Dems first debate: too soon for judging winners and losers? by Marjorie Arons-Barron

Did we really shift from a Biden-someone to a Warren-Castro  to Harris-Buttigieg “winning” ticket overnight?  Unlikely. We are at a blip in time. There’s a long way to go.

Remember the lack of poll and pundit support Donald Trump had after his first debates?  Remember George W. Bush “lost” a major presidential debate to John Kerry. Remember, in 2012 Barack Obama “lost” his first debate with Mitt Romney. By tomorrow, this week’s first Democratic presidential debates will be just fleeing impressions. Still, we need to sort out what took place.

After a burst of  excitement  when she first announced, Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential candidacy has floundered, due in no small part to her too-cute-by-half answers  to policy questions and the feeling she just wanted to hang around for vice-presidential consideration because she’s this year’s poster child for identity politics.

Her performance at last night’s debate stood out, in part because of these lowered expectations. She came prepared, with a ready quip for the expected  cacophony  of candidates taking over each other,  saying, “Hey guys, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

Then she proceeded to attack  former Senator and Vice President Joe Biden, showing her strength and his vulnerability.   Damning with faint praise, she acknowledged Biden is not a racist but then used her prosecutorial skills to eviscerate parts of  his civil rights  record, offering personal anecdotes as the more authentic reality. Biden had to defend his support of the 1994 sentencing reform act (which led to disproportionate incarceration of people of color),  his votes against busing to integrate de facto segregated public schools, and his misconstrued assertions  regarding his ability to work with segregationist senators.  His responses were not always cogent, and he looked weak. He tried to recover his balance today, with a forceful response at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition.

For Biden, given his 47-year career in politics, the past is his present and may determine his future if he can’t guide the dialogue toward what he will do for the country tomorrow. He did best when pledging to restore the soul of America after  the despoliation  of Donald Trump, and in energetically laying out the path to upward mobility through all levels of education. Give him a passing grade, but no National Honor Society pin.

Harris was really strong on gun control but perplexing on Medicare For All’s intent to eliminate private insurance.  She raised her hand when NBC’s Lester Holt asked for a show of hands if a candidate’s health plan would end private health insurance. The next morning on Morning Joe she backtracked, saying unconvincingly that she had misunderstood the question and of course would allow private insurance “for supplemental coverage.”  This is the too cute Kamala that I earlier found off-putting. Even with that softening, her approach is a far cry from letting patients keep their private policies if they choose.

This was also an interesting issue for Elizabeth Warren, clear front-runner in the Wednesday group. She was one of just two candidates in her debate to favor an end to private health insurance.  She had previously, as had most of her primary opponents, taken a more incremental position on achieving health care for all while preserving choice.  She’s clearly the brightest of the bunch,  offering the most serious proposals. But, as with Harris, Warren may be tacking too much to port in order to attract Bernie Sanders’s acolytes.That said, Wednesday was a good night for Warren. She showed her fighting spirit, restated her themes (economy working only for the top few) and managed to get her compelling life story (hardscrabble life growing up in Oklahoma) into her closing statement.  She consolidated her standing in the top tier.

The unwieldy field of Democratic presidential candidates, divided of necessity into two evening debates, must get winnowed down quickly.  In these speed-dating, mini job interviews,  the candidate most under attack got the most air time. Even so, we heard from front-runner  Biden for just over 13 minutes. Kamala Harris had just over 12 minutes; then came Pete Buttigieg, Corey Booker (first night), Bernie Sanders, and Beto O’Rourke. Elizabeth Warren, who fared pretty well in the first tranche of candidates, had a scant 9.3 minutes.  This is no way to evaluate a potential leader of the free world.

Bernie Sanders was, well, Bernie Sanders.  Rewind to 2016, same anger, arm waving and pointing. At best he may be Moses, shaping the Democratic party’s debate, but never being able to  take his people into the promised land. At worst, he could be a de facto spoiler (he has not yet agreed to support the party choice if he is not the nominee) if his people, also embittered,  stay home in November.

Cerebral Mayor Pete remains an attractive candidate to higher income, white, college educated voters. I like listening to him talk and think. Reminds me of past thinking man losers like Sen. Bill Bradley, Gov. Bruce Babbitt and Cong. Mo Udall.  He conveyed sincerity in his response to the expected question about the Ft. Wayne white-on-black police  killing, but, if he can’t attract serious non-white support, his presidential candidacy is doomed.

The big loser on Wednesday was former Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who, on the  national scene, was pale, uncertain, unclear and unimpressive.  He was certainly outperformed by former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who was particularly passionate about conditions in the southern border detention centers and was most specific on practical ways to address overall immigration reform.  Castro gained the most traction in that debate.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar  also did relatively well, articulating  her more moderate positions while letting her personality come through. Her campaign is predicated on the salability of her approach in neighboring early-caucus state of Iowa. If she doesn’t do well there, she may end up as someone’s running mate, cabinet official or back in the Senate.

I wouldn’t write off New Jersey Senator Cory Booker – yet. He’s charismatic, especially one on one, didn’t drill down into policy details but presented with energy and passion and left a reasonably favorable impression. But he needs more. Booker gave portions of his remarks in Spanish, as did  O’Rourke and Castro.  For those who speak Spanish, Booker’s was reportedly most cringe-worthy, and grammarians winced at O’Rourke’s use of his non-native tongue. Castro, who admits to not speaking Spanish well, kept his Spanish to his closing statement. Not sure how this all played out with the Telemundo audience.

Unless I’m missing something, candidates like  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand,  New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and the others  failed to convince that they warrant serious consideration.

This debate format will repeat in Detroit a month from now.  It may be more of the same.  Debates in September will have a slightly higher threshold for participation, and hopefully an increasingly  smaller field will debate monthly through next April.  Optimally they won’t kill each other off, and a candidate will emerge strong enough to defeat Donald Trump.