The (somewhat distracting) stage and backdrop Thursday night. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Gabriel Debenedetti, Intelligencer’s national political correspondent, attended the Democratic debate in Los Angeles Thursday night. I spoke with him about the decidedly feisty affair, during which Pete Buttigieg sustained multiple attacks from his rivals and Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar seemed to help their electoral cases.
Ben: So: it happened! Something we predicted might happen actually did! I speak of Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg’s testy exchange over fundraising and transparency, which came in the middle of a debate that started out dull and ended up as probably the most combative of the primary so far.
Gabriel: We probably shouldn’t give ourselves too much credit, it was pretty obvious that was gonna happen.
Ben: I know, but nothing ever goes according to plan at these things.
Gabriel: That was definitely the punchiest moment. I was surprised by how long they both went on it, given how frequently candidates have been cut off during fights like that in previous debates.
Ben: I guess that’s part of the advantage of having fewer candidates on stage.
Gabriel: Yes, certainly. As I tweeted, though, the shape of that fight was interesting because Warren has a clear opportunity to gain among Buttigieg voters (among his backers, she is the most common second choice), but Buttigieg simply has more of an interest in tearing Warren down — he’s the third-most common second-choice among her backers, far far far behind Sanders and Warren. So there was a telling asymmetry.
Ben: Did you think either came out particularly well or poorly there?
Gabriel: Really hard to tell. Klobuchar’s folks clearly feel that she benefited with her interruption, which was reminiscent of what she (and others, like Kamala Harris) have tried to do in previous debates. The thing about this disagreement, though, is that it allows Warren to drive her central message, whereas Buttigieg is by definition on defense, which is why he had to try turning it around to Warren’s own net worth and what he called her hypocrisy. We’ll see if that sticks to her. It certainly hasn’t so far.
Ben: And then Klobuchar and Buttigieg had a pretty spicy exchange, where she questioned him quite credibly on his electability. Most observers I’ve seen seem to agree she had (another) strong night. She also spoke the second most of any candidate, which is remarkable for someone who’s in fifth or sixth place.
Gabriel: Yes, though as I mentioned when we chatted earlier, Klobuchar is always given credit for a strong performance, and it doesn’t always translate. Obviously it was at a different scale today. She is very clearly in the mode of trying to make her Iowa pitch as starkly as possible.
Ben: The other notable thing, in my eyes, is that Joe Biden seemed really in control of his message and, well, his faculties.
Gabriel: Biden once again benefited by no one going after him, so he didn’t have to play any defense.
Ben: Right. It really is kind of amazing.
Gabriel: And when it seemed like he might, it was actually on issues he loves talking about — like being the voice of dissent in the Obama White House on Afghanistan, an account that’s corroborated by those who worked with him there/then.
Ben: I know nobody has benefited from going after him — we’ve discussed this a few times — but don’t they have to at SOME point? This whole notion that he’s going to implode on his own rests on some shaky foundations, it seems to me.
Gabriel: Why? If they think they can overtake him by driving a different positive message that appeals to voters even MORE than what he offers, what’s the point of trying something that’s failed over and over and over?
Ben: Well, the appealing-to-more-voters thing doesn’t seem to be working that well.
Gabriel: I mean, maybe we’ll talk again after the next debate in Iowa and I’ll be singing a different tune, but the easy counterargument to our “wow it’s so weird no one is attacking Biden” point is that, well, he’s NOT winning in Iowa.
Ben: Before you go: Anyone else you think helped or hurt themselves tonight?
Gabriel: I will be very curious to see whether Sanders benefits solely by being given an opportunity to share his message clearly and forcefully in direct contrast with Biden, over and over. There were moments when the stage felt like a two-way discussion, which Sanders obviously loves.