Presidential Debates, Presidential Elections

Kamala Harris won—and black women did too.

M.Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

June 27, 2019

It’s a democratic-socialist party now—but it might be in the hands of some younger stars instead of Bernie Sanders. After two nights and 20 Democrats scrapping on a national stage, that’s the conclusion of our panel of experts, operatives and longtime political observers who sat through all four hours of debating and watched a party reshape itself on live TV.

Who came out ahead? Kamala Harris captured a lot of the attention, not least for her ability to go toe-to-toe with frontrunner Joe Biden on Thursday night. The other big winner was Pete Buttigieg, whose smooth intelligence and moral seriousness stood out, though at age 37 he might not have had quite the commanding presence of Harris. Both of them, in our experts’ views, eclipsed Biden—though the former vice president still grabbed the most screen time, and there’s no telling whether anything we saw this week will move the polls.

Looking at both nights, our panel thought that Elizabeth Warren held her own, and Julián Castro pushed his name up the leaderboard, at least for now. And many observers thought Sanders seemed eclipsed by more diverse and dynamic candidates.

Who else had an electric kickoff, and why? Read on for their insights.

***

Kamala Harris won—and black women did too.
Michelle Bernard is a political analyst, lawyer, author and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.

Fifty years after the election of Shirley Chisholm as the first African-American woman to serve in Congress and to run for president, Kamala Harris made history on Thursday, clearly winning the Democratic debate. With her win, black women won too—and won in ways that no one could have predicted just 24 hours ago.

From the beginning to the end of the debate, Harris was poised, controlled, passionate and combative enough to make clear that she can go to battle against Trump and win. From the economy to immigration to racial and gender justice to how a Democrat will govern with a Republican-led Senate, Harris owned the stage. So much so, that at times it was easy to forget that Biden or Sanders, the front runners going into the evening, let alone any of the other candidates, were even there.

Early in the debate, Harris took control by bringing order to the stage when the other candidates were speaking over one another like children fighting over candy, saying, “Hey guys, you know what, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on the table.” Harris showed no fear in attacking Donald Trump, reiterating that he is the greatest threat to the nation. On gun control, DACA and “releasing children from cages,” she told the country she would not hesitate to use executive action, answering the public’s question as to how a Democrat in the White House will get anything done with a Republican-led Senate.

Moreover, Harris embraced her blackness, describing the neighbor whose children were not allowed to play with her and her sister because they are black. She showed no fear or discomfort in volunteering the differences she had with the Obama-Biden administration on the deportation of undocumented immigrants, and she talked about the leadership she demonstrated when, as attorney general of California, she directed sheriffs to ignore the Obama administration’s policy of deporting the undocumented. She called Biden’s comments about his past working with two segregationist lawmakers “hurtful” and then accused him of opposing busing in order to integrate public schools, stating, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.” One couldn’t help but look at Biden and ask, “How could you?”

***

It’s Bernie’s party now.
Dan Lavoie is a progressive communications strategist.

The takeaway from the two debates is simple: It is Bernie Sanders’ party. It was Kamala Harris’ star turn. It was Joe Biden’s nightmare. And it’s Elizabeth Warren’s nomination to lose.

Sanders’ complete and total conquest of the Democratic Party policy center was astounding to watch. Nearly every viable candidate espoused beliefs in line with or to the left of Bernie 2016. But as much as Sanders’ policies have taken over the political conversation, his middling debate performance—juxtaposed with extremely strong performances by Warren and Harris—leave him on the outside looking in.

And poor, anachronistic Biden. He seemed lost in his responses. He was eaten alive by Harris’ “that little girl was me” line, and he spent a good chunk of his time defending his antagonism to busing. It will be a slow (or fast) glide-path out of first place for him. The contours of the race are becoming clear, and they likely don’t involve Joe Biden.

***

Women—and people of color—ruled.
Amanda Litman is the co-founder and executive director of Run for Something.

After all the hand wringing in 2017 and 2018 about identity politics, I’m so glad to see that the breakout candidates were all women and people of color who brought their lived experience to the stage. Across the two nights, Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand all invoked nuance, personal stories and their direct connections to the issues that directly affect Americans. And for once, “American” wasn’t synonymous with straight white men. These candidates’ experiences as members of a marginalized community make them better, more well-rounded, more empathetic leaders, and they’re stronger for it. Diversity isn’t a novelty; it’s a necessity. Any pundit who argued that only a white man can take the fight to Donald Trump was full of it.

***

Harris won: ‘Democrats can envision her doing to Trump what she did to Biden.’
Alan Schroeder is a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Schroeder is the author of several books, including Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.

