Debate Night: The ‘On Politics’ Breakdown – The New York Times

Hi, and welcome to a special post-debate edition of On Politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

Image
Credit…Tim Lahan

Yesterday afternoon, when our benevolent politics editor Patrick Healy asked what I expected to hear at the debate last night, I shot back full of confidence and that classic political reporter swagger.

Pile on Pete. Duh.

The question, I argued, wasn’t whether the candidates would go after Pete Buttigieg but how he’d deal with the flood of attacks on his policies, lack of experience and inability to win over voters of color.

Well, dear readers, revoke my conventional wisdom card right now. I was wrong. Really wrong.

Last night’s debate was notable more for what didn’t happen that what did: The South Bend mayor skated.

Coming into the debate, there were several leading candidates who needed to do something to try to slow Mr. Buttigieg’s momentum. Others, like Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, could have benefited from taking a shot at a top-tier candidate, particularly one who has struggled to connect with black voters.

No one did anything to stop his rise.

Sure, there were a handful of attacks. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii went after Mr. Buttigieg’s record on foreign policy, a charge he deflected by launching into a broadside on Ms. Gabbard’s much-derided meeting with the President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a “murderous dictator.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota went after Mr. Buttigieg’s background, questioning whether his experience as mayor of South Bend, Ind., — a city of about 100,000 people — makes him ready for the White House. “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?” Mr. Buttigieg fired back.

And Ms. Harris, who has continued her slide in the polls, whiffed her attack over his campaign website’s use of a stock photo from Kenya to illustrate his plan to combat racism in the United States. Mr. Buttigieg responded by talking about his history leading a “racially diverse city” and as a gay man.

Of course, a good night hardly means Mr. Buttigieg is unstoppable. His weakness with voters of color, which is evident in tons of polls, is a real problem. No Democrat in recent political history has won the party’s presidential nomination without the support of black voters.

But Mr. Buttigieg, who has opened a lead in Iowa in recent polling, is hoping a victory there can help him win over skeptical voters in the more diverse primaries that follow.

There’s no indication anyone on that stage last night took steps to sow the kinds of doubts that would stop him from moving forward with his plan. Or his momentum.

Plenty of other stuff happened last night, too! Here’s some of what we were watching.

Joking is the new jousting.

The candidates touched on a number of topics that hadn’t really been explored in the past four debates: paid family leave, affordable housing and the potential cost of deconstructing President Trump’s border wall, to name a few. But none led to sharp exchanges, as the candidates favored quippy one-liners over sustained attacks. With little conflict to help distinguish the candidates on a number of issues, the consensus among my colleagues was that the debate was, well, boring.

Where were the liberals?

Nearly all the previous debates revolved around Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and their health care plans. This time, they were mostly relegated to background players on the stage. While both had brief moments, neither lodged a particularly memorable line. And health care, for the first time in five rounds of debates, didn’t dominate the discussion.

Biden fumbled around race and gender. Again.

When asked about the Me Too movement, former Vice President Joe Biden said that Americans just have to keep “punching at it, and punching at it, and punching at it” to change the culture of violence against women. “I come out of the black community,” Mr. Biden said, perplexingly, at a later point. And at least one of his flubs prompted incredulous cross talk from others on the stage, when he suggested that only one black woman had been elected to the Senate. Ms. Harris, who was standing two lecterns over, is the second.

While those comments will rile up those who oppose him, they seem unlikely to seriously shake his strong support among black voters.

Democrats finally got sick of Gabbard.

The Hawaii congresswoman took more incoming fire than in any previous debate, as rivals painted her as a closet Republican and a conservative media darling who loves nothing more than attacking the Democratic Party she aims to lead. Analysis of her support shows that she draws more from conservatives and Republicans than any other candidate, so it’s unclear whether this will hurt her modest standing in the race.


  • Here’s the recap that ran on the front page of the newspaper: With impeachment hearings in full swing, Democrats aimed more at Mr. Trump than at one another.

  • Check out our five takeaways from the debate: It may not have been flashy, or memorable, but we learned some things, too.

  • Want to see what you missed? Watch the key moments from the debate, in under three minutes.

  • Our colleagues in the Washington bureau fact-checked the candidates on a wealth tax, “Medicare for all,” paid maternal leave and more.

  • Who got the most speaking time onstage? We kept track.


Drop us a line!

What did you think of the debate last night? We want to hear your thoughts. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.


Former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who just entered the race, learned the hard way that you might not want to schedule an event on debate night when you’re not in the debate across town. (His event was canceled after two people showed up, CNN reported.)


Were you forwarded this newsletter? Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox.

Thanks for reading. On Politics is your guide to the political news cycle, delivering clarity from the chaos.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.