HOUSTON – With the primary race tightening and the next Democratic debate creeping closer, a raising of the bar for ABC’s Democratic Debate in Houston left a number of party hopefuls behind. Only 10 candidates took the stage, as questions generally adhered to themes of previous debates. Notably, there wasn’t any real stand-out moment in the night, though calls for civility within the party sometimes resulted in less than civil barbs between the candidates.
Some of the Democratic hopefuls spent their time on stage targeting Biden and the two other frontrunners – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – while Klobuchar and Buttigieg took the opportunity to argue for unity and civility.
Most took at least a moment of their time to praise Beto O’Rourke’s efforts in El Paso following a mass shooting that occurred just a month ago.
Last night’s debate did raise questions about themes of civility in the primary, which has notably grown more competitive with every passing month. With Biden tackling his closest competitors Sanders and Warren, and himself facing vociferous jabs from Julián Castro, the feeling of a three-way primary became increasingly apparent. Sanders and Warren – closely aligned politically and ideologically – continued their apparent alliance while facing criticisms of their shared policies back-to-back, showing again their refusal to go up directly against one another. With hot topics including radicalism, civility, competing healthcare plans and gun control the key focal points coming into the debate, the ABC moderating team of George Stephanopolous, David Muir, Linsey Davis and Jorge Ramos ended up covering a much wider variety of topics.
I will go through the candidates themselves, and review those that I think will benefit the most from last night’s performance.
Elizabeth Warren: Though she’s still averaging second in the polls, Warren has the means to unite both the moderate and further left movements of the party, having won over a base of support from a variety of political leanings. Moving into this debate, she led with a strong populist progressive message and kept to it. Despite facing heat from Biden and others, I thought Warren was able to effectively deflect critiques of her plans and frame them in a way that Sanders – hampered by losing his voice on the campaign trail – could not. Moving past this debate, I believe Warren – who appeared both the devout progressive and the steadier alternative to Sanders – will see an objective boost in the coming weeks.
Beto O’Rourke: Overcoming his previous lackluster debate performances, I think Beto came across as personally affected by the increased gun violence in his home state. The candid, emotional and relatable speaker who nearly toppled Ted Cruz in 2018 returned last night, and he withheld none of his grief and frustration at the horrors of gun violence and the inaction that has followed. O’Rourke ended with a bold and uncompromising message for the future of gun control.
Kamala Harris: Harris is the one candidate on stage who underperformed dramatically, in my estimation. Her previous debate performance set a high standard, and her campaign has been trailing to follow through ever since – with a lacking stage presence, a pivot from policy and solutions to ill-humored callouts at Biden and Donald Trump, Harris seemed to search endlessly for one-liners and soundbytes but failed to captivate.
This practice is substantial for a candidate that has struggled neck-and-neck with Pete Buttigieg to surpass the stasis of a “Tier 2” candidacy, and has briefly garnered surges of appeal from both progressive and moderate bases in the past, only to steadily lose them to more agenda-solidified opponents like Warren or Biden. Kamala really needed to break the pattern last night; she needed to stand out and not be remembered solely for her “15 seconds of fame” surge. Unfortunately for her, that didn’t happen.