Let’s just get down to it and rank the second night candidates from best to worst.
1. Joe Biden: New game, everyone: Take a shot whenever Uncle Joe says “the fact of the matter.”
I kid, but the fact of the matter is that Joe Biden has decided to skip the primaries and run directly against Donald Trump. He’s hinted at this strategy before. In Detroit he made it official.
It started in the opening statements when Biden was the lone candidate to directly address Trump, saying “Mr. President, this is America. . . . We love it and we are not leaving it. And we’re certainly not leaving it to you.”
When the debate opened with healthcare, Biden savaged Kamala Harris over the fact that she proposes to eliminate private insurance and would massively raise taxes on the middle class. He didn’t get cute. When Harris responded that Biden’s plan would leave 10 million people uninsured, he didn’t argue. His tacit agreement was that, yes, some people aren’t going to get covered because there’s a financial reality here.
But the key is that over and over, he beat Harris—and by extension Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—over the head with the fact that their versions of Medicare for All will kill private insurance.
This aspect of the M4A plans is deeply, deeply unpopular with the general electorate. That may not be true of Democratic primary voters, many of whom seem to relish the idea of killing private health insurance—if only as a means to punish insurance companies.
Biden is betting that it won’t be popular enough to hurt him in the primaries. Which seems like a smart play, since there are only two top-tier candidates who want to keep private insurance (Biden and Buttigieg) while Harris, Sanders, Warren, and about half of the rest of the field want to kill it—so those punitive kill-the-insurance-company votes are going to get split.
On immigration, Biden also went hard at the general election. Where every other major candidate wants to decriminalize illegal immigration (or turn it into a civil offense), Biden aggressively criticized that position, insisting that you can properly treat asylum seekers, enlarge legal immigration numbers, and strengthen border security—but that decriminalizing illegal entry is a bad idea. “When people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless they’re seeking asylum,” he insisted. This is also a very popular view for November 2020.
Unlike his healthcare position, though, holding the line on the border seems like a real gamble with Democratic primary voters. But, Biden is a monopolist on the issue, so any Democrats who agree with him are going to find their way to him eventually.
But most importantly, he has decided that you cannot beat Donald Trump with a program of open borders and killing private health insurance. And he is going to risk losing the primaries in order to win the general. Which, by the by, will strengthen his hand if he faces Trump, because he’ll be able to point to the real fight he had with the progressive wing of his party on this issue. He’ll say that he faced them down and won. “Open borders” would come off the table as a serious Republican weapon.
Look at the polling: Biden basically beating the second and third place candidates—Sanders and Warren—combined. He’s the only Democrat leading Trump by double-digits.
And he’s got a rationale for his campaign: “I’m running for president to restore the soul of this country.”
I believed that Biden was in the strongest position going into the Detroit debates. After this performance, I’d say that his position is stronger still.
2 – 10. Everyone Else: None of the other nine candidates did what they needed to do. Some helped themselves in marginal ways. Some treaded water. Some got rekt. We’ll do a quick rundown.
Cory Booker: Sometimes Booker is smarmy and off-putting. On Wednesday, he was great. Personable. Quick on his feet. Gave the best possible answer for turning illegal immigration into a civil offense (even though that’s still a poison pill for the general election).
But Booker is coming up on his last chance to break out of the pack. And he didn’t do it.
Bill de Blasio: Seven people onstage came to bury Biden and BDB’s attacks were probably the most effective. (Possibly because he’s such a natural heel.) Does it ultimately matter for Mayor Bill? No.
In his closing remarks BDB said he wants “to tax THE HELL out of the rich.” He opened by going right at both Biden and Harris, complaining that they’re “not trying to restructure society . . . I am!”
Punitive taxation and calls to “restructure society” have not, historically, been winning messages in American politics. Certainly not in a time of relative peace and prosperity. And his unalloyed glee about it all kind of reminds me of someone . . .
Michael Bennet: Had a pretty good first hour. Then disappeared. It was quaint to see a Democrat saying “I was part of the Gang of 8 . . . with John McCain” and expect it to be a selling point.
If you rolled him into a ball with Delaney, Hickenlooper, Ryan, and Bullock, you get all the way to 2.2 percent.
Tulsi Gabbard: I have exclusive video of Gabbard talking with her campaign advisor during the commercial break immediately before the segment on criminal justice reform:
Holy crap. What Gabbard did to Harris on her record as attorney general is very, very serious trouble. And Gabbard did it effortlessly.
Gabbard isn’t going to become a top tier candidate. She isn’t going to be the veep. But she’s a very interesting political commodity and people underestimate her at their peril.
And it would not surprise me if she has a future.
Julian Castro: Where did Woke Julian go? The Castro in Detroit was reserved and subdued and mostly responsible. My read is that after the first debate, he decided to go back into positioning mode for the eventuality of a Democratic administration.
Andrew Yang: He’s become the Disaster Movie candidate.
Yang told the audience that the robots are coming to replace them and that “your job could be next!”
He then said that if you go to a factory in America, “You will not find wall to wall immigrants. You will find wall to wall machines.”
And then, on the subject of climate change, he claimed that it’s already too late and that the only course of action is to start moving your families “to higher ground.”
The Yang 2020 pitch seems to be a mashup of Idiocracy, The Matrix, and The Day After Tomorrow.
Jay Inslee: He called the 2020 election “the last, best hope for humanity on this planet.” Does this mean that . . . if the Democrat loses next year then homo sapiens goes extinct? Because . . . that’s crazier than “dark psychic forces.”
And yet, every time he was on camera, I kept wondering, What do you bench, bro?
Kirsten Gillibrand: It was only a matter of time before she tried to shiv a top-tier candidate. Tonight she finally did it, going after Biden for the wording of an op-ed he wrote several years (decades?) ago. And she got crushed for her trouble.
Gillibrand can hang around until New Hampshire if she wants. But that’s as far as this train goes.
All of which brings us to . . .
Kamala Harris: It was not a good night for her.
The only real question is, how bad was it?
Harris got positively slaughtered on healthcare, because she now occupies a No Man’s Land where she wants to kill private insurance, but not for ten years. So if you’re the type of Democrat who really wants to kill the insurance companies, why would you settle for her? And if you’re the type of Democrat who thinks that maybe we should keep private insurance around as a fail-safe, then you don’t want what she’s selling.
As Biden went at her, Harris was halting and imprecise and clearly didn’t want to own her position, the way Sanders does.
She’s also mortgaged herself to decriminalizing illegal immigration, but couldn’t mount a defense of it except to say that it was the only way to end family separations. Maybe this helps her in the primaries? But again, she’s put herself in a crowd while creating problems for herself in the general.
But it was her decision to go back to attacking Biden on busing that really hurt her. Biden opened the subject of her record as attorney general and told viewers to “Google 1,000 prisoners freed and Kamala Harris.” When you do, this is what you get:
Please understand that this is not just a debate-night problem for Harris. It’s a structural vulnerability.
In order to win the nomination, you have to be dominant with at least one of the three core Democratic groups: liberals, African-Americans, or working-class union types. In order for Harris to win the nomination, she must dominate with African-Americans. Winning a narrow plurality would be enough to get her into the final group late in the nominating process.
Not winning them would be catastrophic and probably mean a campaign that ends in early March.
And if you’re looking for reasons why she might not do as well with African-American voters as Barack Obama did, her record as a prosecutor is at the very top of the list.
Wednesday’s debate is the first time this issue has been aired at scale and she had no good answers for it.