Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

The Lost Debate

There are winners and losers, even when no one watches.
November 21, 2019
Featured Image
Lost footage of rumored "Democratic Debate." (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’ll be interesting to see the numbers on Wednesday night’s debate because my sense—and maybe I’m just projecting here—is that anyone in America who follows politics closely enough to watch a two-hour debate three months before the first voting was also exhausted by watching two straight days of marathon testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

Honestly, I wouldn’t blame anyone who looked at the prospect of the Atlanta debate after yesterday’s Sondland show and just decided, as they say on the internet, I can’t even. And on Thursday morning, any reaction from the debate was immediately overwhelmed by more impeachment news.

So in many ways, this was the lost debate.

But if the stakes for this debate were lower than they’ve been so far, that is, itself, meaningful. Because it’s hard to change the status quo when voters aren’t paying attention.

Which means that there still were winners and losers, even in a debate that wasn’t really there.

Let’s rank them, starting with the winners.


(1) Pete Buttigieg. Mayor Pete was the big winner, because this was the moment for other campaigns to finally take a shot at him. Having this exposure buried in a debate no one will really remember meant that he was working with a net.

But as it turned out, it also meant that his rivals mostly declined to go after him, sensing that there was no reason to risk an attack in this spot.

Also, Buttigieg was good. Very good. As my colleague Sarah Longwell likes to say, Mayor Pete has all the best words. This is just objectively true. He’s better on a debate stage—by an order of magnitude—than anyone else in the field. If he were a 45-year-old senator from Minnesota, we’d all be penciling him into the White House.

But he’s 37 and the mayor of South Bend. And while I get the sense that some people think South Bend is a small city, like Pittsburgh, it’s not. It’s a town. A small town. It’s half the size of Arlington, Virginia, or Yonkers, New York, or Augusta, Georgia.

Here are the three American towns ahead of South Bend on the size list: Davenport, Iowa; Renton, Washington; Las Cruces, New Mexico.

All of that said, Mayor Pete pulled a neat trick at the debate: On policy grounds he stuck close to the middle, near Biden, but on the experience question framed the election as the time to make a bold choice on a leader with different kinds of experience.

I’m not sure how much this pitch makes sense when you look at it closely: We’ve got to make a bold choice to elect this guy so that he can implement sensible, moderate policies! But when Mayor Pete is doing his McKinsey presentation, it all kind of hangs together.

Also: Pete was the guy coming to the debate with the most momentum and nothing that happened Wednesday night checked it. That’s a win.

(2) Joe Biden. This is also pretty much what happened for Crazy Uncle Joe. Things are going reasonably well for Biden—four of the last five polls have him over 30 percent—and a debate that lets the status quo continue helps him.

He had his usual stumbles—talking about “punching, punching” at domestic violence—which, in any other context, would be bad. But next to Trump, this pattern seems kind of endearing.

Also: His central pitch is “A Return to Normalcy” and he made that point as well as possible when he refused to take the bait on prosecuting Trump and then said that he didn’t like it when people chant “Lock him up” about the president.

Any time you’re able to have a moment in a debate that drives home the central thrust of your candidacy, it’s a good thing.

(3) Bernie Sanders. He’s alive!

Elizabeth Warren’s most recent shift on Medicare for All—she’s abandoned her plan without saying so—is the opening he’s been waiting for. Her numbers are trending down and he’s holding steady.

And he pounded the idea that if you want a real revolution, then he’s your guy.

(4) Andrew Yang. The truth is, Yang is the first real human being to run for president in, I don’t know, forever? He’s likable, candid, bright, and just glib enough. He knows he’s running to inject ideas, but that he has to pretend that he thinks he’s going to be president, and he’s going along with it. But he knows what’s up. And he knows you know. He’s not insulting your intelligence.

Also: This was the first debate in which Yang got real time to talk and he was smart even discussing non-UBI matters!

If we were electing a national CEO, Yang would be running away with this thing.


Which brings us to the debate’s losers:

(5) Elizabeth Warren. She’s in trouble and this debate didn’t give her a chance to stop the bleeding.

Warren has two foundational problems which have been masked by her rise in the polls.

First, she is competing for the same pool of voters with Bernie, but without his cult of personality.

Second, she has positioned herself as the wonk’s wonk who has detailed answers for everything and does the hard math. But it turns out that she’s hiding the football on her biggest proposal and that her math doesn’t even work well enough to pass the eyeball test.

Oh, and there’s a third problem: In order for her to have a chance to win the nomination, she has to place first in Iowa, where she has played very hard. And Buttigieg’s rise there complicates that proposition.

(6) Amy Klobuchar. She looks like she’s pretty much given up. I get that she feels like she has to hang in there until Iowa before she can retire with dignity. But why? She should come back to Washington and decide to be a leader on impeachment.

(7) Kamala Harris. A couple debates ago someone told her to stop being a cold-blooded prosecutor and start being a down-home, plain-folks candidate.

She should stop doing that.

There’s something weird and off-kilter about this Kamala 3.0, like she’s pretending to have had a third glass of rosé before walking on stage. I don’t like it. And nobody else does, either.

This is a candidate in free-fall. The only question is whether or not this campaign will damage her political viability going forward. My guess is: Yes. With each passing debate it becomes harder to see her as a VP pick.

(8) Tulsi Gabbard. The gig is up on Tulsi and she seems like she’s ready to embrace it.

Gabbard has been positioning herself as the Ron Paul of the Democratic party without saying so out loud. Everyone else has figured this out now and she seems ready to drop the mask and make her heel turn by attacking everyone on stage, and talking about how the whole party is full of sellouts while she chants “regime-change wars” over and over, like a mantra.

It’s going to be great when she gets her own show on Fox. But practically speaking, her career in Democratic politics is over.

(9) Tom Steyer. A total non-entity. A total joke. And a total phony, too.

Because if he cared so much about climate change, he’d channel every penny he’s spent on this campaign into anti-Trump ads in swing states.

(10) Cory Booker. It pains me to put Booker this low on the list because, for the second time in a row, he had a great debate.

But that’s precisely why he was Wednesday night’s biggest loser. Booker needs a breakout moment if he’s going to get a serious look from voters. Last night—especially his closing remarks—could have been that. He was fantastic.

It is a cruel fate to have a moment like that buried in a debate that didn’t matter.

(11) Deval Patrick. I’m not going to goof on Patrick for canceling an event last night after only two people showed up.

But I am going to say that last night demonstrated why there is no room for him—none at all—in this field.

Jumping into this race when he did, in the manner he did—with no real message or theory of the race and no strategically important advantages—was a terrible, terrible mistake and it risks turning this highly successful man into a punchline.

He should get out this weekend.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.