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2020 Democratic Debate 8.0

A look at the first (of three!) February 2020 Democratic debate.

Ah, the Friday-evening debate we’ve all been waiting for.

For this debate we have seven candidates like last time, but we also have the Iowa caucuses under our belts, which have given a little bit of clarity on where things stand. Buttigieg and Sanders neck-and-neck on that one puts the whole thing in a different light, doesn’t it?


Going into the debate, some expectations:

Sanders

Having done well in Iowa, and expected to do well in New Hampshire as it borders Vermont, Sanders will probably be looking to cement his position. His main threat, per latest polls, is Buttigieg, but he may not take the expected bait of moderators to get into a direct confrontation.

Buttigieg

In a similar position to Sanders for very different reasons, in New Hampshire he’s not a neighbor. The main question will be how much time he spends going after Sanders versus trying to tamp down his main moderate rivals (Biden and Klobuchar). It’s likely that he’s not making any dire push for New Hampshire, but isn’t writing it off, either.

Warren

She didn’t make any surprise in Iowa, and she’s not that high in New Hampshire polling (though she is a neighbor), so it seems like she will try to make some moves to help her in the medium-term. She could try to stake out the in-between ground that has been vacant since Booker and Harris have left the race. If she can make the case for the middle-way, that’s probably her best bet to siphon away from both moderates and progressives.

Biden

Having come up short in Iowa, Biden is almost locked-in to depending on the south to make his case for him, so like Warren will probably be less focused on New Hampshire retail and more on setting up for the next act (particularly with Bloomberg increasing his push). With Buttigieg having taken the lead in the moderate lane, he’s got some heat off him and can benefit from lowered expectations by beating them.

Klobuchar

Still pushing along in third in the moderate lane, it’s not clear what strategy she can muster here. The middle-way that someone like Warren might take is too off-brand for Klobuchar to attempt. Her best bet is more of a elder stateswoman play, but (for whatever reason) none of the female candidates have much attempted that kind of strategy.

Steyer and Yang

They’re still there. They have some good ideas, but at least in Yang’s case some weird ones, too. No idea if any of it amounts to anything other than a kind of data-gathering strategy that could be useful to candidates down the road. With Steyer, it’s not clear what he’s doing, so it’s hard to say if he can do it well.


OK. Klobuchar definitely stepped up. We’ll have to wait to see how much it helped, but it was definitely above her normal debate performance. She was the first to invoke gratitude to her fellow senators who did their duty and voted to convict Donald John Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, along with praising Lieutenant Colonel Vindman for his service to the nation (Biden subsequently prompted the crowd to give Vindman a standing ovation).

Steyer elbowed his way into the fray at least a couple of times, mostly to remind everyone how important it is to defeat the president in November.

Yang did his best to underscore the basic sensibilities of a universal basic income: that it would empower all people to make choices that would benefit their lives in ways that government is either unwilling or unable to do. It would cut through all sorts of red tape to let people make positive changes. It’s a good pitch, but it’s damned hard to sell a panacea as a presidential strategy, whatever its virtues.

Warren didn’t have a bad night, but it didn’t feel like she had a great one either. Seemed to mostly play to her base and reminded me of Sanders in some of the early debates where she stuck to her message without really adding. With more debates coming this month and her current position, she may have felt it was best to play it safe.

Speaking of Sanders, he also had more of an average night, which is at least partly because he’s usually (a little too) good at staying to his message. But it seems to be working for him, at least in Iowa and in New Hampshire.

Biden was steady, though weaker than his best. Which, like Warren (and Sanders?) may have been strategy. Again, with two more debates and contests this month alone, and the thick of the campaign nearly upon us, and it being a Friday night debate, playing it easy makes a lot of sense. (On the other hand, not attempting minor differences, just to see if it helps, is usually a wasted opportunity.)

And finally, Buttigieg. He took some flak, as expected as the biggest beneficiary of the Iowa caucuses. His main contribution to the debate was the repetition of his phrase: “Turn the page.” One naturally assumes that, should he receive the nomination, it would be one of his slogans to wield against the president. He had a decent night for all the criticism of his inexperience. It’s important to note that it’s not merely the lack of government experience, but also life experience that’s rolled into that. He has experienced a decent amount for his age, but compared to the older candidates it’s still significantly less.


On the whole a decent debate if only for seeing how the candidates react with the busy week and Iowa behind them. The upcoming contest in New Hampshire and the other debates and primaries this month will really get us down to the big day coming on 3 March.

In terms of strategy, playing it safe was probably safe, but stepping up like Klobuchar did, especially with others sitting back a bit, should help her. We’ll see how much.


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