Fascinating to see the last debate before the voting starts be this calm. Disagreements, a couple of flashpoints, but no one engaging in sustained attacks, no one taking big risks.
Based on my headline, you can tell this Warren supporter had no qualms about her performance: I thought Elizabeth knocked it out of the park, and most importantly successfully defined the terms of the debate. Voters have to decide on whether the best path to beating Trump is to take the conventional wisdom path- to nominate the careful, moderate white guy who we’ve known for a long time; or to try something new: a woman, an outsider with a strong anti-corruption reform message. I thought Elizabeth made her case well.
More on that, and on the Bernie vs Warren issues, below. First, some commentary on the other candidates.
I was deeply puzzled why the two candidates who remain pretty far behind in the Iowa and New Hampshire polling, Steyer and Klobuchar, took no risks. To me, one of the absolute, top tier rules of politics (or sports, or any competition) is that when you are behind, you have to take bigger risks. Biden didn’t do anything last night to stir the pot or shake things up, but he didn’t have to, he’s the frontrunner. Klobuchar is a distant 5th at 7%, and Steyer is at about 2%. They both said some good things which reinforced the campaign themes they are trying to build, but neither one said anything to shake things up or change the basic dynamics of the race.
I thought this was Pete’s worst debate performance so far. There’s an oddly rehearsed, overly practiced quality to everything he says: he always seems to be trying so hard to be serious, to have gravitas, to seem older. I don’t think it worked very well last night.
Biden was really subdued for the most part. It feels like he is “calling it in”, trying hard not to make mistakes that will shake his frontrunner status. His performance last night reminded me of the time George HW Bush looked at his watch in the middle of one of his debates with Clinton: just trying to run out the clock. And maybe that works since Biden is the frontrunner, but my guess is that voters are looking for more energy than that in a race against Trump.
Bernie’s great strength is that, well, he is always just Bernie. He doesn’t make the adjustments other candidates make; he never feels calibrated. He is who he is, with no apologies, and that is a very appealing thing.
I am pleased that Bernie and Elizabeth didn’t get into an extended negative wrangle with each other. They clearly have a different memory about the conversation they had in 2018, but as Elizabeth said, it doesn’t matter, they are still friends and allies. Her rapid-fire pivot away from the Bernie/Elizabeth disagreement to the broader question of whether a woman can win was perfectly executed, and the case she made was eloquent.
Bernie and Elizabeth are going to keep competing for some of the same voters, but both are also competing with others, according to the polling Bernie primarily with Biden, Warren primarily with Pete. What was most important about this final debate before Iowa (and before the early voting starts in Super Tuesday states) was that Elizabeth defined the terms of the debate in terms of electability: is our best path to play it safe with establishment candidates and issue positions, or is that kind of “playing it safe” mode the same strategy that lost for us in 2016? Her argument that it is time for a woman and time for a take-on-the-big-money-powers-that-be fighter, instead of going with the conventional wisdom strategies that have lost so often before, is compelling.
A couple of other points on the Bernie/Elizabeth differences: progressives are all united in wanting big changes, but as someone who has been fighting the progressive fight in DC for almost 30 years now, I very much appreciate Elizabeth’s point on both trade and health care that we should take as much as we can get that helps people right now. That’s the way Bernie has mostly voted over the years, but rhetorically he tends to be more of an all or nothing guy. Elizabeth’s nod to the fact that in politics, like in the Rolling Stones song, you can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, you can get what you need, is important. You can’t take the politics out of politics, and while we need to fight for the urgent changes required, sometimes all we can do is to make progress. The moderate wing of the party sometimes argues that as well, but the difference is that Elizabeth is genuinely more progressive and will actually fight for the big changes we need.
My final point is this: Elizabeth’s unifying the party message is absolutely critical. It’s not a dis to Bernie, it’s just a fact: many Democrats will never accept Bernie as their nominee, they will fight him every step of the way. But Elizabeth’s message is even more important to the centrists: we need the progressive wing of the party fully energized, engaged, and welcomed in. That will not happen with Biden or Pete as the nominee. Elizabeth is the perfect bridge between those two wings of the party, and the right person to beat Trump as a result.
We will see what Iowa and the states to come decide, but winning the last debate before the vote is a damn good thing for Elizabeth. I think change and big outsider ideas will win the day.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Crooks and Liars does NOT endorse candidates in the Democratic primaries, and supports the Democratic nominee once the nominating process is over. This post is the personal opinion of the author only.