The eighth Democratic debate came on the back of a hectic political week which saw the Iowa Democratic caucus results debacle, the Senate’s failure to convict Donald Trump, and the State of the Union. After such a roller coaster ride of a week, it was perhaps fitting that Manchester, New Hampshire, saw the most contentious and energetic debate of the Democratic presidential primary are so far.
Here are a few takeaways from Friday night:
The gloves are off
There were moments in this debate where the moderators pushed the candidates to attack each other, but they needn’t have bothered.
Almost straight out of the gate, the candidates were laying into each other with an intensity that we have not seen on the debate stage in this election cycle.
Biden attacked both Bernie Sanders’ socialism and Pete Buttigieg’s lack of appeal to minority voters in a single breath. Klobuchar happily jumped onto the bandwagon of criticizing Sanders, saying he would shut out potential Democratic supporters. Tom Steyer reminded the audience of the importance of the African-American vote, a less-than-subtle criticism of Pete Buttigieg’s narrow appeal. Buttigieg claimed that Sanders’ approach was “my way, or the high way.”
All of this was in the first ten minutes of the debate.
The candidates attacked each other throughout the night, on everything from political experience to campaign donors.
The genuine contention throughout the night made the debate one of the most interesting to watch of the entire 2020 cycle; it was very clear that all the candidates on stage were committed to their differing visions and that these arguments were being made passionately, in good faith.
Biden came out swinging, but nearly slipped
The former Vice President – stung by his poor performance in Iowa – needed a strong debate, and it was clear that he was giving it his all.
His attacks on opponents were far sharper than in previous debates; on Medicare for All, he not only asked “how are we going to pay for it,” but called the plan “crazy.” He was equally unabashed about defending his record, to the extent that his catchphrase for the debate might have been, “I did that”:
“…I managed the $900 billion Recovery Act, which in fact put millions and millions of dollars into his city before he came and helped save his city. I was able to do it, I was able to pass the chemical weapons ban, arms control. And I was the first major leader holding public office to call for same sex marriage.”
However, he came dangerously close to repeating his infamous “record player” moment while discussing racial inequality and education.
While arguing for greater investment in at-risk schools and African-American teachers, he started to veer off script – you could almost hear the other candidates holding their breath, waiting for him to say something truly bizarre.
But Biden righted himself at the last moment: apparently realizing he didn’t know what he was going to say next, he concluded with, “go to joebiden.com, you’ll see the whole deal, including criminal justice reform.”
It was easy to imagine his campaign staff release their breath gratefully.
Biden wasn’t all aggression though: in a moment that got the audience laughing, he hugged Bernie Sanders as a moderator read out Hillary Clinton’s recent insulting comments about the Vermont senator.
Tom Steyer earned his place on stage
Tom Steyer has been an odd presence in the Democratic primary, a billionaire with a progressive program, a man who wants money out of politics but is willing to spend hundreds of millions to win the presidential nomination.
In the last debate (which he squeaked into with two qualifying polls) Steyer was a slightly goofy sideshow, unnerving the audience with his habit of staring directly at the camera, not really adding new ideas to the conversation.
In this debate, Steyer redeemed himself. He held a laser focus on beating Trump, constantly reminding his rivals that the President will run on the economy.
In his best moment, he made Joe Biden squirm by asking him to disavow racist comments made a Biden campaigner in South Carolina.
Biden tried to dodge the question with bland statements about his support in the African American community, but Steyer might have been the first candidate to seriously dent the Vice President’s support in key southern states (only time, and the South Carolina primary, will tell).
Warren had her weakest night
Elizabeth Warren has been one of the strongest, most consistent debaters since the primary debates stared last summer. This time round, however, Warren was relegated to the background. While she made her usual appeals around the key issues of corporate corruption and her ambitious progressive policy plans, she didn’t capture attention in the way that she has done in earlier performances.
Her best moments came when talking about racial equality; asked whether Buttigieg’s answer on racial issues was substantive, she answered with a flat no, going on to chastise the Democratic Party and past Democratic tickets for only caring about the black community “at election time.”