Friday, December 20, 2019

BTRTN: Democrats Rip Into Each Other Competing to Prove Who is the Best Unifier

The first hour of last night’s debate was a fairly civil wonkfest, but Democrats can only refrain from unleashing their weapons of mass self-destruction for so long. On the debating merits, Amy Klobuchar won, but Steve wonders if the real conclusion is that everybody lost.

Oh, Democrats.

We’ve just been through one of the worst, most acrid, most bitterly divisive weeks in the history of the Republic. 

Americans appear weary of the incessantly shrill, biting hyperbole of partisan rhetoric, and are desperately hoping for a change. 

Democrats agree that more than anything, they simply want to know who can beat Donald Trump.

Who, they ask, is best able to unify and excite the Democratic Party?

Hey, let’s rip into each other to find out!!

Watch Elizabeth rip into Pete! Wait, Pete just took a not-so-subtle shot at Amy! Now Bernie is going after Joe!! Woah, look at Joe – he’s going right back at Bernie! Uh, oh, now Amy is going back at Pete!  

Let’s get ready to grummmmmmmble!!!

Call me crazy, but I really enjoyed Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer last night. They were remarkably calm, measured, and thoughtful. Unlike the professional politicians, they appeared statesmanlike. 

And those five “top tier” politicians?

On just the night when America may have looking to find who on the Democratic stage has the potential to restore our national pride, who could right this radically polarized ship, and who could bring our bitterly divided nation together, we got a lot of snotty, snippy, nastygrams launched sideways at other Democrats. Come on, people. We want to find out how big you can be, not how small you really are.

The fact is that this debate was relatively even, by the simple measure that everyone who has already made up their mind will tell you that their candidate hit it out of the park. They would be wrong, but they would say that. 

In fact, Amy Klobuchar turned in the strongest performance of the evening. She appeared more in command of the stage than the other candidates, at several points even stepping in to cool down a hot confrontation between other candidates… once between Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, and again for one between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. While many of the candidates couldn’t wait to pivot questions into familiar talking points, Klobuchar was more “in the moment,” thinking on her feet and seizing the opportunity rather than the threat in each question.  

Klobuchar appears ever more steady, comfortable, and in command on the stage, and her use of humor is growing ever more deft. Klobuchar was the most effective in beating up on Pete Buttigieg, who was clearly the main target for the evening. At one point, Klobuchar took him to take for his criticism the “100 years of Washington experience” of his rivals in the last debate. Klobuchar looked like the bigger person for taking the moment to laud the D.C. accomplishments of other candidates. Her darts at Mayor Pete were more subtle but nevertheless more effective than Elizabeth Warren’s blunt instrument bashing.

Considering that Pete Buttigieg was everybody’s bullseye tonight, he did a good job, but he took some hits. Allowing Buttigieg to be lured into a “wine cave” for a fundraiser was a terrible decision by Mayor Pete’s campaign. The optics were ghastly, and Elizabeth Warren went for the jugular on it. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Senator has not learned the most basic rule of this campaign season: do not go directly at Pete Buttigieg unless you are ready to bleed. He is one of the most effective counter-punchers in Presidential debate history. 

As effective as Klobuchar was, she too, was punished for pouncing on Pete. When she dissed Pete for his past election failures, he responded: 

“Senator, I know that if you got my vote totals, maybe what goes on in my city seems small to you. If you want to talk about my capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.” Drop the mic, Pete. Boom!
Elizabeth Warren paid dearly for taking on Mayor Pete. The Massachusetts Senator has an impassioned rhetorical style that can scream “holier than thou,” but it is always the holiest who must be wary of casting the first stone. When Warren went after Buttigieg with a laser gun on the issue of his willingness to take money from coastal billionaires, Mayor Pete simply held up a mirror, reminding Warren that she had transferred money from her Senatorial campaign funds to her Presidential campaign war chest… and that during her Senate campaign had accepted plenty of money from wealthy donors. “This is important,” Pete hissed. “This is the problem with purity tests that you cannot yourself pass.” Warren had no way to deny the charge, and no logical retort. It was her biggest television moment of the night, and it boomeranged very badly.

