By CHARLIE HARPER
Hugh Hewitt was regaling a private New York audience late last week after the first two Democratic debates of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Hewitt, a 63-year-old pundit and Harvard graduate who is resolutely conservative, has emerged in recent years as an acceptable right-wing voice on left-leaning or centrist American media such as CNN, MSNBC and the Washington Post. Now he was trying to put into perspective the first night of Democratic debates.
“I want to recall for you the seminal moment of the last presidential campaign,” Hewitt said. It was early August 2015 in Cleveland. “The very first question posed by the moderator in that debate,” Hewitt said, “was the pivotal moment that night, and we’re still feeling its effects,” he said.
That first questions to the candidates on stage in a then-fractious Republican field was “Who will not pledge to support the eventual Republican candidate in 2016? Who will not rule out an independent run for president if they are not the Republican nominee?”
Donald Trump was the only one who raised his hand, tentatively at first, then more confidently as he realised no one else had responded as he had. He followed with a shrug and then a fatuous remark or two. You can see it all on YouTube.
Hewitt, recalling this moment, noted it was then the 2016 race became all about Trump. “Politics became entertainment at that moment. It became about what Trump would do.”
Four years later, that still basically defines American national politics.
Twenty of the Democrats vying to oppose Trump next year took to the stage in Miami last week on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo in the first of ten scheduled debates over the next 31 weeks. The line-ups for the two debates were determined by lottery. Each was trying to find a magic moment that would propel them ahead of the competition.
Here are some observations:
Biden. Anxious for headline moments from the debates, the national news media pounced on the former vice president’s uneasy exchange with California senator Kamala Harris on school busing. African-American Harris went after Biden’s civil rights record, which is lengthy and mixed. She was clearly seeking a magic moment and Biden looked unsettled and retreated a bit under her attack.
Thoughtful pundits reminded viewers in the following days that Barack Obama also did poorly in his first debate back in 2007, but recovered to serve two terms as president.
That may offer comfort for Biden, who is clearly evoking his eight years as Obama’s wingman as a centrepiece of his campaign so far. But Biden looked old on TV. That’s partly because he is old. He is 76. He appears to have lost some weight, and his eyes sometimes have a startled look. He should do some remediation on both his appearance and defending his record, but as long as black voters believe he has the best chance to beat Trump, he’ll likely remain the front runner.
Harris. The former California attorney general has been in the Senate for 18 months now, as Obama had been in 2007 prior to running for president. His success then makes her audacity in running now much less consequential. She seemed the best prepared of all 20 candidates and also channeled her passion effectively on several issues. She looked effective and adult in criticising the verbal “food fight” around her at one point when the discussion became heated. She gets high marks for preparation and delivery.
Sanders. Haven’t we all seen this before, when he ran four years ago? Sanders is now 77-years-old, still hammering relentlessly, angrily and with a mildly grating Brooklyn accent on issues he doesn’t pretend are not socialistic. He seems to want to get our attention with his verbal fusillades, then worry later - after Inauguration Day - about details like paying for his proposals. He may still be a formidable force when Democratic primary elections begin to appear on the calendar early next year, but it’s increasingly difficult to picture this ageing heckler as a viable presidential candidate, particularly against a formidable foe. And Trump is a very formidable foe.
Booker. One of three candidates to show off their Spanish language skills during the debates, this young, photogenic New Jersey senator repeatedly emphasised where he lives – apparently in a transitional Newark neighbuorhood. That’s admirable, and probably courageous, considering he doubtless has many more secure alternative residential choices.
A star football player at Stanford, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and holder of a Yale law degree, Booker ran for Newark mayor against black machine politician Sharpe James, lost, and returned four years later to win against a James protegee. He was sworn in as a US senator over five years ago. His career is worth a read online.
Booker was a prominent first-day participant. He appeared to get the most time on camera. Not uniformly sure-footed in such a setting, he still did well. One good soundbite: “We have tried to arrest our way out of (opioid and other drug) addiction.”
Warren. This is a woman on a mission. An obvious idealist who is clearly outraged by the structural inequalities in the world’s richest nation, the Massachusetts senator, 70, did not surprise or disappoint in the debate. Her default setting is intensity. She used the corruption word more than anyone else, and in her trademark near-schoolteacher mode, she castigated Trump and his cronies repeatedly. But it’s much bigger than that for Warren.
Forceful but compassionate, appearing vaguely small and pinched but outspokenly courageous, personal and patriotic, Elizabeth Warren will be reckoned with long after next year’s election, either from the White House or as a Senate stalwart in the manner of predecessor Ted Kennedy.
Klobuchar. This practical Minnesotan often seems bemused by the process in which she is participating. She looks and speaks like a pragmatist. She came out swinging against Trump, and spoke strongly about student debt and free community college. She is clearly looking to appeal to younger voters, saying at one point that “17-year-olds like the Parkland (Florida) student activists will lead our way.”
To some observers, Klobuchar is unintentionally auditioning for vice president. She looked and acted the part, as she remained calm, humorous and under control as verbal fistfights erupted around her.
Gillibrand. Perhaps most of all participants, New York’s junior senator visibly searched for her passion in the beginning stages of Day Two. Not an especially active early participant, she found her voice on women’s issues and health care. On the latter issue particularly, she ultimately held her own in a passionate exchange with several others. Appearing to speak directly to America’s women, she was fiercest in defending women’s rights, from pay issues to abortion rights. “Women are on fire,” she said.
