Today’s read: 12 minutes.
We’re covering the Democratic debates from last night. I’ll give you the rundown, my take, some clips from the debate you should watch and a few important numbers to walk away with. Also, a big news story that got drowned out. Today’s Tangle is a little bit longer than usual given the coverage of all the candidates.
Screenshot: CNN debate
What D.C. is talking about.
The debates. Last night, 12 Democrats took the stage for the sixth debate of the 2020 election. In a sign of her strength in the polls, Elizabeth Warren was treated like the frontrunner and took on the most fire of the night, fielding attacks from nearly every candidate on stage throughout. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and former Vice President Joe Biden all attacked her for having an “unrealistic” plan to pay for Medicare-for-All. Warren repeatedly evaded questions about whether her plan would raise taxes on middle-class Americans (it would) and tried to focus on reducing the overall cost for the middle-class while increasing overall cost for the wealthy. Sen. Bernie Sanders, taking the stage for the first time since suffering a heart attack, surprised everyone by looking as sharp and energetic as he has at any time during the campaign. Sanders looked the most laid back and enjoyed very few attacks from the candidates around him, instead just chiming in with his quintessential stump speech throughout the night. Perhaps the biggest news of the night came at the end when The Washington Post scooped that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) would be the much speculated special guest at Bernie Sanders’ rally in Queens Saturday and that she will be endorsing him for president. Not long after, CNN reported that Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib would also endorse Sanders. Their endorsements are coming earlier than most people thought and could be a boon for Sanders, who has been slipping in the polls as he battles health issues.
What Republicans are saying.
If this is what you’ve got, good luck. Most Trump-supporting Republicans gleefully watched the debates, taking jabs at the absurdity of the candidates on stage and rubbing their hands together about the prospect that one of these people would have to face Trump. Joe Biden looked old and still can’t string together a coherent sentence. Elizabeth Warren had a rough night as the frontrunner under fire. Bernie Sanders is singing the same losing tune he was last time. Lots of conservatives pretended to now “understand” why Democrats were so hellbent on impeachment: because this crew could never beat Trump at the polls.
There was also some shared outrage about the debate questions: nothing was asked about China, perhaps the second biggest story of the last week, as the global power has been using its market influence to pressure American citizens and businesses into silence. Basically everyone cringed at the final question of the night, a softball on what people the Democrats on stage were friends with that might surprise the audience. At one point, Sen. Kamala Harris tried to get Elizabeth Warren to agree with her that Donald Trump’s twitter account should be banned. That moment was another one that Republicans relished in, pointing to the absurdity of silencing the president on Twitter and celebrating the way Warren dismissed Harris’s attempt to pressure her into agreeing with the idea.
As for the endorsements from AOC, Rep. Tlaib and Rep. Omar, Republicans — once again — mostly celebrated. In their estimation, “The Squad” has been so effectively demonized by Trump their endorsement is actually cancerous for Sen. Sanders (even if it helps him with some liberal feminists), and all but eliminates any chance he will come out victorious over Biden or Trump.
What Democrats are saying.
It’s tough to find anyone who thought Joe Biden had a good night. Still the frontrunner in the polls, Biden’s performances on stage continues to underwhelm. His answers are often winding and incoherent. He interrupts himself and seems to have multiple trains of thought. He ages himself with bizarre references people don’t totally understand. And last night wasn’t much better.
Democrats mostly grabbed onto their seats and watched as the candidates landed punches on each other and gave President Trump fresh ammunition. Cory Booker got perhaps the biggest applause of the night when he reminded everyone what happened in 2016 and insisted they lay off each other. It’s clear the group sees Warren as the frontrunner, and she was treated as such. Early on, it looked like she struggled to mount strong defenses against the onslaught but comfortably fell into the position as the night went on. Her strongest moment came when Biden tried to take a bit of credit for her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which helps citizens recoup losses after being the victims of fraud or predatory loans. “I got you votes,” Biden said as he raised his voice and pointed at her. Calmly, Warren responded by thanking President Obama for helping make the CFPB a reality.
News of AOC, Omar and Tlaib endorsing Bernie was a “wow” moment for Democrats, who had expected the crew to hold off a bit on their pick. But he’s the choice most clearly in line with their priorities and beliefs, and the endorsements could inject the grassroots energy into his campaign he needs to re-gain in the polls.
