I don’t really know who to call a “winner” or a “loser” from last night’s Democratic debate. The majority of the field spent much of the night attacking Elizabeth Warren, and she handled the combativeness fine. While she did not dominate with her answers — and her refusal to say she’ll raise taxes to pay for health care is a little concerning, though understandable — she didn’t blow it, either. By virtue of being the focus of much of the debate, she wins for holding the line as frontrunner.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, had a really good night. He did not seem affected in the least by his heart attack three weeks ago, and he flashed a genuine sense of humor. He may have come off as more human than he has in any other debate, but with Warren as frontrunner, Bernie’s progressive positions have a way of making Warren seem slightly more moderate and perhaps more appealing to a broader spectrum of the party. In a way, he takes the heat for many of Warren’s progressive positions. We also learned last night that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar will be endorsing Bernie, and while I like them both, that may actually benefit Warren with the establishment wing of the party, which is more wary of AOC.
Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar certainly came off as the most forceful candidates of the night, as they attacked Warren the most frequently in an attempt to win over the center of the party as Joe Biden fades. Klobuchar did well (except when she tried to make jokes, Ooof), although I think it’s too little too late for her. Buttigieg, meanwhile, spent a lot of the night YELLING, and I’m not sure how well that worked out for him. It was more effective during the foreign-policy section of the debate when Buttigieg got into it with Tulsi Gabbard, but for much of the rest of the night, he came off as a scold.
Biden needed a strong performance to reassert himself among the Democratic field. He did not produce one. It was the same old Joe: He rambled. He repeated himself. He looked bad trying to take credit for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While his son Hunter Biden didn’t do anything wrong, the way Joe Biden talks about that situation often makes it seem like Hunter Biden did something wrong. Biden may have the most moderate appeal, but Trump would Hillary the hell out of him, and based on his performance last night, Biden would not be able to withstand it.
Cory Booker mostly acted as referee, calling out the moderators and defending some of the candidates (including the health of Bernie). Booker came off as a really good guy, but I’m not sure he gained any more voters. Kamala Harris, who stood out for her debate skills in the early debates, seemed to shrink into the background in last night’s debate. She gave a good answer on health care — pivoting toward reproductive rights — but the Twitter/Trump issue seems to be something of a nonstarter.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire on the stage, left as he came in: A nonentity. Andrew Yang, who had the occasional good moment in previous debates, did not manage even that in this month’s debate. Except when the issue was gun control, Beto was a complete non-factor. Julian Castro also gave a great answer on gun violence, but he didn’t factor heavily into the debate, either.
Ultimately, it was a bad night for Biden, and a good night for Bernie. Warren won by virtue of not losing, Buttigieg likely gained support from some while alienating others, and Klobuchar may get a brief second look. For everyone else? They did not move the needle, and at this stage in the game, it may be too late for them to make a dent.