Bernie Sanders has developed a terrible habit of pivoting every possible question on every possible topic into one of his shrieking shrink-wrapped scripted sound-bytes. Some pivots are elegant and some are clumsy, but all serve the essential function of reinforcing his own base without saying anything new enough to attract voters away from other candidates. It is possible that the worst possible situation is developing for the progressive wing of the party: it is becoming equally divided between Sanders and Warren, with neither able to pull convincingly ahead of the other. With neither decisively grasping the upper hand, the progressive wing is itself weakened by division.

Oh, yes, Joe Biden was on the stage, too. Here’s the good news: no gaffes. Not one. Also good news: there was little of the “madcap Joe” of prior debates, the Biden who frequently launched punctuation-challenged sentence fragments that morphed from topic to topic in mid-flight, all plummeting to earth as just so much sound and fury signifying nothing.

Here’s the bad news: no one was paying much attention to Biden. Not even the moderators. When you are a former Vice President of the United States who is the leading candidate in all the national polls, and your competitors appear to be focusing all their energy on damaging the 37 year-old major of a small midwestern city, you have to wonder about the power of your candidacy. Sooner or later, Joe has to win a debate, and it did not happen again last night. Yet again on the debate stage, Joe Biden looked like he was seeking the nomination of the Low-T Party.

To slightly amend the earlier statement: Amy Klobuchar turned in the strongest performance among the truly viable candidates. The unflappable Andrew Yang was superb in this debate, and he remains on the stage even as supposedly stronger candidates like Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, and Castro have disappeared. Yang is consistently able to articulate underlying causes for societal problems that make his unconventional solutions appear creative and plausible. But time is running out for him to bust his way into the top tier candidates, and once the primary voting starts, there will be no room for also-rans.

Similarly, Tom Steyer turned in a strong debate performance. He is articulate, informed, and as passionate as a six-foot billionaire WASPy white guy gets. But time is ticking for him, too. By February, the billionaire lane will only have enough room for one guy, and it sure seems like it’s gonna belong to Mike Bloomberg. 

The disappointment of the night, however, was the missed opportunity. 

Someone, at some point, right in the midst of the intense rancor could have turned to the camera and said this: 

“My fellow Americans, I was just singled out for attack by my colleague on the stage tonight, and I have a well-rehearsed snappy retort that everyone expects me to fire back. But I think that after the week we just saw in Washington, you are tired of listening to politicians ripping into each other, questioning each other’s motives, principles, and integrity. After this week, I don’t think you are interested in seeing whether we are capable of tearing our opponents apart. I think you want to know who is capable of bringing us together.”  

Last night Amy won that dimension of this debate that was simply a petty internecine battle, and it will certainly help her campaign.

But no one saw the forest for the trees. No one saw the opportunity in the moment to seize the mantle of unifier. 

In that regard, it was an opportunity squandered. In that regard, everyone lost.

Here's our scorecard:


Better than expected:

Mixed: Took some hits, scored some hits, but net negative for the night:

Needed to accomplish more than they actually did:

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  1. Can't argue with your rankings and characterization of how the candidates did. Except maybe to make Biden a "'Better than expected" because he had a decent night after so many bad ones and expectations had been driven very low.

  2. Can't say I agree with your characterization of Klobuchar as mature during the debate. She seemed willing to attack every other candidate on stage about some pretty petty stuff (trying to one-up Pete's commitment to the first amendment, for example, or going back to last month's debate to bring up a spat that was already over).

    She was heard in the background of nearly every question, attempting to get her two cents in, and I'm not convinced she was stopping the fighting on stage in order to bring some peace to the stage. Let's not forget she seemed totally fine with the fights on stage when SHE was a part of them. She's reminding me of Gillibrand during the first couple of debates...over-eager to interrupt and willing to start fights so that the camera spends as much time focused on her as possible. Hardly what I'd call mature.

    I think Mayor Pete came out ahead (again, there seems to be a pattern here) because of his ability to deflect and counter punch pretty much any argument, whether substantial (e.g. his experience) or BS-filled (Warren's ridiculous smearing). He also talked about unity and "it's all of us vs Trump" more than any other candidate. I mean, the entire thesis statement of his closing lines was basically "I'm tired of America dividing us. I want a culture of unity and belonging."

    Hate to say it, but this is the most I've disagreed with any commentary on this blog.


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