The Morning Jolt


Last Night’s Debate Was Full of Genuine Surprises

From left: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Beto O’Rourke at the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, U.S., October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Last night brought some genuine surprises. The first was which candidates brought their A-games when they needed them most; the second was an early endorsement by one of the Democrats’ biggest names; the third was that two candidates are running out of money. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke continues to say the quiet part out loud; and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces his intent to snub Vice President Mike Pence.

You Can’t Script October — in Either Baseball or Politics

Genuine surprise of last night, number one: Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, two candidates who were starting to slide into irrelevance, had their best nights yet. That may not be enough to get them into the first tier, but at a time when the Democratic primary is getting ready to weed out the riff-raff, both candidates made an unexpectedly strong case that they’ve got something useful to say.

(I write my debate assessments as the debates come to a close and try not to look at other people’s wrap-ups and declarations of the winners and losers before sending them off to be reviewed by the editors for typos. If I echo the conventional wisdom, fine; if I don’t, who cares, and perhaps being one of the first assessments posted online ends up shaping that post-debate conventional wisdom. But whatever happens, I don’t follow the crowd.)

Notice that Buttigieg is at 12 percent in Iowa in the RealClearPolitics average, and 8.7 percent in New Hampshire. That may not sound like much, but nobody else outside of the big three is anywhere near double digits anywhere. The South Bend mayor’s rise is Exhibit A of counterevidence when other candidates whine that the process is rigged in favor of well-known candidates who have been in politics forever.

Klobuchar had, until last night, been a strong contender for the biggest “why is she running?” status. She wasn’t the biggest centrist or the most progressive, she’s from a state that might, theoretically, be competitive this cycle but isn’t most cycles and up until last night, “Minnesota Nice” appeared to be a synonym for boring. What does Klobuchar do well? It turns out she can politely but firmly poke holes in Warren’s arguments, making the Massachusetts senator’s high-dudgeon “you’re attacking me because I’m the only one standing up for the people” schtick sound overwrought and ridiculous.

“At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”

“I appreciate Elizabeth’s work. But, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”

“I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.”

What we saw last night — particularly in the one-on-one concern-off held by Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke on gun violence — is that progressive Democrats get really used to being able to play the “I care about people, and you don’t” card against their opponents, and they’re really shocked and indignant when their own style of criticism is turned against them. You get the feeling that Buttigieg really sees O’Rourke as a political dilettante, play-acting at leadership having never had that much executive responsibility in office.

O’ROURKE: Listening to my fellow Americans, to those moms who demand action, to those students who march for our lives, who, in fact, came up with this extraordinary bold peace plan that calls for mandatory buybacks, let’s follow their inspiration and lead and not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups. Let’s do what’s right.

BUTTIGIEG: The problem isn’t the polls. The problems is the policy. And I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal. Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done.

Genuine surprise of last night, number two: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are endorsing Bernie Sanders — Omar already has, AOC will do so in a big Sanders rally in the Bronx Saturday.

It’s not surprising that Ocasio-Cortez was inclined to prefer the field’s most outspoken socialist, but this is a little early, and a shot in the arm just when Sanders campaign needs it. Think about it, Sanders had a heart attack two weeks ago; for a lot of campaigns, that would wrap it up. The Vermont senator was as loud and lively and fired up as ever last night; no doubt he beat back that heart attack by yelling and berating it into submission. Sanders has the most cash on hand, and as I predicted before the heart attack, “Sanders will probably have enough financial resources to stay in the presidential race as long has he likes, all the way to the Democratic convention in Milwaukee if he wants.” In most polls, both national and state, he’s in a third place that is respectable but distant.

This is also really good news for Joe Biden, because the former vice president wants and perhaps needs at least two big progressive alternatives in the race competing for the same voters, and hopefully knocking each other around. The Sanders health scare looked like it was setting up an early Biden-Warren showdown.

Biden did not have a great night — he really hasn’t had any great debate nights this cycle — and those advantages of having the biggest name and most Democrats’ “default choice” are starting to fade. His fundraising is “meh” — $9 million cash on hand? For a former veep? — and the lingering odor from the Hunter Biden deals obviously doesn’t help him. (A more deft candidate would have used Trump’s attacks to make most Americans forget that the primary was still going on.) Biden needs the current status quo — still the national frontrunner, a close second in Iowa, a close second in New Hampshire, the leader in Nevada, the leader in South Carolina by a wide margin, and most progressives split between Warren and Sanders — to stay in place.

Genuine surprise of last night, number three: Are the two Texans in the Democratic presidential race about to depart because they’re running out of money? The latest fundraising reports, revealing the campaigns’ cash on hand as of September 30, suggest that another culling is coming soon. It’s mid-October. Longshot campaigns that looked like cute larks or boutique candidates in the spring have had their moment in the sun and are running on fumes. Julian Castro has less than $1 million in the bank. Beto O’Rourke’s down to $3.3 million. The candidates who didn’t qualify for the debate all have less than $2 million. You can’t run campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina with that kind of money.

Genuine surprise of last night, number four: The Washington Nationals swept the St. Louis Cardinals. I only casually follow baseball, but what’s noteworthy about this year’s Nationals is that they’ve finally made it to the championship after a lot of talent-laden Nationals teams in past years flopped in the playoffs. And it’s ironic that they make to the World Series after mega-slugger Bryce Harper departed the team in free agency. And it’s even more ironic that they’ve made it so far after looking miserable in spring; on May 23, the team had 19 wins and 31 losses.

Beto: Okay, Maybe the Cops Will Have to Confiscate Your AR-15

This morning, Beto O’Rourke told Joe Scarborough that if people refused to comply with his mandatory buyback of AR-15s, “in that case, I think there would be a visit by law enforcement to recover that firearm.” There are roughly 16 million AR-15s or similar models in private hands in the United States today.

Is it too late to get the Democrats to nominate this guy?

That’s It. No More Mr. Nice NATO Ally.

I mean it when I say it’s time to begin the process of expelling Turkey from NATO. Our so-called ally is apparently no longer willing to talk: “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will refuse to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to travel to Turkey to argue for a ceasefire in the ongoing Syria conflict.”

Last night, in another one of those moments where you wonder how much Joe Biden understands what’s going on in the world, the vice president declared, “Erdogan understands that — you talk about should he stay in or out of NATO — he understands if he’s out of NATO, he’s in real trouble.”

Does he? Does he look, sound, or act like a man who prioritizes staying on good terms with his NATO allies?

I’ve been writing about Erdogan for a long, long, long, long time. He’s steadily accumulated more and more power to reach authoritarian status. Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world. And now he’s invading a neighboring country, blowing up the forces of a U.S. ally, and in the process releasing Islamic State fighters from prison.

Just what does this guy have to do to get us to believe he’s no longer an ally to NATO or U.S. interests?

ADDENDUM: A Morning Jolt reader, perusing coverage of the NBA and China, reminds me of an old Charles Barkley quote: “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.”

At the time, we were all pretty sure he was joking.


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