That’s What a Good Presidential Debate Looks Like

That’s What a Good Presidential Debate Looks Like(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The big winners in the latest Democratic debate were coherence and sanity. With only seven candidates on stage, and a mostly strong performance from the Politico/PBS panel of journalists, this was a contest that really worked in terms of sparking good discussions on policy and allowing confrontations between the candidates that were their choice, not the result of moderators picking fights.I suspect the five plausible nominees on the platform — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — all feel that they did what they came to do. As usual, it’s anyone’s guess what Democrats watching, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, believe. And, as usual, how the debate will affect anything (if at all) will be determined in large part by how the media interpret what happened and which clips get the most mileage. For Klobuchar, the candidate with the most on the line, being one of seven certainly appeared to help. At the very least, she was easy to notice — second among the candidates with just under 20 minutes of speaking time, narrowly trailing Sanders and edging Buttigieg and Warren.For voters who are just tuning in, even those who say they have a favorite candidate already, Klobuchar very much seemed like one of the handful of possible choices — and for someone at around 3% in the national polls, that’s the best she can hope for. She’s good at these debates, and this time she had a chance to show it.Most notably, when the first big fight of the night broke out between Buttigieg and Warren, Klobuchar (at least as I saw it) won decisively by being the peacemaker and then pivoting to a policy point. On the other hand, I’m not sure how well her subsequent attack on Buttigieg went over; she praised the legislative successes she and the others have had in Congress compared to his lack of similar experience. (Congress-loving political scientists in my Twitter feed enjoyed it, but there aren’t too many Congress-lovers among Democratic voters or any other larger group, as far as I can tell). Again, what effect that will have on the polls and on Democratic Party actors is hard to predict.That goes for all of them. Buttigieg, who has surged in Iowa polls, took the most attacks. Warren had several strong moments, as she normally does. What does all of that mean to Buttigieg’s momentum and Warren’s recent dip? Wait for the polls. Sanders did what he always does, which at this point shouldn’t change anyone’s mind.Biden? As several people have pointed out, he didn’t receive much in the way of direct attacks, and only once, with Sanders over health care, did he really engage in a heated squabble. Biden leads in the national polls, and is within range of the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has a solid lead in high-profile endorsements.The former vice president didn’t talk as much as the others, leading only outsiders Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, but unlike previous debates, he avoided trademark gaffes, awkward moments, and outdated references (at least, I didn’t notice any). It’s not clear how strong his lead really is, but if all he needs to do is not mess up, he certainly achieved that. Whether anyone was paying attention the week before Christmas and the day after Donald Trump was impeached is an open question. If Democrats tuned in, the discussion of policy by candidates comfortable talking about any number of issues, and doing so without insulting recently dead members of Congress, was probably a welcome change. It was also a contrast with the largely repetitive and rarely eloquent House consideration of impeachment. That likely makes it even harder for the eight candidates who didn’t receive invitations this time to qualify for the next one. This was, however, the last debate where short-term effects for the leading candidates won’t really matter much. (Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg Opinion parent company Bloomberg L.P., is also seeking the nomination.)  The next debate, on Jan. 14, will have the Iowa caucuses right around the corner Feb. 3. Democratic voters, at least those in the early states, will be paying attention. And soon afterward, there won’t be seven candidates still running, whether they’re on the stage or not.To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Patrick McDowell at pmcdowell10@bloomberg.netThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion©2019 Bloomberg L.P.




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