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Larry Donnelly: We can expect a dramatic cull of the Democratic debate lineup before the next TV clash

Some observers will welcome a clearing out of the long-shots – but others may find it unnerving.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

ALL 20 OF the candidates who met the criteria to appear on the debate stage on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Michigan’s largest city arrived with something to prove.

The big five – Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and the man out in front with the enormous target on his back, former Vice President Joe Biden – had to simultaneously bolster their positions and stave off attacks from those in the trailing pack.

The shared ambition of the handful in the second tier – Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke – had to be to crack into the upper echelon.

The rest needed a strong performance that would make enough Democratic voters take notice to ensure that they would qualify for the third debate in Houston next month.

Even though the first ballots won’t be cast until February of 2020, the dreams of more than half the present aspirants will either be dead or on life support by September. In order to qualify to duke it out in Texas, the Democratic National Committee has decreed that candidates need to attract at least 2% support in four sanctioned polls and to obtain donations from 130,000 individual citizens from 40 different states.

That is more than double the requirements for the initial two debates. It will be a tall order for much of the field. And those who don’t make the cut will find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to carry on. Some observers will welcome clearing out the long-shots so that debates can be less chaotic and more detailed and substantive. Yet a dramatic cull so far ahead of when most Americans actually tune in is unnerving, as is the centrality of money to the DNC’s assessment of viability.

That said, how did they fare on Tuesday and Wednesday nights?

The liberals 

Coming into Tuesday, the focus was on probably the two most liberal primary runners: Warren and Sanders. Warren was excellent; she came across as an unapologetic progressive with an exceptional command of detail. Her scolding of former Congressman John Delaney – why run for president “just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for” – was memorable.

Bernie was impassioned and better than he was in the first debate. His vigorous rebuke of Congressman Tim Ryan with respect to healthcare coverage for union members under the Vermonter’s far-reaching reform initiative was another resonant moment.

Source: NBC News/YouTube

Simultaneously, one wonders at whether Warren’s often professorial tone and bearing is a political liability in the end and if the Democratic Party faithful, even those on the hard left, have moved on from the elderly Sanders.

The aforementioned Delaney and Ryan had decent outings. Delaney was absolutely right to state continually that grand ideas must be tempered by political realities. Moderates would subscribe to his philosophy of incrementalism.

And the Ohioan Ryan, arguing that the party has to talk to people who “take their showers after work” burnished his credentials as a Democrat who can win over Trump voters. It is unlikely that they will have moved the needle all that much this week, however.

Pete Buttigieg attempted to be a human bridge between the Warren/Sanders duo and the more moderate men and women on the stage. It was a smart tack to take and may further his reputation as a young man who challenges traditional labels and approaches to politics. He stays in the thick of things as he continues to raise a tremendous amount of money.

The surprise of Tuesday night was Montana Governor Steve Bullock. He didn’t make it into the previous debate, so this was the first time many would have seen him. As a Democrat in a state President Trump won overwhelmingly, Bullock inherently answers the crucial electability question in the affirmative. He was comfortable and charismatic.

His repeated use of the phrase “wish list economics” in assessing some of the policy offerings encapsulates the doubts of those who want to beat Trump at all costs and worry about nominating a candidate too far to the left. If any of the (relative) moderates got a boost on Tuesday night, it may well have been Governor Bullock. He still has an arduous journey ahead to get into the third debate.

Election 2020 Debate Montana Governor Steve Bullock. Source: AP/PA Images

The big beasts 

On Wednesday, Joe Biden was inevitably going to be the centre of attention, not in a good way from his vantage point. Indeed, most of his nine rivals tried to tear strips off the senior statesman. Nonetheless, Biden was the winner. He was not great. He never will be in this setting. He made several mistakes. But he was pretty good in offence and in defence when an awful lot of grenades were lobbed at him.

From the very beginning – when he jokingly asked Kamala Harris to “go easy on me, kid” – Biden was well-prepared for an onslaught of criticism. It has been posited that his remark to Harris was patronising and additional evidence that he is stuck in a time warp. But anyone who takes umbrage at what was a light-hearted jibe was never going to vote for Joe Biden.

Source: NBC News/YouTube

Others have suggested that it was a sign of weakness to stop abruptly when asked by a moderator. They don’t understand either that viewers find it annoying when politicians keep talking or that his advisers warned him to stick to the script and that he was most likely to make an unforced error when seeking to sneak in an extra word.

Biden delivered an emphatic opening statement which defended his party’s core values and excited the crowd. He was ready for the attacks posed most strenuously by Kamala Harris on forced school busing to achieve integration and Cory Booker on race and crime. He did not shirk from his record, defended it robustly and outlined his foes’ failings on these fronts. He turned Kirsten Gillibrand’s bizarrely telegraphed effort to use an arguably negative opinion piece he had written in 1981 about women in the workplace against him into a recitation of the legislation the veteran legislator championed to advance women’s rights.

And he owned his failings, in particular the vote to authorise President George W Bush’s war in Iraq. Finally, he was on a different page to the rest on health care and immigration. He firmly claimed the centrist mantle for himself. On immigration, he reiterated his stance that entering the country without permission should remain a crime and said “people should have to get in line” to come into the United States.

On health care, he asserted that Harris’s health care plan would cost tens of trillions of dollars versus his own (700 billion dollars). He also reminded viewers that hers, and not his, would force the roughly 1/3 of Americans who are very happy with the health care they currently receive to abandon their employer-sponsored plans, a daunting possibility.

He was speaking to the men and women who will ultimately select the occupant of the White House for the next four years. Many will approve of what they heard.

Still, Booker performed very well. He was articulate and compelling and made a very strong play for voters of colour. That he did made this an even more difficult night for Harris. As the widely perceived victor at the first encounter, she came under fire. For example, her decisions as a prosecutor were effectively critiqued by Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard is running low in the polls, yet has a dedicated following and is a capable, eloquent advocate.

While Booker bested Biden in a few of their exchanges, the poll topper’s team will be aware that Booker’s ongoing presence in the race actually works to their man’s advantage to the extent that he siphons voters of colour away from Harris. It is obviously months off, but this dynamic could be decisive in the early South Carolina primary, where black voters constitute a significant percentage of the electorate.

None of the others rose to the occasion. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was especially poor. His bellowing cry – “we will tax the hell out of the wealthy!” – was simplistic, unrealistic, utterly lacking in sophistication and downright embarrassing. It almost certainly made some wonder out loud: “What the hell is he doing on that stage?”

Of course, the usual health warning attaches to these musings. It’s early in the process and it’s foolish to extrapolate too much. But there will be political casualties between now and the next time the Democratic contenders get together. In this sense, too, a US presidential primary contest really is more a marathon than a sprint. Not everyone reaches the finish line. Some don’t get close.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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