First off, I want to say that I generally loathe debate commentary. It’s more important to me what policies are than how people perform on stage. Nonetheless, the reality of our country is that these debates — and personality — matter a great deal. So I’ll be looking at more than just substance here. There were 12 candidates on stage, and it’s tough to break down everything that happened in a concise fashion. But here’s my opinion of each candidate’s night (in alphabetical order)…
Former Vice President Joe Biden: I’m surprised that Biden’s performances aren’t doing more damage to him in the polls (and in the punditry class). Nearly every time he speaks I find myself cringing, unable to focus on anything but the fact he seems… old? Like he’s losing it? He just doesn’t have the smooth touch he used to, even if he’s holding the line as a “moderate” and “realistic” candidate. His strongest moment came when he insisted that the next president needed wisdom and experience to hit the ground running. His worst moment came when he tried to take credit for the CFPB, Warren’s brainchild. He also whiffed on a question about Syria, foreign policy and the Kurds, meandering through what’s happening in the Middle East without presenting any real solution. Foreign policy is supposed to be his strong suit and it just wasn’t there.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: Cory just wants everyone to get along. As usual, he hit the stage with his positive vibes and inspiring lines. Of all the candidates, Booker just makes you feel good. But I struggle to conjure up what his No. 1 campaign issue is — and that’s a problem. Booker kept reminding everyone that the focus on Trump’s talking points (“Is Biden corrupt?”) and the attacks on each other (“that’s not realistic!”) were exactly how Democrats lost in 2016.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Of all the candidates I’ve seen in person, Buttigieg still strikes me as the smoothest on stage. His most powerful moment came when he spoke about what was going to happen on the first day after Trump’s presidency, and what kind of president we needed to handle that day (a unifier). He also wasted no time going after Warren and scored some legitimate points against her when she dodged a “yes or no” question about whether her health care plan would raise taxes. "A yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer… this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and the Capitol in particular.”
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro: Castro is basically dead weight in this race, but when I woke up this morning he was trending on Twitter. He scored some major points with the left last night for speaking up about police violence. When the topic turned to guns, Castro invoked Atatiana Jefferson, the black woman who was shot and killed in her own home by a police officer earlier this week. He got major credit for actually saying her name. “Police violence is also gun violence,” Castro said.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: Gabbard is perhaps the most divisive figure on stage. Earlier this week, she was threatening to boycott the debate to expose how the “DNC rigged it.” She was excoriated by the New York Times and CNN for being an “Assad apologist” over the last two days, and she called out CNN for being “completely despicable.” The former Iraq War veteran went after just about everyone on stage, and — in classic Tulsi form — had her strongest moments while decrying the unjust “regime change wars” in the Middle East. Tulsi doesn’t really have a shot in the race, but it’s clear she wants to use this platform to put some dents in the “establishment.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris: I still find Sen. Harris the most likable of anyone on stage. Her history as a prosecutor (“Kamala is a cop,” the kids say) will keep biting her, but — aside from Bernie — she feels the most authentic on stage. Her most powerful moment came when she brought up women’s access to reproductive health care, saying after six debates “not nearly one word… on women’s reproductive health care.” My girlfriend, who I watched the debates with and is my focus group of one, said “see — this is what I want… I still like her so much.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar: Klobuchar had a strong night by almost any metric. Despite not even sniffing the top end of the polls, she spoke the third most behind just Warren and Biden. She spent a lot of time on opioids and health care, issues close to nearly every American family. She went after Warren and Sanders respectfully, arguing that their plans were bold but could never be executed and were total pipe dreams. Her jokes — still incredibly cringeworthy — failed to land throughout the night. But she was a force on stage and could eat into Buttigieg or Biden’s stranglehold on the moderates.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke: It was easy to forget O’Rourke was even there. After the debate, I was shocked to see he spoke the fourth most of any candidate. I struggle to remember any important lines he had throughout the night, though his testy exchange with Mayor Pete on how to reform our gun laws stuck with me (mostly because Buttigieg told O’Rourke “I don’t need lessons from you on courage.”) O’Rourke continues to try to position himself as a moderate, but I’m not sure who his base is in America I don’t suspect he’ll be in this race much longer.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: A lot of questions were circulating about how Sanders would look coming off of his heart attack, and most people left stunned at his performance. He was relaxed, funny, assertive, and even swooped in to defend Warren a few times when the group tried to gang up on her. Sanders best moment came when he was asked about taxing billionaires. “Half a million people are sleeping out on the streets, 87 million people are uninsured or underinsured, hundreds of thousands who cannot afford to go college and millions struggling with the oppressive burden of student debt. And you also have three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society. That is a moral and economic outrage.”
