There was one crucial difference between the second Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit this week and the first debate in June.
This difference, of course, has nothing to do with the performances of the individual candidates. Just about every candidate performed in exactly the same way as last time.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio still threw blind jabs at as many of his fellow candidates as possible. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) still sounded as shrill and nagging as ever. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) still had a neutral performance, with no big moments but no serious attacks against her either. Self-help guru and love-harnesser Marianne Williamson was still as insane and borderline unintelligible as before. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet’s exceptionally low and monotone voice still sounds like a blazed Sylvester Stallone.
Senator Cory “Spartacus” Booker (D-N.J.) was far too fanatical and overdramatic for his own good. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke sounded like a “best of” compilation of left-wing talking points with no particular direction, clearly desperate to stay relevant. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was still neither here nor there. And former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro spouted off so many lies and racist statements that he could be nicknamed “Ché.”
There were a handful of smaller differences in the dynamic as well, but they are likely to be of no moment.
A Consolidation of the “Moderates”
Although the drawing for the separation of the two nights did not reshuffle the composition enough to generate new dynamics, there was one change that was noticeable: Virtually all of the primary field’s self-declared “moderates” were on the same stage, on the first night.
As a result, Reps. John Delaney (D-Md.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and the sole newcomer to the debates, Montana Governor Steve Bullock (who seems to be morphing slowly into a Frank Underwood doppelganger) were able to more effectively take turns dogpiling onto the socialist agenda of Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren.
Although Sanders—visibly frustrated—tried his best to defend himself against these attacks, there was definitely a sense that he was overwhelmed by the attacks from so many opponents. Warren arguably did a better job defending Bernie’s platform than Bernie did himself, further proving that he truly has been usurped as the one carrying the mantle of the party’s socialist wing.
Of these moderates, Delaney clearly came away as the leader of the not-so-insane wing of the Democratic Party. He did not lose any of his momentum from the first debate and instead built on that with even more passionate and sincere attacks on unreasonable policies such as socialized medicine.
From the personal story of his upbringing and business background, to the slightest of easy-to-miss details (he was the only one on his stage wearing an American flag pin), it is clear that all of the other so-called moderates were simply following his lead, and Delaney has solidified himself as the only Democratic candidate who is not completely insufferable.
Sleepy Joe Turns It Up from Zero to One
The big focus of the second debate, of course, was former Vice President Joe Biden’s performance. After the schlonging he took in the first debate from Harris, he knew that he had to at least try to fight back this time.
And so, naturally, the 76-year-old went from sleeping during the debate to sleep-walking during the debate. Biden did a marginally better job of responding to attacks from his rivals, but he still sounded tired and haggard. His voice is so low and devoid of energy that even John Hickenlooper sounded perky and enthusiastic by comparison.
And it certainly didn’t help that this time around, he was attacked by more of the candidates, including Harris, Booker, Castro, and Gillibrand. Booker and Castro arguably landed the strongest hits, on criminal justice reform and immigration, respectively. The only thing that became more clear is that the future of Biden’s candidacy is as unclear as ever.
Turning the Tables on Kamala . . . Not
The big moment everyone has been talking about is the one of least consequence of them all.
Yes, it was satisfying to see Harris called out finally on her atrocious record as California’s attorney general. Few candidates were better equipped for this attack than Tulsi Gabbard, the one candidate who has the perfect blend of support from ironic meme lords and actual grassroots supporters. (Sorry Andrew Yang, take your $1,000 somewhere else.)
But the fact remains that Harris still has a much stronger campaign and base of support than Gabbard could ever dream of, particularly because of her national platform in the U.S. Senate, her support from the party’s establishment wing and donor class, and her openly leftist views and enthusiastic embrace of identity politics. She is, and remains, the biggest and most important minority candidate in the entire primary. In the Democratic Party of 2019, there is simply no place for someone like Gabbard, even though she would be marginally less disastrous for the country than most of her fellow candidates.
Harris is many things. She is ruthless, she is a fighter, but above all, she is absolutely crazy. Do not underestimate her. Just as Biden remained strong in the polls despite the prior attacks from Harris, don’t expect Harris suddenly to drop like a rock just because of a quick sound bite courtesy of Tulsi.
“Republican Talking Points”
The biggest takeaway from the second debate was an oft-used talking point over the course of both nights. Specifically, it was a talking point about . . . well, a talking point.
How many times did you hear the candidates say, with some variation, that a criticism of their far-left positions was “a Republican talking point”?
At least six candidates defaulted to this non-sequitur: Sanders, Warren, Williamson, Booker, Harris, and Castro. This was generally done in response to tough questions on socialized medicine (including the astronomical costs and the possibility of eliminating private insurance) and immigration (with Democratic proposals that essentially would translate to open borders).
Even when the facts were brought up, such as the costs of nearly $30 trillion for “Medicare for All,” and the fact that the language of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill explicitly says it would eliminate private insurance, the socialists deflected with this same line over and over and over again.
Whether these criticisms came from the moderators and their (admittedly) tough questions, or from fellow candidates, the nonchalance of this dismissive response was rather stunning.
Warren derided Delaney as someone who essentially was running a campaign based on “what we can’t do.” Williamson openly mocked her fellow candidates by wondering “why some of you are even Democrats.” Booker deferred to this line at least three times, claiming that some of his fellow candidates were “playing into the Republicans’ hands.”
What went unspoken was the implication that this strategy of simply dismissing legitimate criticisms, especially when said criticisms weren’t coming from conservatives, but from fellow Democrats is enough. If Warren or Sanders are so willing to dismiss such critiques from the moderators as nothing more than covert Republican talking points beneath response, and if Williamson has the gall even to ask “why are you a Democrat?” of her fellow candidates, then what is to stop them from treating voters in the same way?
Are all Americans who presume to ask such questions beneath Democrat contempt? It would appear so.
It goes without saying that Democrats in recent years have made no secret of their outright contempt for the American people. “You’re just using Republican talking points” could very well be the new “bitter clingers” or “basket of deplorables.”
Chances are that a Warren or Sanders with the nomination faced an independent voter in Wisconsin, or a moderate Democrat in Michigan, and were asked a question about the possible loss of that voter’s private insurance, their response would be similarly dismissive. Chances are that voter, and many thousands like that voter, are going to be unlikely to check that Democrat’s name on the ballot in 2020.
There are many reasons why the Democrats’ alarming shift leftward can—and most likely will—cost them the general election next year. But if there’s one particular facet of this drastic shift that most powerfully would symbolize their widening disconnect with the American people, it would be their open disregard and outright mockery of the very voters that they need in order to win.
And after President Trump wins another four years in the White House, the failed nominee will scratch his or her head and genuinely have no clue about why Democrats lost again.
This Debate’s Report Card and Rankings
- Tulsi Gabbard: A
- Elizabeth Warren: A
- John Delaney: A
- Cory Booker: B+
- Marianne Williamson: B+
- Pete Buttigieg: B+
- Julian Castro: B
- Bernie Sanders: B
- Joe Biden: B-
- Steve Bullock: B-
- Bill de Blasio: C+
- Tim Ryan: C+
- Kamala Harris: C
- John Hickenlooper: C
- Amy Klobuchar: C
- Jay Inslee: C-
- Andrew Yang: C-
- Kirsten Gillibrand: D
- Beto O’Rourke: D
- Michael Bennet: F
Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images