2020

And Yet, Joe Persisted

Biden won, again, by demonstrating why Democratic voters have such goodwill for him.
September 13, 2019
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Democratic presidential hopefuls Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (L), Former Vice President Joe Biden (C) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participate in the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 2019. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Let’s get this out of the way from the start: A three-hour debate with 10 candidates is like the Bataan death march. It’s a depressing slog and we’re already past the point where voters are going to learn anything important or new.

For the love of all that is good and decent: Cap these things at two hours.

With that out of the way, let’s rank the candidates by how they did on Thursday night.

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1. Joe Biden. This is the third debate he’s won, and only the first one was close.

Biden has to show that he’s sharp and vigorous. He’s passed that test.

He has to hammer the most important difference between himself and his closest rivals: That they want to eliminate private insurance and they’ll raise taxes to pay for their health care plans. Poll after poll shows that health care is one of the top three issues for Democratic voters. And Biden is the guy sitting on the spot that says “let people keep their private insurance.” That’s good ground.

Finally, he has to continue to show voters why people like him. And more than anyone else on stage, he nailed this. Three examples:

First, during the opening segment on Medicare for All, Biden focused most of his criticisms on Bernie Sanders (not the most likable guy on stage) rather than Elizabeth Warren (who is much more likable) even though they could have applied to either.

Second, when Julian Castro went after him for being a forgetful old man, he pushed back but didn’t get ugly. He realized Castro was way out on a limb and he let him stay there.

Third, when gun control came up Biden turned to Beto O’Rourke. This is the exchange:

BIDEN: [B]y the way, the way Beto handled—excuse me for saying Beto. What the congressman . . .

O’ROURKE: That’s all right. Beto’s good.

BIDEN: The way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful, to look in the eyes of those people, to see those kids . . . to understand those parents, you understand the heartache.

What makes the praise of O’Rourke come off as genuine is the opening, where Biden calls him by his first name—obviously affectionately—and then catches himself and apologizes for not calling him “congressman.”

The frontrunner is always the guy taking the most fire. Yet time and again, Biden was the most respectful person on the stage. Being respectful doesn’t win you the nomination. But it’s a mark of why Biden has such deep reservoirs of goodwill with Democratic voters.

There’s a reason they like him.

Exit take: Toward the end, Biden was asked about his biggest professional setback. He started talking about losing his wife and daughter when protestors started screaming at him.

This struck me as synecdoche for pretty much the entire primary campaign so far: Young progressives so convinced of their own righteousness that they go after a guy like Biden at a moment like this, thinking that it helps their cause.


2. Bernie Sanders. He did what he had to do. Bernie was there to out-commie Elizabeth Warren and by God, he did it. If you want to blow up the system and really change the way America’s economy works, in a fundamental way, Bernie is your guy.

Where Warren won’t say that your taxes will go up, Bernie does. And then he explains that net-net, your costs go down. He does the applause lines about free college for everyone and voting against the Iraq war—which at this point is almost a full generation ago.

He was so amped up that he ran right at Biden for not understanding what it’s like for people to deal with cancer. That’s so weirdly tone-deaf (RIP, Beau Biden)  and insane that it was kind of beautiful to watch.

Bernie reminded people that with all the talk about Warren rising, he’s still right there.


3. Elizabeth Warren. She’s now the #2(a) candidate. She has one pathway to the nomination, and it requires her to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, force Sanders out of the race, and then ride college-educated liberal voters to a close-fought delegate victory.

The problem is that she has a very big pitch to make, her gimmick is that she’s the one with all the straight answers, but that she’s not really talking straight.

Example: Early in the night, Stephanopoulos asked Warren if she admits that her health care plan will make taxes go up. And she simply wouldn’t do it. She talked about costs. She talked about co-pays. She flatly refused to admit the obvious truth.

You can’t hide the football on this. Not if you’re the wonk candidate. And especially not if you have another candidate with the exact same plan as you waving his arms and shouting about how “YES TAXES WILL GO UP!! NOW, GET OFF MY LAWN!”

There’s a policy-side aspect to this: She’s not being straight with voters the way Sanders is.

But the bigger problem is the character-side problem. It is inconceivable to me that Warren has not been asked even once about her Native American problem, even though that will be the first and last thing Trump says about her every day if she’s the nominee. By not leveling with people about the downside of her health care plan, it feeds the perception that there’s something not quite on the level with her.

Exit take: At one point, Warren complained that health insurance “last year sucked $23 billion in profits out of the system.”

I don’t know about you, but my first thought was: That’s all?

The health insurance sector is really, really big. To give you a sense of scale, last year Apple logged $59.5 billion in profits.

