NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, February 8th, 2020

Sparks fly in eighth Democratic presidential debate at Manchester’s Saint Anselm College

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, 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.”

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