A Democratic Debate Report Card

Unfamiliar faces dotted the stage or screen. That most of these candidates are still unrecognizable to the average voter is a testament to the absolute mess that is the 2020 Democratic primary.

Rather than focus on the highlights of each debate, or summarize the biggest moments, let’s take a look at the unremarkable spectacle each candidate managed to make of him or herself during this latest round of reality TV posing as a presidential debate.

Night One:

John Delaney: Delaney is easily one of only two genuinely sensible candidates in the entire primary field (at least out of the 20 who made it to the debate stage). He spoke out against universal healthcare, criticized the elitist mindset of the Democratic establishment, gave reasonable answers on foreign policy (naming China and nuclear proliferation the top two geopolitical threats facing America), and even boldly declared that average Americans do not care about impeaching President Trump (fact-check: true). But who is Delaney and will America ever find out much more about him? No. The former congressman from Maryland is far too rational to make a splash in Democratic politics.

Bill de Blasio: When the New York mayor drew the first blood of the night by going after Beto O’Rourke on healthcare, it appeared as though he would manage to be more active than the other candidates. It soon became clear, however, that his entire strategy was blindly to lob grenades and interrupt as often as possible. It was a strategy that most viewers and probably even the moderators saw right through. The defining moment of the night for de Blasio was the time he was cut off by a commercial break. It was like a mercy killing.

Jay Inslee: The governor of Washington state has staked his entire campaign on global warming. Unfortunately, that issue has been thoroughly appropriated away from him by just about everyone else. His candidacy now seems superfluous and vain. Aside from his quip that President Trump is the “biggest national security threat,’ he had no memorable moments.

Tim Ryan: The self-described Midwestern blue-collar moderate congressman from Ohio dropped the medicine ball on his own mantle. His first few statements were wasted in virtue-signaling to the far-Left, talking about Trump being a racist, and pretending that he was imparting new information by telling us the working class includes immigrants. Only after de Blasio (of all people!) stole his line about the party needing to avoid being the party of “coastal elites” did Ryan suddenly flip a switch and begin talking more like a moderate. But by that point, it was too late. His fate was sealed when Tulsi Gabbard destroyed him on foreign policy, especially when he confused the Taliban with al-Qaeda.

Tulsi Gabbard: Other than the congresswoman from Hawaii’s  strong insistence on anti-interventionism and her occasional appeals to patriotism that always referenced her military service post-9/11, there wasn’t much else to her performance—certainly not enough to endear her to the far-Left. At the same time, her support for universal healthcare and the Green New Deal prove that she’s really not the “moderate” she claims to be and leaves her undistinguished in the crowded field.

Julian Castro: Although the former mayor and Obama Administration cabinet member produced perhaps the most absurd line of the entire two-night ordealcalling for “transgender reproductive justice”he nonetheless had a strong performance whenever immigration came up, especially when he clashed with Beto. He shamelessly appealed to his own identity as the only Latino candidate in the race (sorry, Robert Francis), and it’s possible that he could see his star rise . . . but not by much. He’s actually running for another cabinet post.

Amy Klobuchar: There was hardly anything memorable from the senior senator from Minnesota, except for her one-liner in response to Inslee’s random declaration of his love for abortion, which boiled down essentially to, “Well, I’m a woman, so there.” Standards are low at Democratic presidential debates, however, so the audience met this line with thunderous applause.

Cory Booker: Like Castro, Senator “Spartacus” had a number of loud and energetic moments. He was all too eager to bring up his own background as a black man (in case anyone missed that), and even tried to one-up Castro in the trans-appreciation and oppression Olympics by calling for recognition of the plight of “African-American trans-Americans.” Other than his atrocious Spanish, the one other notable moment was when he was the only candidate on his stage to say he would not re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, which (to be fair) was a decent answer.

Beto O’Rourke: The losing candidate for Texas senator got pummeled by Castro and de Blasio, and even got a rough shaking from the moderators, with some of their questions criticizing his lack of policy specifics. His attempts at Hispandering were just as cringeworthy as Booker’s, and nothing else is memorable from his time on-stage.

Elizabeth Warren: The Massachusetts senator both won and didn’t win. Although debate organizers tried their best to hand her victory on a silver platterfrom giving her the first opening and the last closing statements (as well as positioning her at the center-stage podium) to tossing her softball questionsWarren started off strong, but then disappeared about 30 to 45 minutes in as the debate seemed overly conscientious about treating every candidate equally. But because no one else emerged as a clear winner, it was still a net positive for Warren. Because she nears the top of most polls, all she had to do is show up and not fall down. She did exactly that. She lives to fight another day.

Night Two:

Eric Swalwell: One would think that a candidate with a campaign as single-issue as his would be more forgettable (see: Inslee). But he managed to stand out just enough for being one of only two candidates on-stage to attack both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, declaring that the former needed to “pass the torch” to a younger generation, and the latter wasn’t tough enough on guns. In these cases, as well as other moments when he attacked fellow candidates, like Buttigieg over the recent police shooting in South Bend, he came across as more sincere in his attacks than in anything else. He may even have surpassed the human bullhorn, de Blasio.

