Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate was smaller than the sum of its parts. If you were looking for an important political debate that would help you decide which candidates are ready to serve in the White House and which ones aren’t: Sorry—it wasn’t your night.
If you’re a policy wonk who was ready for substance on climate change or health care—alas, not your night either.
But if you were looking for some good one-liners, you hit the jackpot. Plenty of quips and takedowns to fill an article on the debate, particularly given that all the news stories today are buried under coverage of Wednesday’s impeachment hearing “blockbuster.” (Which is how one of the MSNBC moderators referred to it.) Those quips didn’t add up to anyone making a case for themselves or offering a new direction for the Democratic Party, so their effect is minor.
Another reason Wednesday’s debate was less than it might appear is because, as California Democratic strategist Zach Friend said, some candidates were targeting small, specific audiences. The general reviews for Sen. Kamala Harris were negative, for example—her exchange with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was painful to watch—but Friend and other Democratic observers said she had a good night talking to her potential voters.
A New Hampshire Democratic activist told us: “Kamala Harris needed a big night, and she got it.”
Really? We’re not so sure. Here are our takeaways:
Best line of the night, men’s division: Q: If elected president, what would you say in your first call to Vladimir Putin?
“Sorry I beat your guy.”—Andrew Yang
Best line of the night, women’s division: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every day.” —Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Worst line of the night: Joe Biden, talking. About anything.
Most important line of the night: “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”—Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete’s comeback to the “experience” question reflected both the populist case against D.C. insiders, and highlighted the age issue of his frontrunners. Also, we checked his math, and he’s right: In fact, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders alone have spent 71 years as Washington politicians.
Best line that won’t help win a Democratic primary: “I’m not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car. We have an obligation as party to, yes, be fiscally responsible, yes, think big, but be honest.” —Klobuchar
Worst moment of the night: Biden’s cringe-inducing talk about women and violence and punching. It’s too awful to describe.
Most interesting fundraising detail: “I am someone that doesn’t come from money. My first Senate race, I literally called everyone I knew, and I set what is still an all-time Senate record: I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends.”—Klobuchar
Cory Booker explains Biden: “This week I heard him literally say I don’t think we should legalize marijuana. I thought you might have been high when you said it.”
Who won the debate? Mayor Pete won because nothing happened. There were no major gaffes or standout performances or changes in topic or tone. And when you’ve got the “Big Mo,” the best possible thing to happen in a nationally televised debate is … nothing.
Who lost the debate? The easy answer is “Joe Biden,” but thus far his polls have been impervious to his public performance. The biggest loser is probably Klobuchar, because it’s yet another day with Mayor Pete taking up the attention and resources she needs in Iowa to kick start her campaign into the top tier.