If everyone does well at a multi-candidate debate, who is the real winner? That’s the question that you need to ask after Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, in which everyone on stage — well, everyone except for Tom Steyer, who doesn’t count because he bought his way into the event — effectively made a case to be the Democratic nominee.
Pete Buttigieg took the most heat, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have others making you the center of attention if you can effectively parry attacks, and Buttigieg mostly did that on Thursday night. Elizabeth Warren whacked him for hosting high-dollar fundraisers, and he countered that Donald Trump and allies have already raised more than $300 million. “This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump. We shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our back,” he said.
Warren, refusing to let the matter drop, then pointed out that Buttigieg had even held a closed-door fundraiser at a “wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine.”
“I am literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire,” Buttigieg shot back. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.” He noted out Warren’s net worth was 100 times greater than his own, and posited that a Warren donation to the Buttigieg campaign would not taint his candidacy.
Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar managed to draw more blood by arguing that Buttigieg isn’t electable. “We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show that they can gather the support that you talk about of moderate Republicans and independents, as well as a fired-up Democratic base, and not just done it once, I have done it three times,” Klobuchar said.
You knew Buttigieg must have felt cornered when he decided to play the identity-politics card. “If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Buttigieg said.
Klobuchar responded, quietly but effectively: “If you had won [statewide] in Indiana, that would be one thing. [But] you tried and you lost by 20 points. I’m sorry. That’s just the math.”
Klobuchar’s show of strength was definitely one of the more important developments of the night. She’s been inching up in the polls in Iowa, and the smaller number of candidates on stage let her grab more of the spotlight. “Amy Klobuchar deserves a closer look from electability-minded Democrats,” reads the headline of one article today at Vox. Klobuchar’s electability may be overrated: There is a long tradition of midwestern politicians performing well in elections simply by staying out of the news; no one thought Herb Kohl should be president. But for those Democratic voters worried that the top four candidates are too old (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders), too left-wing (Warren and Sanders), or too inexperienced (Buttigieg), Klobuchar makes sense as a fallback choice. She did her best to triangulate on Thursday night, saying she agreed with Bernie on drug pricing and Biden on a public option, which she correctly portrayed the only plan that has a realistic chance of passing even a Democratic Congress.
Of course, Biden, the front-runner in national polls, did well and held his ground last night. He made it through an entire debate without any glaring gaffes, and he effectively made his case against Medicare for All. But he might also have made himself less electable in November. Asked if he would be willing to displace “thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers in the interest of transitioning to [a] greener economy,” Biden said yes. Asked if he would seek a second term should he win a first, he refused to definitively answer. He handled the latter question well, but his failure to put it to rest will raise doubts about his age as voters head to the polls.
All in all it was a lively evening. Due to some combination of effective questioning by the moderators, a smaller number of candidates on stage, and the dwindling number of days left until the Iowa caucuses, Thursday night was the first Democratic debate that actually felt like a debate.