MANCHESTER, New Hampshire— Donald Trump is dictating the terms of the 2020 Democratic primary. And if there was any doubt, it was dispelled within minutes during Friday night’s debate.
Appearing just days before the New Hampshire primary and after the disastrous Iowa caucuses, the seven White House aspirants spent a good chunk of their evening not debating each other but grappling with the muck that the president would throw at them.
It started from the beginning with a simple question: Would Trump effectively weaponize the label of “Democratic socialist” against the party that its informal frontrunner, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has so readily adopted.
“Why shouldn't Democrats be worried?” Sanders was asked, to which he replied: “Because Donald Trump lies all the time.”
But it only extended from there. Trump’s acquittal during his Senate impeachment trial was an early topic. So too were his attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, over his business activities in Ukraine.
“Whoever is the nominee the president is going to make up lies about them,” Biden stressed in response, his voice registering just a tinge of sorrow, as if acknowledging that the “lies” had, indeed, worked.
At another juncture, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) admonished former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for lacking the experience to take on the presidency—a line she’s used before but this time with Trumpian thematics. “We have a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us,” she stressed. For good measure, Buttigeig responded not by emphasizing the experience he had but by framing it as an effective contrast to what Trump might offer voters in the general election—from his Midwestern roots to his military service. “If we want to beat this president we have to move on from the playbook we have relied upon in the past and unify this country around a new and better vision,” he said.
Every re-election contest is, to a large degree, a referendum on the incumbent in office. And 2020 is no different. But rarely is the discussion so plainly driven by fear about how that incumbent might act. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum spent 2012 debating who was more conservative, not if it was wise to make such a claim lest Barack Obama use it against them. Never was there a conversation about whether they should not run a candidate because his or her adult child may be used against them.
But Trump has a unique ability to set the terms and conditions of the conversation. And the degree to which he has begun affecting the Democratic primary, just days before voters head to the polls on Tuesday, has become increasingly evident.
On the trail from Iowa to New Hampshire, several voters told The Daily Beast that they were hesitant about voting for Biden, not because they didn’t appreciate his candidacy but because they feared the damage that would be done to him by Trump. And back in Washington, D.C., there is a new prevailing fear among Democratic operatives—mainly, that the party is depressing its own voters by focusing so intently and obsessively on Trump alone. As Buttigieg conceded at one point in the debate, there was “a sense of exhaustion.”
That exhaustion has morphed into abject fear among top party operatives, who sense that the narrative of the election is quickly getting away. “There is no doubt that Trump is a singular force and motivates a lot of people,” said Guy Cecil, the head of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, which has launched a multi-million dollar voter registration effort. “But clearly that is not sufficient.”
And the exhaustion has manifested itself in a primary election that, at times, can feel a bit sleepy. There have been relatively few campaign events in the days since Iowa—indeed, some candidates have completely left the trail. And while the candidates sparred with each other at various junctures on Friday—most notably over who was most pure when it came to campaign finance—the jabs were comically muted by historic standards. No one on stage piled on Biden when, during a question about the courts, he left out the role he played in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination; no one pointed out that Buttigieg’s campaign had made overt signals for super PAC help even as he decried super PACS. No one seemed inclined to express concerns about Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. And when Sanders was presented with an op-ed written by a surrogate calling into question Biden’s record on race, he decided to affirm his support for Biden, not his surrogate.
Mortal Kombat this was not. It was barely Mario Kart.
Instead, the candidates often found themselves debating the various nuances of the policies that they all agreed upon. They affirmed their support for appointing justices who would uphold abortion rights and they registered their fears about military entanglements abroad. At various junctures, they took on positions that would have seemed positively out-of-place during Democratic debates in cycles past: from decriminalizing the possession of certain drugs to proudly giving the proverbial middle finger to the gun lobby.
“I will not be intimidated by the NRA,” said Sanders, in the process of defending his record on gun policy.
What this means for the primary itself seems almost impossible to determine since no one seems to be able to determine how the primary is going at all.
The debate was not without its stand out. Klobuchar, who has hovered on the cusp of the top tier for weeks, turned in a strong performance hitting the two frontrunners Sanders and Buttigieg without sustaining any jabs herself.
“I do not have the biggest name up on this stage, I don't have the biggest bank account,” she said in her closing statement. “I'm not a political newcomer with no record. But I have a record of fighting for people.”
Just four days from the New Hampshire primary, Sanders and Buttigieg, who have each enjoyed recent polling bumps in the state, came into the debate with targets on their backs. After each declaring victory in Iowa’s caucuses on Monday, the two leading contenders in the Granite State sought to extend that momentum to the stage. Biden, who finished a disappointing fourth, remarkably chose to start the debate by conceding that he would not win the primary in New Hampshire. And Warren, who has continued to lose significant ground in New Hampshire, was notably absent from much of the discourse happening in her neighboring state, until putting in some digs at Buttigeig at the end.
The uncertainty of it all was underscored during a segment towards the end, when talk turned to a candidate who wasn’t even on the stage: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Hands on his lectern, Sanders could hardly conceal his disgust that all his work squeaking out a raw vote win in Iowa and positioning himself for victory in New Hampshire could be wiped out by a well placed—and heavily funded—ad campaign.
“I guess if you’re worth $60 billion … you have a slight advantage,” the senator said about Bloomberg, who is skipping the first four contests. “That is nonsense.”