One company. More than double the profits of the entire health insurance sector.

Don’t get me wrong: $23 billion is a lot of money. But it’s not really, you know, a lot of money these days.


4. Cory Booker. He had a nice debate! It’s not going to matter because he isn’t going to be the nominee, but tonight we got the Genuinely Genuine Cory Booker and not the Try Hard Genuine Cory Booker.

But of course, when you’re sitting at 2 percent in the polls, you don’t have to worry at anyone coming at you.


5. Andrew Yang. His Freedom Dividend stunt was the only thing he did that mattered, and it was brilliant. Because it made certain that he’ll be mentioned in every write-up of the debate.

Not that this matters, either.


6. Beto O’Rourke. Time for a second look?

Don’t get me wrong. O’Rourke didn’t have a great debate. But he had two very real moments, one with guns and one with criminal justice reform, where he looked like the guy who ran for Senate and not the overly formal guy doing a strained RFK impression.

That’s about as good as it’s going to get for him.


7. Pete Buttigieg. Was barely there. Easily his worst debate—not because he did badly, but because he just couldn’t sink his teeth in anywhere. There were no moments for him to dominate, not spots for him to hit, no angles where he could differentiate himself.


8. Kamala Harris. What a … strange night?

Harris had a terrible night. She had clearly been told to hug Obama and go after Trump. So she used her opening remarks to talk directly at Trump and then she praised Obama up and down. The whole thing was robotic and underwhelming.

And her entire affect seemed … off. The serious prosecutor was gone. In her place was a woman doing weird laughing and kind of floating through the conversation without ever really landing anywhere. She was a total, complete non-factor.

But there was one possibly interesting development: For the first time she articulated a clear support for private health insurance and she ignored Biden completely. Those are good strategic decisions.

If Biden collapses, moderate Dems will need a home. And if he wins the nomination, this removes one stumbling block for her as a possible VP pick.


9. Amy Klobuchar. There was room for someone on the stage tonight to try to take the ground that Michael Bennett, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, and John Delaney have been staking out as the combative moderates.

Klobuchar gestured toward it, but in the end declined to take it.

On the one hand, the four moderate Dems who didn’t make the debate combine to own about 2 percent.

On the other hand, 2 percent is roughly double where Klobuchar lives. Add their numbers to hers and she’s suddenly in a tie with Andrew Yang for sixth place.

But on the third hand, she knows she’s not going to be the nominee and in Houston she seemed as though she’s looking forward to getting out.


10. Julian Castro. The only thing anyone will talk about regarding Castro is his kamikaze job on Biden.

In case you missed it, here’s what happened:

During the health care portion of the debate, Biden said:

Look, everybody says we want an option. The option I’m proposing is Medicare for all—Medicare for choice. If you want Medicare, if you lose the job from your insurance—from your employer, you automatically can buy into this. You don’t have—no pre-existing condition can stop you from buying in. You get covered, period.

A few minutes later, Castro went after Biden because his plan would still leave 10 million people uninsured. And this is what happened:

CASTRO: [T]he difference between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in and I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled. They wouldn’t have a buy in.

That’s a big difference, because Barack Obama’s vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered. He wanted every single person in this country covered. My plan would do that. Your plan would not.

BIDEN: They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.

CASTRO: You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just two minutes ago that they would have to buy in.

BIDEN: Do not have to buy in if you can’t afford it.

CASTRO: You said they would have to buy in.

BIDEN: Your grandmother would not have to buy in. If she qualifies for Medicaid, she would automatically be enrolled.

CASTRO: Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.

It was much nastier than it reads on the page.

I have no real interest in litigating the coverage shell games going on here, but it sure looks as though Castro is playing word games (Biden talks about workers buying into Medicare, but people who could not afford it would have access to Medicaid) and then using it as a sub-rosa attack on his age.

Then, a second later, Castro snapped, “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not.”

Maybe this is not a great way to go after Joe Biden? By claiming that you’re the True Heir to President Obama? I dunno.

But he wasn’t done. When Mayor Pete tried to step in and calm everyone down, Castro went full Tracy Flick:

BUTTIGIEG: This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable.

KLOBUCHAR: Yeah.

BUTTIGIEG: This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other that—my plan, your plan. Look, we all have different visions for what is better…

CASTRO: Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election. That’s an election. You know? This is what we’re here for. It’s an election.

Again, the transcript doesn’t quite get at how cloying and, well, just gross Castro was.

I would wager that Castro probably came in third or fourth in the Twitter primary on Thursday night and for a certain type of progressive warrior they’ll look at his performance and cheer, “He fights!”

But when you fight like this, you hurt yourself more than anyone else. Just ask Vice President Chris Christie.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.