Two headlines emerged from this opening round: Kamala Harris’ ascent and Joe Biden’s near self-immolation. Biden can be a talented debater—he won both of his general election matches hands down—but a cattle call is precisely the wrong format for showcasing his gifts. Biden allowed Harris to rattle him, and as the debate progressed his mounting desperation reminded me of John McCain’s discomfort in his debates with Barack Obama.

Harris is the clear victor, counting both nights. She combines the intellect and zeal of Elizabeth Warren with the stage presence and storytelling prowess of Cory Booker, to cite Wednesday’s co-winners. Harris manages to be equally relaxed and forceful; even her interruptions were done with finesse. But she won the debate for a singular reason: because Democrats can envision her doing to Donald Trump what she did to Biden.

Harris’ only rival on the stage Thursday was Pete Buttigieg. His physical slightness puts him at a visual disadvantage—imagine Trump stalking Mayor Pete on a debate stage—but Buttigieg is so smart and self-possessed that he invites trust. His eloquent denunciation of Republicans for their religious hypocrisy shows that he can detonate a viral moment with the best of them.

So the scorecard stands as follows: One big winner: Harris. Three runners-up: Warren, Booker and Buttigieg. A surprise upstart: Julián Castro. The mediocrities, not worth listing. And a bunch of losers, starting with Biden and extending to Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand, the Coloradans, Andrew Yang (who’d make a great student council president) and Marianne Williamson, this debate’s Admiral Stockdale. Can’t we just give her a parting gift and applaud her offstage?

***

Mayor Pete is our best bipartisan hope.
Liz Mair is a Republican campaign communications consultant.

The guy who comes out of these two nights—and it is a guy—with the most gut-level appeal, both for Democrats and I suspect a lot of independents and Republicans tuning in too, is Pete Buttigieg. He’s likable, clearly very smart, has a vision, can articulate it, and a lot of people from all different philosophical backgrounds will appreciate that he’s a veteran. It’s a very positive distinguisher in this field.

That said, I think Joe Biden did what he needed to do in this round. Yes, he could have handled the attack by Kamala Harris better, but I suspect he knows that voters aren’t where progressive Twitter is and didn’t want to look like he was punching a girl in order to address a challenge that might not even truly exist. His constant references to positive aspects of his record that showed real leadership, how he led on so much during the Obama-Biden administration especially, and his simple invocation of President Obama will, I think, prove very effective. Plus, he is just hard not to like on some level.

Who comes out of this round a loser? Bernie Sanders, big time. It’s clear at this point that if you want what he is selling, policy-wise, you can get it from Elizabeth Warren without the befuddled, yelling, USSR-honeymooning act. If you like the policy and the yelling, Bill de Blasio is also an alternative. Kirsten Gillibrand also performed badly on Thursday. The constant interruptions, the scripted, pander-y and badly delivered answers, and the retuned, politically charged 1990s Spice Girls “girl power” theme really don’t say “commander in chief.” And it’s not a gender thing, as Harris proved by standing right next to Gillibrand and looking about 30 times as tough, effective, principled and capable, live on camera.

***

Biden survived.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.

Already Joe Biden is being written off and Kamala Harris touted as the second night’s winner. Don’t believe a word of it. Harris may have tried to put Biden in a Miami vise, but he ultimately eluded her repeated and potent blows. He closed with a strong statement about Trump’s embrace of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, allowing him to underscore where the real problem rests when it comes to race. For all the talk among his younger rivals of passing the torch, Biden made it clear that he doesn’t want to torch the past. Instead, he effectively pointed to his record of legislative prowess and argued that Barack Obama’s accomplishments, especially on health care, are being sold short.

Harris showed that she has the goods to deliver a knockout blow, and Biden will have to up his game. But in roughing up Biden this early, she may have done him a favor. The nomination remains his to lose. If he doesn’t, it’s Biden-Harris. Otherwise, watch for Harris-Buttigieg. Either way, it’s Donald Trump who has more than ever to worry about. Thursday night’s debate was anything but BORING!

***

‘They all but declared their front-runner a senile racist’
Mary Matalin is a conservative political consultant and was campaign director for President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

I literally thought I had tuned into one of my favorite films, Idiocracy. Almost to a man, the candidates took the downside position on two issues that 80 percent of Americans stand on the other side of: immigration and health care. They championed open borders and free health care for illegal immigrants, while dissing heroic law enforcement (ICE), and they all but declared their front-runner a senile racist.

