With only six candidates having qualified for the next debate in December, this was a last-chance, uh, chance for some of them to make the case to voters that they deserve to stay in this race.
I watched and took some notes on the best and the worst of the night that was.
Below, my winners and losers.
Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator has been desperately searching for a moment over the first four debates — and she might just have found one Wednesday night. Klobuchar was one of the few people on stage to take on South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (more on that below) and her point about a woman — still — not being elected president was strong: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every day,” she said. Klobuchar’s biggest issue is that the pragmatic center lane has been dominated by Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden. Her performance on Wednesday night might just change that.
Andrew Yang: Sure, Yang didn’t get the chance to say a single word in the first 30 minutes of the debate. (Sort of remarkable given that his arc in the race is directly upward.) But when Yang did get a chance to speak, he came across as, by far, the most relatable candidate on the stage. Yang’s line when asked what he would say to Vladimir Putin after getting elected president (he dead-panned, “Sorry I beat your guy”) landed well. Yang’s candidacy still feels like it is too far in front of where people are — he’s not wrong about data being the new oil, and there are strong defenses for his universal basic income proposal — for him to be a top-tier contender. But man, he has drastically over-performed expectations.
Kamala Harris: Unlike in the last few debates, Harris seemed much looser — and willing to take a few chances. (She said that Trump had been “punked” on foreign policy at one point.) That looseness is likely the result of the fact that Harris recognizes she has very little to lose given her abysmal polling numbers and money troubles. But regardless of the reason, it worked for Harris for the night. She got the better of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in a debate over American foreign policy — a reversal of a showdown between the two at CNN’s Detroit debate in late July — and came across as what her campaign wants her to be: A fighter for the average person.
Debates: Debates are, um, about debating. As in, the candidates talking about where they differ on key issues so that voters are fully informed about the choices before them. That was not what happened in Atlanta on Wednesday night. Instead, the candidates were asked about issues on which they agree totally and completely — what Democratic presidential candidate isn’t going to support impeaching Trump??? — or given wide berths to offer essentially practiced stump speeches on issues. An undecided voter tuning in to figure out where the differences are between the candidates would be sorely disappointed.
Health care: The issue that has been decisive in each of the last four elections (at least) is health care. It also happens to be the issue on which the four front-runners — Buttigieg, Biden, Warren and Sanders — disagree most clearly. So why then did we only have a few minutes of the debate dedicated to it? And none of the differences between the candidates — “Medicare for All” or not — were litigated in any meaningful way. Huh?
Tom Steyer: Quick, name something the billionaire said in the debate. Right. Same. And that’s the problem. Steyer and his campaign had to be thrilled that Biden somewhat inexplicably picked a fight with him about his involvement in the coal industry, but that fight sort of fizzled before it ever really got started. Steyer isn’t going anywhere — he’s got lots of money and is willing to spend it — but he really needs to find a way to make an impression. And he didn’t do it Wednesday night.