First of all, Amy Klobuchar won. She’s gotten better and better as these debates have gone on. No single killer answer that I remember, but steady throughout, and her hair wasn’t doing that weird shaking thing. She was smart to praise Mitt Romney. Toward the end, she told the old FDR story about the man crying as his funeral cortege passed by and “the reporter goes, sir, did you know the president? The guy says, no, I didn’t know the president, but he knew me.” Gets ’em every time.
After the debate, over on MSNBC, Chris Hayes was asking undecided New Hampshire voters if the debate helped them make up their minds, and there was big applause when Klobuchar was mentioned. Chris Matthews agreed. “She looked like a president,” he said. “I think she’s a leader, and she showed it tonight.”
It remains to be seen if that impression, which she’s made on previous debate nights, impacts voters this time. She did throw a couple punches. Again, she dinged Bernie Sanders on Medicare for All (while still managing to say a few Minnesota-nice words about him). She took a swipe at Pete Buttigieg about his youth and lack of experience (while still managing to say a few Minnesota-nice words about his military service).
But overall this was, I think, a far more polite affair than most of us were expecting. Sanders was tweeting today about Buttigieg being a friend of the billionaires. But when the moment came, I thought he threw a pretty soft punch. And Buttigieg, from whom I was expecting a stronger return of serve—remember that blistering exchange he had with Elizabeth Warren about the wine cave, when it seemed like she zinged him, but his comeback snowed her?—didn’t even bother.
Remember the Obama-Hillary New Hampshire debate of 2008? “You’re likeable enough, Hillary?” There was some serious ice there. Much more tense than anything tonight.
Sanders was good, played an error-free game. If he’s still a couple points ahead of Buttigieg, I saw no reason he’d have lost any ground. Joe Biden tried to nail him on something I’ve wondered why no one has really attempted before, to make him come up with a number on middle-class taxes on his M4A plan. But Joe botched it, didn’t ask the question in the right way. Sanders wriggled away. He has his rap; he speaks in moral absolutes that obscure lots of life’s complicated realities but that tends to work on a debate stage where there’s no time for complexity.
When it comes to Biden, all people look for now are the gaffes, but I thought he had a couple of strong moments. He was more effective hitting Sanders on guns, which still could be a problem for Sanders going forward. “The world has changed, and my views changed” will be good enough for the Bernie Army, but I could see this issue hurting him in California if somebody really goes after him, so to speak, with both barrels. It was great that Biden asked the audience to stand and applaud Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. I’m glad that one of them thought to make such a gesture on this day, yet another sickening day in America. He at least reminded us better than any of the rest that we live in a country whose ideals are being corrupted beyond belief.
Buttigieg had a good night, too. People took some shots at him, but they were soft. He swatted them away pretty easily. He had no moment tonight that’s going to make people go “Wow!” But he did have one moment that I admired. He was asked if Democrats would be making a mistake by nominating Biden because of all the Ukraine business. Instead of seizing advantage, he said: “No. And we’re not going let them change the subject. This is not about Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden or any Biden. This is about an abuse of power by the president. Look, the vice president and I and all of us are competing, but we’ve got draw a line here.” Good for him.
Following along on Twitter, there was a sense that Elizabeth Warren disappeared a bit in the middle of the event. She was good in the way that she’s always good. She’s honest, she means it, and you can tell with her that if she actually were president, she’d really try. I think she’d try the hardest of any of them. If Plan A didn’t work, she’d pursue Plans B, C, D, E, and Z. That passion came across as it always does.
But she’s in a tough place. She’s in fourth, behind Biden, and it’s weird, because she’s from next door. She has faced sexism, no doubt about it. At the same time, a candidate in fourth place should maybe try to think of some way to use a crucial debate to bring something new to the table, inject some new energy into the affair. But I know that’s easier said than done.
I doubt this debate changed much, but I wonder what blocks it might have moved around. If Klobuchar gained, was it at the expense of Buttigieg or Biden or Warren, which would help Sanders? Or just at the expense of Undecided?
We’ll know Tuesday, unless of course we don’t, which is no longer a throwaway punch line.