cory Booker among a demographic they both court, and she did it. She was emotive about the conditions we are imposing on immigrants at the southern border. Her closing – informal, conversational – was effective. I wondered before the debates whether she would go “all in” on progressive positions that might help her win the nomination, or moderate her responses in a manner that could help her in a general election; she embraced the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and seemingly the rest of the progressive agenda, clearly focusing on the nomination while perhaps being coastally oblivious that these positions are likely to spell defeat against Mr. Trump in the general election. However, something else that bothered me about Sen. Harris’ bravura performance was how it seemed entirely … planned and executed – like one would try a case. Her early riposte when others were jousting — to the effect that Americans “didn’t want to see a food fight but food on the table” – was a planned applause line she was looking for the chance to use. Portraying herself as the little girl being bused was effective … but clearly a set up. It remains to be seen how well she responds to something she hasn’t anticipated or prepared for.

I confess to feeling a bit of despair after the second debate, because I thought that Mses. Warren and Harris had clearly performed the best on their respective nights. What that meant to me was that the real winner of the first round of the Democratic Candidates’ debates was … President Trump.

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