Quick Take on a More Jagged Debate

MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 27: Sen. Bernie Sanders (C) (I-VT) speaks as (L-R) South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) look on... MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 27: Sen. Bernie Sanders (C) (I-VT) speaks as (L-R) South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) look on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
June 28, 2019 12:03 a.m.

As political observers we often focus on text at the expense of subtext, the libretto at the expense of the score, where the real story is told. The big winner tonight was Kamala Harris. She was consistently strong in her answers. Her dramatic confrontation with Joe Biden is clearly the story of the evening. But again, score over libretto. Somewhat like Booker last night but much more so, she took possession of the room and turned it to her advantage. She repeatedly kept talking until she was done talking and did it without sounding rude or grating. She could do that because she embodied command. She made the moderators sound annoying. She continually showed through actions rather than words that she’s powerful, that she shapes the moment rather than being shaped by it. This sort of demonstration of command is always important. It’s especially important when the ultimate opponent is Donald Trump. She was far and away the big winner.

Buttigieg also had a good night. His answers are remarkably articulate, thoughtful. The answer on China I flagged below contained 10 times more substance and insight than most of what you hear is debate discussions. What’s not entirely clear to me is whether he can break out of a relatively small brainy/hyper-educated and white constituency he’s built up so far.

The chat show and Twitter chatter says that Biden had a terrible evening. That’s not what I saw. I think he did fairly well for what he was trying to achieve, for the race he’s running. He hit the broad outlines of policy objectives most Democrats support, without overly committing in this direction or that. He focused on the importance of beating Trump. Biden doesn’t need fireworks. He’s already ahead. He needs to not make mistakes, not seem old, seem on his toes. I think he basically did that. The confrontation with Harris is a case in point. It was a powerful moment for her. But I thought it was a decent moment for him too if you judge it by the part of the electorate he’s appealing to and the strategy of the race he’s running. Someone said he wasn’t the guy from his veep debates. But that was a different brief.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the media chatter will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I think the commentary is getting ahead of itself.

The problem for Biden seems a bit different to me. Biden’s message is basically, I’m safe. I’m experienced. I can beat Trump. Given what the country is going through that is a much stronger message than a lot of hyper-political folks realize. He’s a safe bet for a country that’s getting ripped apart. But the other contenders are getting better, growing into their messages, maybe showing that they can also get the job done. If they can get it done too Biden’s sales pitch starts to fade. I’m skeptical that this debate will hurt Biden, just as all the other supposed disasters haven’t impacted him at all. But the relative rise of the other top five or so contenders points to how he can fade over time.

Sanders I think did fine by the standards of the campaign he’s trying to run. But he doesn’t seem to be able to build on his 2016 campaign. He did pretty well in 2016. So on its own, maybe he shouldn’t need to. But Warren’s rise and the rest of the last few months suggest it’s not enough. I didn’t see anything tonight that suggests there’s more. One person watching it from a distance told me he just sounded mad. Again, libretto versus score.

No one else on the stage struck me as at all really in the race.

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