On the Democratic Debates: Round Two, Night Two

I’ve heard some commentary, so will try to hold my echoes to a minimum. Frankly, while I understood the candidates’ many attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden from a political standpoint, my overriding impression was that these people wouldn’t be making the same criticisms if they weren’t running for president … that indeed, their desire to further their careers is no different in kind (if not as severe in degree) as the many Republicans who reportedly privately consider President Trump’s behavior aberrant but nonetheless fail to criticize him publicly. To repeat a point I’ve made before: while neither party is the den of all iniquity, likewise neither is the font of all virtue.

Mr. Biden: Here, I will join the chorus, but with the phrase that came to my mind: from a nomination strategy standpoint, Mr. Biden won the debate by not losing. Unlike the first debate, he looked sharp enough. Someone very close to me felt he did better than the first time out, but didn’t look ready for a debate matchup with the President; I did think he looked good enough — although perhaps only because of the President’s high antipathy quotient and Mr. Biden’s own reservoir of good will. He didn’t have any trouble mixing it up with U.S. CA Sen. Kamala Harris. Holding his own was all he needed to do (I suggest) to maintain his lead over the rest of the field until September and the next debate.

Ms. Harris: I thought – no surprise – that she was the debate loser. Her persistent attacks on Mr. Biden, even when she was scoring technical points, made her appear strident; she lost some ground as a result of his criticisms of her prosecutorial record and the cost of her healthcare plan. Something that I haven’t seen heavily commented upon was what I consider the most telling – and perhaps politically mortal – blow she took during the debate: U.S. HI Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s claim that Ms. Harris approved withholding evidence of innocence against a defendant in a capital case. The attack clearly took the Californian off stride, but more importantly, if the claim is substantially true (I haven’t seen any fact checking on it), I would suggest that it will ultimately be the death of her candidacy as her opponents and the Republicans will use it to suppress her turnout. I expect her to slip to some degree in polling over the next few weeks.

U.S. NJ Sen. Cory Booker: I will again briefly join the chorus: from an ad hoc standpoint – relating to this night – I thought he won the debate. He had a positive presentation. When he reminded his colleagues that squabbling among themselves only helped Mr. Trump, he looked above the fray. He got the best of his exchanges with Mr. Biden without looking like a gut fighter. Since he and Ms. Harris seek support from the same Democratic segments, I suspect that Mr. Booker picked Ms. Harris’ pocket in the second round as she picked his in the first. He looked like he could hold the stage against the President. That said, I don’t think he can beat Mr. Trump in Wisconsin; if that’s right, he’d need Arizona as well as Michigan and Pennsylvania (plus Hillary Clinton’s Electoral states) to win the presidency.

Ms. Gabbard: Although I’ve seen no comment on it, I thought that she had a very strong night – a surprise, given her lackluster first round performance. Her answers relating to foreign policy and the Middle East had true credibility given her military service. Her environmental comments carried weight if, as she claimed, her efforts predated the Green New Deal. She looked like the heavyweight in her exchanges with Ms. Harris. In my view, she laid a solid bid for a Vice Presidential slot if Mr. Biden does secure the nomination.

U.S. CO Sen. Michael Bennet: I thought Mr. Bennet had a strong night. He isn’t smooth, but has a dogged credibility and practicality about him that I think would play well on the stage against Mr. Trump and could carry the Midwest, including Wisconsin. Mr. Bennet is seeking support from the same segments being mined by U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former U.S. MD Rep. John Delaney, MT Gov. Steve Bullock, and former CO Gov. John Hickenlooper. Although I’m a fan of Ms. Klobuchar and have developed a sneaking liking for Mr. Delaney, if Mr. Biden falters and I had to pick one of this group to get behind, I’d ponder hard between Mr. Bennet and Ms. Klobuchar.

Andrew Yang: The guy had a good night. I misjudged him after the first debate. His idea of the Freedom Dividend will never play politically and he’s not going to win the nomination, but he’s really smart, has a wry sense of humor, and cuts to the chase. If a Democrat wins the White House, he should be made Commerce Secretary or Czar of a federal program to deal with the looming dangers of Artificial Intelligence to our working people.

Former HUD Sec. Julian Castro: I thought Mr. Castro had a flat night. Nothing in particular, but his exchanges with Mr. Biden seemed tinged with animosity – a hint of difficulty between the men perhaps dating to the Obama Administration [purely gut; I have no substantiation for this, but this isn’t the news pages of the Times, the Post or the Journal; a blogger should be entitled to a little spouting ;)]. On a more substantive level, the more I reflect on it, the more that I consider Mr. Castro’s proposal to decriminalize illegal border crossings not only a political loser against Mr. Trump but objectively bad policy. There appears an obliviousness among some in the Democratic field that one doesn’t change an objectively appropriate law – a version of which I suspect exists in over 90% of the world’s nations — because it is being subjectively abused by a racist to divide families. You instead get rid of the racist and stop dividing families.

WA Gov. Jay Inslee: Although he would present a formidable physical presence on stage against the President in a debate, he reinforced my impression of a capable executive effective in his own milieu who is insufficiently aware both that the entire country doesn’t think like Washington State or that Presidents have to deal with issues – such as the Russians and the national debt – in addition to the environment.

U.S. NY Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: I thought her attack on Mr. Biden’s long-ago piece about women working outside the home was a cheap shot. On a larger level, she just reminds me too much of … Hillary Clinton. Perhaps more important, someone very close to me – an unabashed Clinton fan – agrees. Although I voted for Ms. Clinton in 2016 and consider her to have been eminently qualified for the presidency … she lost against Mr. Trump. I don’t want to see that movie again.

NY, NY Mayor Bill de Blasio: Mr. de Blasio clearly doesn’t understand that every time he reminds us that he’s the mayor of the nation’s largest city, he exudes NY arrogance (speaking as someone proud of being born in Manhattan ;)] and turns off the hinterland swing voters he would need to beat Mr. Trump. That said, if I could pick one candidate to represent the Democrats in a debate against Mr. Trump, it would be Mr. de Blasio; the fireworks would even exceed that of an Elizabeth Warren – Trump matchup, and would be akin to a WWF match. As it is, I’m sure that the Big Apple has some problem that needs attending to, and he should go home and attend to it.

For anyone that reached the end of this overly-long but not easily-divided note, I commend your perseverance. There will, blessedly, be no further debates until September. Let’s enjoy the rest of the summer.

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