***

‘Why would I vote for Bernie Sanders in 2020 when Elizabeth Warren exists?’
L. Joy Williams is a political strategist and consultant, the creator and host of the podcast Sunday Civics, and the chair of Higher Heights for America.

Beating Donald Trump is at the top of every Democrat’s list, but voters will want more than a demonstration of strength to defeat the bully when they get in the polling booth. That strength must be coupled with a clear path out of the wilderness for the American people, and only a few of the candidates were able to deliver that.

On the second night’s stage, Kamala Harris was adorned in full armor and ready for battle. She was able to chart a direction on key policy issues and her direct challenge to Joe Biden showed that she is unafraid to go for the biggest guy in the room. Biden himself reminded many that he isn’t particularly great at debating. Add that to his latest dust ups and we will begin to see a few cracks in that front-runner status. Like the first night’s New Yorker Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand’s strategy of forcing her way into conversations may or may not pay off in the long run, but it certainly got her noticed. Based on their performances, candidates like Eric Swalwell, Tulsi Gabbard and Michael Bennet might find it difficult to convince donors to help them reach the next debate threshold. And lastly, while they weren’t on the stage together, people must be asking themselves: Why would I vote for Bernie Sanders in 2020 when Elizabeth Warren exists?

***

Harris-Castro 2020!
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio host.

If Democratic primary voters had to nominate a ticket tomorrow based off the two straight nights of debates, it would be Harris-Castro. In terms of issues, immigration dominated both nights, but climate change transitioned into climate crisis by night two. If black voters felt left out on the first night, many felt back in the game by the second night.

Kamala Harris and Julián Castro each appeared to tear through any virtual ceilings they hit before these debates, and they leave Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren forgotten for a moment. Castro found openings to show his sharpness, while Harris was much less scripted and raw. On the first night, that proved a fatal blow to Beto O’Rourke; on the second night, it gave Joe Biden a deep bruise that left him wobbling, but the jury is still out on whether that’s it for him. Bernie Sanders was made irrelevant. Pete Buttigieg was composed but still mostly hype.

***

She didn’t win, but Marianne Williamson was the most memorable.
Jennifer Victor is a professor of political science at George Mason University, a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks and a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

The caliber of exchange in Thursday’s debate was much higher than in the first night of debates. Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg were the breakout stars of the second debate. They commanded the stage and had memorable moments. Buttigieg had more to gain than Harris, because he is less well known, but Harris demonstrated a greater ability to lead the narrative, particularly in her exchange with Joe Biden over civil rights. Biden has been a front runner, but he underperformed in the crowded field and dated himself in several moments with his language and examples, which might not serve him well in an election year that is expected to see an unprecedented number of young voters. The most memorable moments probably were the left-field comments from Marianne Williamson, who will likely not be in the running much longer.

***

‘Imitation may prove to be a blessing and a curse for Sanders.’
Matt Bruenig is the founder and president of the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank.

Across the two debates, Bernie Sanders’ style of economic populism emerged as the primary winner. Gone is the moderate economic rhetoric of Clinton that offered small tweaks while avoiding the villainization of the super-rich and big corporations. Nearly every candidate in both debates now talks about the economy as fundamentally rigged by a ruling economic elite when trying to sell themselves and their policy agenda.

However, imitation may prove to be a blessing and a curse for Sanders going forward. It is a blessing because it signals that his long years in the political wilderness have paid off and shifted the Democratic Party to the left. But it may also be a curse for Sanders personally if he cannot distinguish himself in a chorus of copycats and ends up losing votes to people who sound like him but are not sincerely committed to his economic program.

***

Progressives are losing by winning.
Neil Newhouse is a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national Republican polling company.

Losers:

The candidates who came into this debate in single digits. The moderators seemed determined to keep them there.

Medicare For All. Few Democrats support it despite the fact that the party’s ideological leaders are pushing in that direction.

Progressives/liberals. Both of these debates succeeded in dragging the Democratic Party to the left, making it much easier for the GOP to draw a contrast in the general election.

The debate format. Too many candidates, too little time, too little structure. The interrupters and non-rule-followers get more traction.

Winners:

Open borders between the United States and Mexico.

Illegal immigrants. Decriminalization of illegally crossing the border, and free health care.

Donald Trump. The longer the debates went, the less the candidates focused on President Trump and the more they focused on the differences among themselves.

Senator Mitch McConnell. Most voters had no idea how much power he wielded until the last two nights!

***

The winners spoke to bread and butter—and embraced identity.
Atima Omara is a political strategist and former president of the Young Democrats of America.

Kamala Harris definitively won the second night’s debate. The previous night, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Julián Castro definitively were the standouts. They all stood out substantively, addressing bread and butter issues important to the base of the Democratic Party such as health care, gun violence prevention, climate change and the economy. However, all four also used their backgrounds and experience to uniquely address the issues of race, gender, immigration and LGBTQ+ rights. As a gay married man, Pete Buttigieg directly took on the GOP on its historical stance against gay rights. These issues are especially important now not only because Donald Trump ran and has governed by playing to people’s worst instincts on these issues—but also because a new generation of voters has come of age. If they turn out and vote, they’ll outnumber Trump supporters.

***

‘The way is now open for younger, lesser-known figures’
Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and the co-editor of Dissent, is writing a history of the Democratic Party.

Of course, Kamala Harris did best by challenging Joe Biden on his opposition to busing and his praise for racist senators. She was relaxed, pointed and articulate, and left the former vice president floundering in his own defensiveness. But the key function of events in which 20 people compete is to show who has the potential to become an effective nominee for an increasingly progressive party—and who does not.

As a septuagenarian, it gives me no comfort to say that the old fellas belong in the latter category. If Biden couldn’t keep reminding people that he was Barack Obama’s vice president, he would have nothing appealing to say at all. And although I share many of Bernie Sanders’ positions, he increasingly comes across as a humorless shouter who, like Biden, refuses to admit he ever did or said anything he regrets. His 2016 campaign will be remembered for helping to push the party to the egalitarian, social-democratic left. But the result is that most Americans will have a difficult time understanding how his “socialism” differs from the stands taken by Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro and even Harris—all of whom can deliver without hectoring their audiences.

Neither man will fade away soon. But the way is now open for younger, lesser-known figures who can better galvanize voters against Trump. And Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang, John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Tim Ryan, Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bennet and Jay Inslee should quickly return to their less-spotlighted lives. Some might be fine cabinet secretaries. Hickenlooper and O’Rourke should immediately start running for the U.S. Senate, so a Democratic president won’t have to negotiate with Mitch McConnell to get any good legislation passed.

***

Policy won out over personal attacks.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz.

Without a doubt, Kamala Harris had a breakaway night by making the case against Donald Trump and taking some shine off Joe Biden, calling into question his record on race. Biden defended his past and focused on the future fight with Trump, while touting his own plan to “restore dignity to the middle class.”

As if dusting off his 2016 playbook, Bernie Sanders carried the far-left flag, touting his policies, like “Medicare for All” and free college tuition. Sanders also vowed to “expose Trump for the fraud he is.” With a Democratic field in support of free college tuition, Pete Buttigieg made the distinction that we should “make it affordable to go to college and to not go to college” by raising the minimum wage.

It’s refreshing to see candidates focus on policy and not personal attacks. Believe it or not, people appreciate that.

***

The bloated slate ultimately diminishes the substance of the debate’
Leah Wright Rigueur is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.

The clear winner of the debates was progressivism as a political ideology. It appears that the Democratic Party has abandoned neoliberalism (at least symbolically, for now), which actually makes Bernie Sanders’ lackluster performance on the second night so perplexing. He’s played an instrumental role in helping push the party away from centrism; and yet, while his ideas saturated the stage on both nights of the debate, they did so in a manner untethered from Sanders, who was unusually subdued. Kamala Harris on the other hand completely dominated. In a remarkable moment, she delivered a stunning takedown of Joe Biden by masterfully weaving personal narrative, policy and history into a withering critique of Biden’s anti-busing stance. Even more astonishing—at no point did any of the other candidates challenge Harris, on any issue, despite multiple opportunities to do so.

In the long run, it’s far too early to make any definitive predictions about the presidential race. Some of the party’s strongest presidential contenders (and eventual winners) bombed spectacularly in their early debates. And as we saw in 2016, winning debates doesn’t always translate into winning primaries or elections. Early primary debates are largely political theater with lots of symbolic demonstrations and blustery performances. This Democratic primary would benefit from a dramatic narrowing of the field. The bloated slate ultimately diminishes the substance of the debate. We need to cut through the chaos and the noise and let the winners (Castro, Warren, Harris, Booker) and the survivors (Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and de Blasio) duke it out over their vision and agenda for the modern Democratic Party and the nation.

***

‘The biggest loser of the last two nights was Donald Trump’
Jesse Ferguson is a Democratic strategist.

This debate wasn’t the beginning of the end of the Democratic primary, it was only the end of the beginning. Democratic primary voters who don’t follow every tweet have now begun to tune in and learn who the candidates are. The candidates who succeed are the ones who used this national audience to introduce themselves, their values and their rationale to be the antidote to Trump. Outside of paid advertising, debates provide the largest number of eyes any candidate will get. Primary voters just got the catalog of candidates and started dog-earing the pages of the ones they want to learn more about.

