August 1, 2019

Some Quick Impressions of Round 2 Night 2 of the Democratic Debate

Detroit

The CNN pundits hyped the first night of their debates by pushing the narrative that we would see a battle between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They were wrong. The same pundits then hyped the second night by trying to convince us that it was do-or-die time for Joe Biden even though this made no sense to anyone who was aware of the recent polls. They were wrong yet again.

Heading into the second night of the Round 2 debates, the real question was whether Biden would turn in a better performance than he did in Round 1 and whether it would be sufficient to show voters that he was their most electable option. Biden did perform better in this debate than he did in the first one, although it has to be acknowledged that this isn't saying much. And while he did have some good moments, he stumbled enough that it would not surprise me if some voters (though probably not many) begin to re-evaluate their assessment of his electability. I know it is unpopular to say that Biden is too old to be president, so I will just note that he came across in these first two debates as someone who is having some of the difficulties I would expect to be more common for someone of advanced age in such a context.

But where the pre-debate pundits were wrong was the absurd idea that this debate would make or break Biden. With his sizable lead in the polls, he did not have to do particularly well. All he really needed to do was ward off most attacks and not make any serious gaffes that would dominate the news cycle. And while his overall performance was not great, I think he managed to do this. He did well enough that his lead won't disappear even if it might shrink a bit.

Coming into this debate, the person I was most interested in was Kamala Harris. She impressed me in Round 1, and since I am less familiar with her than many of the other candidates, I was curious to see if she would be similarly impressive last night. She wasn't. It looked like she was unprepared to defend her record or provide clear and honest answers about some of her policies. She showed in Round 1 that she can attack others effectively, but she failed to demonstrate that she can defend herself when attacked in Round 2.

Aside from a few stumbles, I thought Cory Booker did better here than he had previously. It wasn't that he was bad in Round 1, but he did little to stand out. He seemed more comfortable last night and scored some points against Biden. And while I seemed to be one of a very small number of people who was unimpressed with Julián Castro's performance in Round 1, I thought he did better last night too. Whether it will be enough for him to stick around is unclear. I did not see anything from any of the remaining candidates that suggests that they can (or should) stick around. Some of them did briefly manage to shine, and I will be sorry to see Jay Inslee go because I suspect climate change may receive less attention without him.

The main question I have after this debate is what happens to the moderate/centrist wing of the party if Biden's poll numbers do begin to drop. His main appeal seems to be the electability narrative. If that crumbles, who replaces him in that centrist lane?