Beto. Like Booker, former Texas congressman O’Rourke spoke Spanish at several points in his remarks. Tall and lanky, he seemed at times uncomfortable with his height and posture. He was vague on policy specifics at times, and occasionally a bit disjointed in his delivery. Strong on immigration and border issues, he was still not impressive overall. He will have to overcome the impression that his peak moment occurred three years ago when he came much closer than expected to ousting Ted Cruz from the US senate.
Mayor Pete. South Bend, Indiana mayor Buttigieg is a media darling. Initially dismissed by Trump, this openly gay politician talked comfortably about his male spouse and, indeed, about everything else except one thing. A white police officer shot and killed a black man in South Bend recently, and it is a measure of Mayor Pete’s rapid ascent that one of his debate competitors thought enough of his prominence to score points by attacking him on this issue. Buttigieg was initially wrong-footed, but seemed to recover.
Otherwise, he was the Klobuchar of Day Two: Calm, reasonable and thoughtful, he was undeniably impressive. He seemed most of all practical rather than ideological. Even on the police shooting, he eventually took the blame for whatever systemic flaws in his city’s policing that were indicated by the tragic incident.
Castro. This former San Antonio mayor was the third candidate to rely on Spanish in some of his answers, and he did not miss his marks in appealing to a Latino constituency that figures to be influential in primaries and next year’s general election. In the early stages of Day One, his eyes appeared hooded, and this distracted from the general seriousness and sincerity of his message. He cleared this up later in the debate.
Gaining passion and force as the debate moved on, Castro was regarded by some observers as the big winner of this first day. He was effective on what he called “reproductive justice” for women. He scored points when he scorned the “criminalisation of desperation” of immigrants at the U.S. southern border. He duked it out with O’Rourke on immigration. He garnered applause on guns. It was later reported he earned the most Google searches on the first day.
In no particular order, those discussed above seemed to constitute the top ten of the 20 candidates who earned the right to appear on the stage for the first two debates of 2019. What about the rest? All made an impression, and some really surprised with their impact.
Gabbard. This poised, businesslike Hawaii congresswoman touted her military service throughout her debate, and why not? Like Mayor Pete, she has actually experienced war first hand, and she made sure the audience knew it. She smartly focused on national security issues, though her evasion of most other issues did not go unnoticed. Still, she scored some military-related points on both guns and gay rights. She played a mediocre hand pretty skilfully.
Delaney. A former Maryland congressman, he highlighted his business experience and projected a reasoned approach to the issues introduced by the debate moderators. He tried several times to interject in discussions by others, with mixed results. “Keep what’s working, reform what isn’t,” he offered at one point. Calm and mature, his staying power is worth watching.
Williamson. Situated at the left end of the ten debaters on Day Two, this best-selling author had to work hard to insert herself in this heavyweight tussle involving many of the front-runners. She attacked Trump, presented her lack of political credentials as a distinct advantage, and offered trenchant, cogent comments. It isn’t clear how far she can carry her campaign.
Inslee. The Washington governor, who from the beginning of his campaign has put climate change at the centre of his message, frankly disappointed. After several impressive appearances on talk shows and newspaper interviews, he looked a bit wooden on stage and despite touting impressive accomplishments as chief executive of a progressive state, he failed to make a commensurate impression on Day One. He was almost too civil for the debate context.
Hickenlooper. A former governor of Colorado with a lot to brag about, he said at the outset of Day Two that “I’ve actually done what the others on this stage are just talking about.” He was able to back this up with impressive examples, but his manner was bland and he was unable to project the kind of energy viewers may have been looking for. If the Democrats manage to win the White House next year, Hickenlooper is a perfect candidate for several cabinet posts.
De Blasio. As mayor of New York City, he has more executive responsibility than many governors and he projected a forceful air of confidence and achievements. In a lower-profile Day One field, he was strong, bold, progressive and tall. Looking straight into the TV cameras, he unflinchingly told of his biracial son and his father, a military veteran who committed suicide. For De Blasio especially, though, there really was no magic moment. Considering his platform, he left too little of an impression on viewers.
Swalwell. This fresh-faced 38-year-old East (San Francisco) Bay congressman shocked Democratic icon Pete Stark in a 2012 primary and has been noticed in the House of Representatives since that upset election. He went after both Biden and Mayor Pete on Day Two, demanding Biden pass the torch to a younger political generation, and that Mayor Pete fire his police chief after the shooting of the black man in South Bend. The others visibly bristled at this brash interloper, but he stuck to his guns. He left the impression he will be heard from in this campaign or a future one.
Bennet. One of Colorado’s incumbent senators, this civilised man had to work too hard to make an impression on the Day Two stage. He said mostly the right things, but his fellow debaters projected too much energy, and left him behind to some degree. He also suffered by appearing on the same stage as former governor Hickenlooper, who was able to take credit for a lot of Colorado’s progress. Poised and articulate, Bennet looked to make a splash but had to settle for a ripple.
Ryan. Representing in Congress a blighted rust belt district in eastern Ohio since 2003, Ryan should be the workingman’s candidate, strongly pro-union and strongly advocating against the plutocrats presently controlling politics in Washington. He didn’t register as much as he could have done, and took a solid shot from Gabbard when he misspoke about the Taliban. He made several clear points, but left no lasting impression.
Yang. A venture capitalist and entrepreneur with an enviable record of smart philanthropy, Yang suffered more than anyone by drawing the Day Two star-studded cast of debate competitors. He did offer some sensible advice for his party:
“We need to solve the problems that got Trump elected.” With few if any magic moments, he received little notice.
In the wake of last week’s debates, Trump travelled to Japan for a G-20 summit and was photographed chuckling with Russian President Vladimir Putin about fake news, foreign interference in American elections and the nuisance value of an independent free press. Then it was on to the Korean DMZ and Kim Jong Un.