The biggest loser of the last two nights was Donald Trump. He’ll be whistling past the graveyard on more than 20 million people who saw competing ideas to repair America. The winners were people who were looking for actual ideas on reducing health care costs, taking on gun violence, fixing the tax system and rebuilding our government. The losers were people who were looking for a contest of insults, taunts and hand-size-measuring. You couldn’t get a starker comparison between the Democratic debates that will pick our next president and the Republican debates that led to Donald Trump.

***

Harris dominated. But will America vote for a woman of color as president?
Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.

Kamala Harris owned the debate on night two. And she won the debate on night one, even though she was not on the stage. Harris was confident. Poised. Strong. Presidential. And she looked like the adult in a room full of raucous children yelling at one another. The 800-pound elephant in the room is whether America is ready to elect both its first woman president and its first woman of color president at the same time. I do not know the answer to that question, but make no mistake that is the question.

The big loser was Joe Biden. Harris landed him a blow by raising his history with busing and his perceived alignment with segregationists views—which Biden forcefully denied, but he was on his heels. Overall, both nights being considered, here is how I see it: Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro and Cory Booker were the big winners. The big losers were Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke. And Amy Klobuchar gets an honorable mention for helping and not hurting herself as a potential VP pick. The rest of the field should not be on the stage going forward.

***

Not much changed, but Bernie was a ‘marginal loser.’
Douglas Schoen is a political analyst, campaign consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Despite the attention and hype, little has changed in the Democratic primary field after the first debates. As expected, nearly all the candidates on the second night centered their attacks on the former vice president and current frontrunner, Joe Biden, looking to cut into his significant lead. Nevertheless, he held his ground, rolled with the punches, and should maintain his frontrunner position.

It is also important to credit Pete Buttigieg as the second debate’s breakout star. Mayor Pete delivered a series of persuasive arguments and arguably challenged Biden for which candidate has the most compelling policy alternatives to Trump.

While several progressive candidates, including Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand performed well and enjoyed good moments, one Democratic-socialist candidate in particular, Bernie Sanders, was unable to articulate his message on any issue other than health care in a persuasive or cohesive way, making him a marginal loser of this round.

***

Finally, somebody talked about the ‘dignity of work.’
Beth Hansen is a Republican political strategist and the former campaign manager for John Kasich.

The candidates who managed to be memorable on the crowded stage Thursday night were Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg; Wednesday night it was Julián Castro. Elizabeth Warren did the better job defending her front-runner status. Another winner was the “dignity of work” in Thursday’s debate (only Tim Ryan seemed to promote it on Wednesday). That’s the kind rhetoric Democrats will need to win in 2020.

***

Kamala Harris will have a boomlet. How long will it last?
Samuel Wang is a data analyst, co-founder of the Princeton Election Consortium and professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton University.

At this early stage, in a crowded field it seems inevitable that some candidates will have brief boomlets in polling following the debates. How long does a boomlet last, and how does it end?

We know what a cycle of boom-and-bust looks like from the 2012 and 2016 GOP primaries:

Step 1: Start with obscure candidate X.

Step 2: X says something catchy.

Step 3: The press and pundits go wild! Watch out for meaningless words like “electable.”

Step 4: X inches upward in the polls.

Step 5: The press does more digging, and X gets more attention.

Step 6: Surprise! Something bad happens. A gaffe, a skeleton in the closet emerges, or the candidate just gets boring. Bad coverage follows.

Step 7: X drops in the polls.

Time elapsed: 1-2 months.

As an example of this cycle, think of the 2012 GOP primary: Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann. All rose and fell.

Kamala Harris appears to be at Step 2-3. The next question is: Does she have the abilities and resources to escape the usual cycle of boom and bust?

Perhaps less appreciated, Joe Biden might have just had his Step 6. His bump in the polls started at the end of April, when he announced his candidacy. It’s been almost exactly two months. Is his time up?

***

Joe Biden’s time is up.
Sean McElwee is a writer, data analyst and co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress.

My commentary is a quote from a candidate that inspired me:

“My time is up, I’m sorry.” —Joe Biden

The debates gave Kamala Harris and Julián Castro breakout moments. They showed that the emperor has no clothes. As far as I’m concerned, the field is wide open.

Politico Magazine: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/06/28/dem-debate-winners-losers-roundup-227245

No comments yet.

Add your response