I didn’t watch any of the first night of the debates this week and only watched about forty-five minutes of the one last night. I don’t think they matter that much except for whittling down the ridiculously large field. Nobody’s paying much attention at this point in the contest and with 20 candidates, it’s hard to keep them straight. The last time Democrats had a large field was in 2008 and the first debate was in late September. That’s about when folks will begin tuning in.
That said, I have a few thoughts about the race and what I’ve seen of the candidates. First, Elizabeth Warren is still probably running the best campaign and is very good as a candidate. She’s comfortable in her skin, she’s got a message and she sticks to it. Nobody questions what she stands for. She uses every opportunity to bash the president, calling him out for his racism without mincing words, then circles back to making her case that we need a system that works for everybody, not just rich. And she’s got a plan for that.
I question whether or not that message plays with enough of the swing voters Democrats will need to win. Warren wants to argue that her Medicare for All is about reducing costs for families, but that’s not how Republicans will portray it and it’s not how many voters will hear it. If she’s the nominee, Republicans will argue that her plan will take away people’s employer-based insurance and force them onto government plans that provide less coverage and are paid for with tax increases. They’ll pan her plan for free college as another huge tax hike and entitlement program. I fear that if she’s the nominee, the 2020 election will focus more on her plans than on Donald Trump’s character. In that fight, I believe Trump gets re-elected. I hope I’m wrong.
From what I saw, Joe Biden looked better last night but he still appears a bit slow off the mark and old-fashioned. At least he didn’t challenge Trump to push-ups or a fist fight. The other candidates made him look like the frontrunner with their near constant attacks. He held his own in each encounter but he didn’t exude any sort of dominance with his performance. Every time he spoke, I was waiting to see if he got through his answer without a faux pas. After the debate, CNN commentator John King said that Biden sank to his opponents’ level instead of making them rise to his. I think that’s pretty accurate and leaves me concerned that he could go toe-to-toe with Trump on a debate stage.
I still don’t know what Kamala Harris stands for and I don’t think she does, either. I keep hoping she will up her game, but she hasn’t done anything impressive yet. Her plans are weak and her attacks on Biden last night looked more opportunistic than principled. Over and over, she’s failed to take advantage of opportunities when she creates them. She fumbled questions after her launch. She never capitalized on her damning questioning of William Barr. And she blew her shot at Biden over busing in the first debate by essentially taking the same position she criticized.
I will always like Mayor Pete even if I disagree with some of his positions like packing the court. He’s thoughtful, smart, funny and has a degree of humility. I don’t think he will be nominated. I think his appeal is limited to people like me, overeducated and comfortably suburban. I just don’t see the country nominating a guy whose crowning political achievement is as mayor of a city the size of High Point. I think he’s the future of the party, not the nominee in 2020.
I think Bernie’s done. He’s offered nothing to expand his appeal and is losing ground, mostly to Elizabeth Warren. He’ll make it through several primaries because his loyal core supporters will ensure he has the money to stay in the race. He started the campaign with as much support as he’ll ever have even if his floor is higher than most other candidates.
I wish Julian Castro could get some traction. He’s smart, likeable and has a good sense of humor. He’d be a good contrast to Trump, though I fear his immigration policies would alienate the middle. Trump wants to make the election about immigration and he’d portray Castro as advocating open borders to give illegal immigrants free health care.
Amy Klobuchar, who would probably match up well against Trump, has never really recovered from stories about her management style. She was portrayed as a horrible boss in the wake of her campaign announcement and hasn’t caught fire since. She didn’t gain any ground in these debates.
Cory Booker seemed most focused on trying to keep the debates more civil and more focused on the failures of Trump. I didn’t see much of him last night but according to a Fox News pollster, a focus group unanimously named him the winner. Booker could still have a break out moment. He’s smart and personable with an upbeat personality. Still, I don’t think America will elect a vegan president.
Andrew Yang might make the next debate but he’s still a novelty candidate, even if he’s refreshing to watch. I don’t think anybody else gets any real momentum. The group of western white guys just blend together too much, even if they all look competent and could be strong candidates in a different year. The New York mayor is consistently the most annoying person on stage. Kristin Gillibrand hurt herself when she took a 35 year old op-ed out of context to try to attack Joe Biden.
If Democrats are going to beat Trump in 2020, they need to make the race about him and his massive shortcomings. He’s trying to take away their health care. He’s separating children from their parents and putting them in cages. He’s embraced tyrants and shunned our allies. He’s disrespected whole groups of Americans with his racist and xenophobic language. Corruption is so rampant that almost the entire leadership of his 2016 campaign is in jail. Those are good reasons to fire the president.
After a decade recovering from the Great Recession and four years of political upheaval by the president, people want a period of calm. Running on programs that would disrupt their lives, even if those programs may be beneficial in the long run, is a losing message in 2020. The Democratic candidates better understand that and, more importantly, so should Democratic primary voters.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >