Democratic candidates for president took part in their party’s fifth debate on Wednesday night in Atlanta and CNN commentators weighed in. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are those of the authors
Paul Begala: Buttigieg was the winner
After spending all day watching Republican congressmen (and one Republican congresswoman) during the impeachment hearings mindlessly denying the Everest of evidence of Donald Trump’s alleged criminality, the Democratic debate was like a wake-up call from the real world.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders stayed true to form, pushing Medicare for All and a wealth tax. Kamala Harris was a sharp and incisive prosecutor, rhetorically eviscerating Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard over her criticism of Barack Obama and other Democrats. It makes you long to see Harris carve up Donald Trump on a debate stage. Later, on foreign policy, she quipped, “Donald Trump got punked,” and then cited chapter and verse on how our President has been bamboozled on North Korea and all around the world.
Joe Biden was at his Obamaesque best when he disavowed liberals chanting “Lock Him Up” at Donald Trump. He called for accountability, both in impeachment and at the ballot box. But he pointedly refused to politicize his Justice Department the way Trump has. And good for him. As my friend David Axelrod has noted, when we replace a President it is because we want the remedy, not the replica.
Amy Klobuchar, after a shaky start, found her footing with her trademark self-deprecating wit (“I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends, and I’d like to point out: it is not an expanding base.”).
Cory Booker reprised his role as a happy warrior, but the winner may have been Pete Buttigieg. The South Bend mayor put in a competent performance, but, strangely, his competitors didn’t lay a glove on him. Also-rans like Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer took more punches than the guy leading in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Still, the contrast between each of them and the preening, prevaricating Republicans we saw in the House hearing room today could not have been more clear. Democrats should be proud of the people who seek to lead them; Republicans should be ashamed of their politicians seeking to mislead them.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House.
Alice Stewart: Buttigieg dodged a target
It’s standard for presidential candidates with the wind in their sails to be the ones targeted by opponents heading into a debate, yet South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has recently surged in Iowa and New Hampshire, managed to mostly defy the odds in Atlanta Wednesday night. Buttigieg deflated a debate attack about his military judgment from Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. He also addressed the campaign struggle to connect with black voters by saying “my faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society.”
Current national frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden didn’t gain ground and didn’t lose any either. In debate-speak, that’s considered a victory because you can’t win a campaign on a debate stage, but you sure can lose one. Biden held his own, closing with a plea for voters to “get up and take it back” so that America can lead the world again.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren continued her attack on the wealthy who have a “stranglehold on our country” and defended her plan for Medicare for All.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders reminded everyone again that he “wrote the damn bill” to fix health care and said President Trump is a pathological liar.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar had another strong night as a moderate voice, in contrast to the far left policies of Warren and Sanders. She told viewers “we need to be honest about what we can pay for.”
One thing’s for sure; this is a fluid Democratic primary, with a stark contrast between the far left wing of the party and the moderate voices. And that’s not even counting the candidates still waiting in the wings.
Alice Stewart is a CNN Political Commentator, Resident Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy Institute of Politics, and former Communications Director for Ted Cruz for President.
Errol Louis: Biden takes high road on “lock him up”
Joe Biden appears to have adopted the slogan of his former boss, President Obama: when they go low, we go high. When asked about Trump’s role in dividing the nation, Biden pointedly ruled out the idea of ordering an investigation or prosecution of Trump after he leaves the White House.
On the hot-button question of whether Trump should be criminally charged, Biden said it would inappropriate for him to order the prosecution or exoneration of Trump or anybody else. “”I would not direct my Justice Department like this president does. I’d let them make their independent judgment,” he said.
That may be a disappointment to angry members of the Democratic base, some of whom have taken to chanting “Lock him up!” at rallies, calling for Trump to go to jail.
But Biden is explicitly disavowing that kind of talk.
“We have to bring this country together,” Biden said. “It’s about civility. We have to restore the soul of this country.”
That is a smart way for Biden to hit back at Trump: by presenting himself as fair, confident, restrained and respectful of American laws and traditions. It makes him look like a winner, which is what Democratic voters are looking for.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
Frida Ghitis: The night belonged to the women
After an exhausting day of hearing how President Donald Trump subverted US foreign policy on Ukraine, the Democratic debate brought a reassuringly strong discussion on foreign policy, offering solace to those of us worried about Trump’s approach to policy, not just on Ukraine but across the globe.
The foreign policy questions were excellent. In fact, the four women moderators did a top-notch job. But it was Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent, who threw the sharpest challenges, asking former Vice President Joe Biden how he would handle Saudi Arabia, and Bernie Sanders if he would negotiate with the Taliban. But it was her question to Sen. Kamala Harris that elicited the most effective, thoughtful, impressive response of the night.
Mitchell asked Harris about Trump’s interaction with the North Korean leader, and whether she would compromise with Kim Jong Un. The California Senator opened with what was probably a planned zinger, “Donald Trump got punked,” by Kim, adding that Trump “has conducted foreign policy since day one borne out of a very fragile ego.”
She followed with a concise exposition of all that is wrong with Trump’s foreign policy, and all that America should be on the global stage. It was a brilliant strategic double-prong attack, simultaneously hitting the President and boosting her own standing. America, she said, is respected because it keeps its word, but Trump has turned its back on previous agreements and on allies. Trump, she said, is the greatest threat to our national security.
Both Harris and Sen. Amy Klobuchar had a very strong night. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who many thought was wearing a target on his back due to his front-runner status in Iowa, didn’t face the expected pressure until the final minutes of the debate. He was his usual impressive, articulate, smart, youthful presence. Cory Booker, as always, was bright, eloquent and charismatic. It remains something of a mystery that he hasn’t gained more traction.
Joe Biden was unimpressive. Elizabeth Warren was passionate and smart. Bernie Sanders looked good, healthier, in good form, treading familiar ground.
The night belonged to the women, on and off the stage. Good questions and good answers. There’s hope.
Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis.
Tara Setmayer: A few standout moments in an afterthought debate
During a week of high political drama surrounding the ongoing impeachment hearings, the fifth democratic debate felt like an afterthought. Perhaps it’s political fatigue setting in. Perhaps it’s the debate format, with too many candidates still on the stage making it difficult for anyone to get any real momentum over the course of the evening. Despite the relative low energy of this debate, there were a few standout moments.
Cory Booker had his best debate thus far, with an especially powerful closing statement. Unfortunately it may not be enough to qualify him for the next debate.
Joe Biden was able to remind voters of the importance of civility, his experience and the respect he has earned with our allies and world leaders. Biden warned against President Donald Trump’s foreign policy failures and said, “This guy has no idea what he’s doing…we need a commander in chief when he stands, people know what he’s talking about…world leaders know who I am and know when I speak, I keep my word. They know where America stands and who we stand with.” This is great messaging for Biden. However, he can’t allow his debate gaffes (there were a few cringeworthy moments this time around) overshadow his overall message of electability and readiness on day one to bring normalcy back to governing.
The clear overall winner was Mayor Pete. He has yet to have a bad debate performance and emerged from this one unscathed. He once again exhibited policy depth on issues from health care to farm subsidies and thoughtfulness when challenged by Kamala Harris on issues of race. Buttigieg also demonstrated he can counterpunch with the best of them particularly on foreign policy. He’s begun to surge in early states and with debate performances like this, it will be interesting to see if he can build on that momentum.
Tara Setmayer, a CNN political commentator, is the host of the “Honestly Speaking With Tara” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.
Sarah Isgur: Biden’s frontrunner status isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy
Joe Biden didn’t have a great night…again. But he’s still the front runner, and he needs to start behaving like he’s thinking ahead.
It’s easy to forget that at this point in the presidential contest eight years ago, Newt Gingrich was leading in most of the polls for the Republican nomination. And before that Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman and even Herman Cain all took turns with the lead. But in the end, of course, the nomination went to Mitt Romney.
The churn in the polling in 2011 turned out to be symptomatic of a Republican primary electorate that was never able to reconcile its more moderate majority with its conservative base. When the moderates eventually won, Mitt Romney was best understood as a consensus pick that never captured the enthusiasm of the base he would need in November.
Despite the recent Buttigieg surge and Warren slump, Vice President Biden still looks like the most likely nominee. He still has the national name recognition, fundraising capacity and organization necessary to get over the finish line after Super Tuesday. But his performance in this debate is a reminder that he’s falling into many of the same traps as the Romney camp did – including a hide-and-seek media strategy that suggests senior staff are so afraid of their candidate’s potential gaffes that they keep him away from both reporters and voters.In Romney’s case, they waited until it was too late.
During his first answer on Wednesday night, Biden stumbled his way into a statement on electability. It’s the number one issue for Democratic voters, but being “electable” isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy for success. Just ask President Mitt Romney.
Sarah Isgur is a CNN political analyst. She has worked on three Republican presidential campaigns and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
Carrie Sheffield: Debaters sidestepped Trump’s success on economy
It wasn’t surprising that Wednesday night’s Democratic debate moderators from MSNBC and The Washington Post largely avoided substantive questions about America’s robust economy, including record low unemployment levels and record stock market highs. Even though the economy is among the top policy issues for 2020 voters, moderators preferred to focus on an impeachment sideshow.
Moderators did ask about farmers negatively affected by Chinese tariffs, yet they ignored important facts, including high approval of farmers for the job President Trump is doing. Meanwhile, Democrats refuse to help farmers by stymying a vote on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal. The USMCA trade deal would increase America’s agricultural exports by $2.2 billion, according to independent analysis by the US International Trade Commission.
Thanks to the 2017 tax reform law passed by Republicans, the effective tax rate for farmers was expected to fall from 17.2% to 13.9%, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The Trump administration is also working to roll back the Obama administration’s overreaching Waters of the United States rule, which required permits for discharging waste in waters designated as federally protected–and which farmers and ranchers strongly opposed
Americans deserve debate moderators who focus on substance like this rather than partisan jockeying.
Carrie Sheffield, a conservative commentator, is national editor for Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog organization, and a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum.
Jen Psaki: I’m going to sleep with a good feeling about the Democratic field
My prediction going into Wednesday’s Democratic debate was that Mayor Pete Buttigieg was going to need to eat his Wheaties because the other candidates would go after him hard. With the exception of some light punches, he would have survived on a fruit salad.
The question is why? Is it because his opponents don’t take his candidacy seriously? That seems unwise. Is it because the attacks of the last debates have not prompted upward movement in the polls for the attackers? That realization would be a welcome change.
It may be that the contrast between this debate contest and the impeachment inquiry hearings that have consumed Washington for the last two weeks is just that stark — and that even tough policy challenges feel mild in comparison with the depressing display led by Devin Nunes and the GOP band of conspiracy-theory pushing hacks. Either way I am going to sleep tonight with a good feeling about the field and a little hope that the dark days of the Trump era may soon be behind us no matter who emerges from the Democratic side.
Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki.
Julian Zelizer: Harris shows that she can deliver a punch
The Democratic debates are a test of many things, one of which is how each candidate would do taking on President Trump in one of what will certainly be one of the most ruthless, brutal and vicious campaigns that we have seen in many decades.
Senator Kamala Harris was far ahead of her colleagues tonight, delivering a number of sharp and direct attacks against the administration. When the discussion centered around impeachment she spoke about a “criminal enterprise” being run out of the Oval Office. “Donald Trump got punked,” she said when the conversation turned to foreign policy and North Korea.
The truth is that victory will require much more than being able to deliver a rhetorical punch. A winning Democrat will need bold ideas, a savvy campaign strategy, and strong local organization and fundraising operations.
But with President Trump as the opponent, the Democrats will also need someone who is comfortable with brass-knuckle politics, particularly during the debates. On this front, Senator Harris demonstrated once again tonight that she can deliver the goods.
Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer.
Raul A. Reyes: Julián Castro was missed
On the positive side, Wednesday night’s debate featured substantive discussions from the top candidates for the Democratic nomination. On the other hand, there was something about this evening that felt blasé; even the occasional minor clashes felt subdued, almost genteel.
To her credit, Kamala Harris showed grace as well as thoughtfulness in a brief discussion about race. She resisted an opportunity to take a dig at Pete Buttigieg for his campaign’s use of a stock photo of a black woman from Kenya in outreach to African-American voters. Instead she drew attention to the fact that black voters, especially black women, are often taken for granted. “Folks get tired of just saying, oh, thank you for showing up (at the polls)…and think, show up for me,” she said referring to black women in and communities of color. “The question has to be ‘Where have you been, and what are you going to do, and do you understand who the people are?” Harris was running for president, she explained, because she had experience working with all kinds of people, and she stressed the importance of re-creating the Obama coalition.
This point was a good reminder to whomever may be the frontrunner of the moment, that they ultimately need to make a strong case for themselves to all Americans – not just the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Harris is right: especially for Democrats, knowing and respecting diverse communities matters. And it was smart of her to make this point in a state where Stacey Abrams lost the governor’s race after an election marked by alleged voting irregularities (a point Cory Booker made in his debate comments).
Also, how ironic that in the first debate to include a discussion of affordable housing, the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary was not on the stage (Julián Castro did not meet the most recent debate requirements). That was a loss for the only Latino candidate in the race, and for viewers as well. In previous debates, the former HUD Secretary was an important voice on issues like reparations, immigration, homelessness and police brutality. Castro frequently elevated the concerns of marginalized communities, and for that he was missed.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
Danielle Campoamor: This what happens when women ask the questions
“I don’t want to be sexist, but there is a different feeling in the room when we’re preparing,” Andrea Mitchell, one of the four women moderators in tonight’s MSNBC/Washington Post Democratic Debate, told Glamour. And viewers felt it, too.
From a question about the cost of child care and the need for paid family leave in the first hour, to pacing, this debate gave viewers what they wanted: a chance to actually hear the candidates. When Rachel Maddow interrupted Mayor Pete Buttigieg to ask him to answer her question about subsidies to farmers, she did what past male moderators failed to do. When Maddow asked about abortion, she did what past male moderators failed to do.
Was it perfect? No. I could have done without the random “civility” question about the recent “lock him up” Trump chants,for example. But if we’re going have substantive debate and hold men and women to the same standard and judge them accordingly, it’s clear: More women asking the questions, please.
Danielle Campoamor is a freelance writer and editor, an abortion and reproductive justice advocate, and the recipient of a Planned Parenthood Media Excellence Award.