Mike Littwin: Do the debates tell Dems anything about beating Trump?
Fair and Unbalanced
If you’re looking for a Democratic debate winner, it was almost certainly Amy Klobuchar, the senator from the Midwest, for exceeding expectations while the rest of the field basically just met them. OK, Joe Biden exceeded expectations, too, but only by going through an entire debate without a truly cringeworthy moment. That should be enough, though, to maintain his national polling lead, for now anyway.
In Iowa, where Klobuchar was already showing some movement in the polls, the debate could help her raise some much-needed money and potentially give her a boost into the top tier of possibles, along with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That’s what a post-debate Ipsos poll (teaming with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com) suggested in its comparison of voter preference before and after the debate. Notably, all the Democrats on the stage improved at least slightly — except Buttigieg. The biggest bumps went to Klobuchar, who’s running very much in the moderate lane, and Andrew Yang, who has his own lane altogether. Tom Steyer trails them all.
And yet. And very much yet.
If you’ve been watching, you know that one problem with the debates is that, in the end (and also in the beginning and middle), they shed too little light on, to cite a recently discredited president, the big stuff — meaning Donald Trump. The policy differences this year are significant, but also, in most cases, a matter of degree rather than direction. And they hardly change from debate to debate. Even the moderates will insist they aren’t all that moderate.
That there may be five potentially strong candidates in Iowa — with no one running away — suggests to me that Dem voters are not only undecided on who could beat Trump, but also how to beat him.
Whoever wins the nomination must be able not only to take on the colossus (I was going to say monster, but I’m trying to keep it semi-dignified here) in the White House and win, but then lead the difficult post-Trump restoration period and also get some vitally needed progressive legislation through Congress.
Can a debate or even a debate season tell us who that person might be? To this point, I’ll admit I have no idea which candidate would best fit all those roles. And the candidate leading the electability polling — Biden — seems to me, at least, to be maybe the first or second riskiest choices among the top tier. But who knows? If Democrats voted on a winner for the week, it would be Nancy Pelosi. And did this debate really break through the sound and fury — this time signifying much — of impeachment?
If you accept the conventional wisdom, a tough primary campaign usually reveals what we need to know about candidates. But this time is different. This time is about Trump, who, we’ll agree, is more different from more norms than any president in modern times and who presents an enormous challenge with more-than-enormous stakes.
Here’s a hint about the stakes: In the latest issue of Christianity Today, an influential, if relatively centrist, voice in the evangelical community that was founded by Billy Graham, the editor calls for Trump’s impeachment and removal and says he is “morally lost.” The importance of election turnout is the great cliche in politics. But if there are so many pockets of anti-Trumpism — which is what his low approval ratings make clear — it makes it that much harder to know who could appeal to enough of them to turn out their vote.
The big pre-debate story was that the stage would be less crowded. Only seven candidates — much to the chagrin of Cory Booker, Michael Bennet and Julian Castro — made the December cut. (Only five have made the newly announced January thresholds so far, by the way.) Biden seemed more relaxed in the smaller field — and no one took shots at him. Bernie was reliably Bernie, although a little funnier. Someone said he had found his inner Larry David. And yet, the first half of the debate was deadly dull, more like a forum than a debate.
In the second half, the debate livened considerably, beginning with the Warren-Buttigieg set-to. Warren took a typical shot at big money in the campaign raised from billionaire donors, and Buttigieg, apparently ready for a fight, said he presumed Warren was talking about him, which, of course, she was. And off they went.
Buttigieg is today’s hot candidate, leading in many Iowa polls and doing well in New Hampshire. Warren, recently the hot candidate, has been slipping after taking way too long to come up with a good answer for how she would fund Medicare For All. She finally found a decent one — that her goal is to do as many good things on health care reform for as many people as quickly as possible and to get to Medicare For All eventually. But how much has that already cost her?
Since Warren’s message is basically anti-corruption, she talked about the corruption of money and how she is running a grass-roots campaign, not doing big-money fundraisers, and not selling access. She ended the attack, of course, talking about her long selfie lines. Buttigieg countered that Warren used to have big-money, closed-door fundraisers in her Senate campaign and now she’s a born-again purity tester, but only after putting $10 million of that Senate money into her presidential campaign. It’s a reasonable point. And Biden added that he was happy to do selfies, too.
But the big takeaway was Warren’s wine-cave line, noting the $900 bottles of wine and crystals at a Buttigieg fundraiser. And while Buttigieg held his own with Warren, it’s the wine-cave moment that will surely linger.
Making it worse for Buttigieg, though, Klobuchar then hit him for his lack of experience, for never having won a statewide race, for his perceived (by Klobuchar) slights on those who have served in D.C., even his failed run to head the Democratic National Committee. If this gives voters pause as to whether a 37-year-old mayor of a mid-sized town is prepared to lead the Democrats, then Klobuchar gets the win. Still, Buttigieg was well prepared, of course, and didn’t seem at all rattled by either attack. But he didn’t come out of the debate in happy-warrior mode either.
My biggest takeaway from the debate, though, was that there was only one question — the first question, as if to get it out of the way — about impeachment. That’s not an indictment of the moderators, but of the fact that Trump’s impeachment tells us nothing about him — or how to defeat him — we didn’t already know before the debate began.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in the Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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