Businessman Tom Steyer: This was Tom Steyer’s first time on stage, and he seemed to hold his own. He was gaffe-free and generally seemed like an affable, humble billionaire. He backed Sanders’ plan to tax rich people like himself and took credit for pushing impeachment two years ago, before it was trendy. I’ve written about Steyer’s background in Tangle before, and so I’ll just say that it was a bit absurd when he tried to credit himself for climate change activism over the last 10 years. You can read about Steyer’s history in politics before he bought his way into the debates by clicking here.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Few people can speak so eloquently about complex issues, and last night Warren successfully got her message out: she’d be the cop on the corner and regulate our broken capitalist system. But her refusal to just say that her health care plan will raise taxes on the middle class and lower overall costs was incomprehensible to me. Why not just own it, as Bernie does? I think she shot herself in the foot with that tactic. I was also shocked her stance on foreign policy didn’t get more attention: “I think we should get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.” That’s a pretty extreme stance, one that — taken literally — means pulling troops out of Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. That’s pretty notable considering the blowback we just saw after Trump called for the withdrawal of troops from Syria.
Businessman Andrew Yang: Yang is clearly the misfit of the group. He talks different, he looks different (still refusing to wear a tie), and he brings everything back to automation. On Twitter, Yang’s hyperventilating automation story was criticized (I’ve written about the realities of automation here). Yang has made himself known for being personable and unpredictable on the campaign trail, but he looks a bit stiff on stage. He successfully connected the automation threat to job loss in Ohio, but it didn’t seem like he stuck out in any meaningful way that he’d need to gain in the polls.
Clips to watch.
Sanders dunking on Biden.
Biden vs. Warren.
Kamala on women’s reproductive rights.
Tulsi goes after CNN, NYT.
That Ron Reagan atheist ad everyone is talking about.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: you can tweet at me or send in a question by simply replying to this email.
Tangle: Polling is just one way to determine frontrunners. While it’s true that Biden is still polling at the top of the field, he’s been trending (slightly) downward while Warren has been gaining. It’s also true that Warren’s gains haven’t come from Biden, but instead, she’s picked up voters from Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. All that being said, the enthusiasm around Warren is huge. Her rallies have been drawing massive crowds, she had a huge fundraising quarter and she’s got more money on hand than Biden (more on that below). She’s also polling far better in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that vote early on in the primary election and can help determine frontrunners as the race comes out of the gate.
There’s also some punditry at work here. Biden has been getting ripped to shreds by the politically involved left, for a slew of gaffes, for having archaic policies, for refusing to acknowledge his past mistakes, and for his expediency in tying himself to Obama when it’s convenient and distancing himself when it’s inconvenient. Simply put: Biden is not getting any favors from left-leaning news outlets, who are largely fawning over Warren. If it holds, that will have an impact as the race comes down the stretch, and a lot of people suspect the negative press will keep pushing Biden’s candidacy down.
The counterpoint here, of course, is that the polls are the polls, and the punditry class is the punditry class. Biden is typically outperforming Warren with moderates, people of color and independents, crucial voting blocs to get elected. As much as some millennials loathe him, they (historically) can’t be relied on to swing an election. Black voters and independent voters can, and so far Biden seems to be doing very well amongst those groups.
- 2. The number of candidates who have become president since 1896 without winning the state of Ohio.
- $6,595,524. That’s the amount, per minute of speaking time, that Tom Steyer paid in his own money to be on stage during the Democratic debate.
- ~14,000. That’s the rough estimate of how many more troops we have in the Middle East since May, despite the president’s claims he’s bringing troops home.
- 0. The total number of questions about climate change or China at last night’s Democratic debates.
- $345 billion. The amount of money Nancy Pelosi’s health care bill would save Medicare, according to a non-partisan CBO report.
- 12 percent. The number of Elizabeth Warren supporters in Iowa who said their mind was made up about voting for the candidate.
- 26 percent. The number of Joe Biden supporters in Iowa who said their mind was made up about voting for the candidate.
- Speaking time in last night’s debate, via the New York Times tracker:
A story you missed.
“Rudolph W. Giuliani privately urged President Trump in 2017 to extradite a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States, a top priority of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to multiple former administration officials familiar with the discussions.” The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, is a permanent U.S. resident who lives in Pennsylvania and was accused by Erdogan of plotting a coup in 2016. Officials were so alarmed by Giuliani’s obsession with the issue they became convinced he was working on behalf of Turkey’s government. It’s just the latest in a slew of stories about Giuliani’s “shadow foreign policy” campaign he was running inside the White House. You can read The Washington Post story by clicking here.
Have a nice day.
The Scottish government says it will automatically pardon gay and bisexual men who have been prosecuted for same-sex activity. Same-sex relationships were decriminalized in Scotland in 1980, but many men still carry criminal records because of the previous laws. England and Wales passed similar laws in the last few years, but they were criticized for being limited in scope. Scotland has a separate legal system and took the step this week after passing the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) Act in 2018. Click.
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