Michael Bennet: Easily the most forgettable candidate on the stage, and that’s saying something, the Colorado senator, like Swalwell, stood out for attacking both Biden and Bernie. The former got it for extending the Bush tax cuts, and Bernie for falsely saying that a Canadian-style healthcare system could work in America despite the massive gap in population sizes between the two countries. But his attacks weren’t delivered with as much passion or sincerity as Swalwell’s. Even his comments comparing the immigration crisis to the Holocaust were rather cliché given the current climate…and that, too, is really saying something.

Marianne Williamson: As one of the two outsiders, the writer and “activist” had a huge opportunity to set herself apart and generate some interest. She got attention, but not at all the kind she needed. From her repeated “excuse mes!” to her downright nonsensical answers ranging from a phone call to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, to a hippy-dippy pledge to “harness love for political purposes,” most people were probably left with a similar sentiment about her: Why was she on that stage?

John Hickenlooper: The former Colorado governor is the other somewhat sane candidate emerging from this clown car of a presidential field. Along with Delaney , he was unapologetic in attacking socialist ideas such as universal healthcare and the Green New Deal. He will have all the same problems outlined above for Delaney but he got even less attention during the debate.

Kirsten Gillibrand: The senator from New York was to the second night what de Blasio was to the firstonly even more obnoxious. Her constant attempts to interrupt others were made even worse by her shrill voice and the fact that at least de Blasio occasionally had something new or interesting to say. Gillibrand comes across like that one substitute teacher who expects the class to take her seriously for absolutely no reason other than that she expects it. She offered nothing more than warmed over female identity politics of the most basic variety and peppered it with progressive talking points, also of common origin. You’ve heard it all before and heard it said better. 

Andrew Yang: The Silicon Valley baron is like a meme. He’s been around a little too long among the groups that might find him appealing. And soYang has long since lost his appeal. He spoke even less than his fellow outsider Williamson, and when he did, his points were mostly empty answers with only the vaguest hints at ways his more “moderate” rhetoric might appeal to Democrats who became Trump voters. The fact that his only actual mention of the “Freedom Dividend” in his closing statement elicited laughter from the audience says it all. He’s no more than comic relief at this point.

Kamala Harris: Like Castro on the first night, Senator Harris had a series of strong moments marked most often by loud answers and appeals to pathos, going for applause rather than specifics. But she absolutely dominated the second night by going after Biden with the toughest attack of them all: she went straight to his past support for segregationist senators. This drew the longest moment of applause for either nights. With this, Harris also did the best job by far of framing the crucial question of “old Democrats versus new Democrats.” Although both Swalwell and Buttigieg hinted at the theme, Harris was able to draw the starkest contrast on this topic by pointing out Biden’s past work with segregationists, and her own alleged experience as a student who was a victim of segregation. She will definitely rise in the polls after this.

Pete Buttigieg: For all the previous weeks of media hype, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana faded to a near non-entity by the time the debate finally took place. He didn’t even get much of a chance to talk about how gay he is, and he only hinted at his military service. Perhaps his biggest moment was a question from the moderators about the recent police shooting in South Bend, which subsequently drew simultaneous fire from both Hickenlooper and Swalwell. His reaction left him appearing confused and helpless as he was finally attacked.

Bernie Sanders: The Senator from Vermont was one of the biggest losers in the entire debate, as he utterly personified his newfound nickname of “Bern-out.” Just like in 2016, Bernie proved how oddly unwilling he is to attack fellow candidates, even if doing so would work to his benefit. Instead, he found himself being attacked more than attacking, and facing jabs from all sides; Hickenlooper called him too radical, while Swalwell argued he was too soft on guns. Like Inslee, Bernie also suffers from his once-unique platform being ripped off by just about every other candidate on the stage, thus rendering him obsolete.

Joe Biden: Like Warren, he started off as strong as he was expected to do. But unlike Warren, the former vice president’s fellow candidates were unafraid to go after him. After a few early shots from Swalwell and Bennet, Harris went straight for the jugular and proved that the Democrats’ anointed frontrunner does, in fact, bleed. He relied just a little too much on hearkening back to the “nostalgia” of the Obama years, which proved even more hollow when he couldn’t adequately respond to any of his attackers beyond more basic talking points.

In Summary . . . 

The Winners: Harris, Warren, Castro, Booker

Could’ve Been Worse: Swalwell, de Blasio, Gabbard

Neither Here nor There: Gillibrand, Delaney, Hickenlooper

Could’ve Been Better: Yang, Williamson, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Inslee, Bennet

The Losers: Ryan, Beto, Bernie, Biden

Overall Rankings (based on these debates alone):

  1. Harris
  2. Warren
  3. Castro
  4. Booker
  5. Swalwell
  6. De Blasio
  7. Gabbard
  8. Gillibrand
  9. Delaney
  10. Hickenlooper
  11. Yang
  12. Williamson
  13. Buttigieg
  14. Klobuchar
  15. Inslee
  16. Bennet
  17. Ryan
  18. Beto
  19. Bernie
  20. Biden

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About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.