David Mastio and Jill Lawrence grade Wednesday's Democratic debate in Atlanta:
David: These debates are paying diminishing returns for the Democrats. Nobody really went out on a limb to make a big statement either in their attacks on Donald Trump or in their jockeying with each other. So what's the point? Tonight didn't really change anything other than to give me the sneaking suspicion that none of these candidates have the fire to take on the president.
Jill: I am grateful that Medicare for All did not rear its head until the 18th minute of the debate, and it did not stick around long. I disagree with David (surprise) about the fire, though. I thought the candidates showed plenty of spunk, especially on Trump, impeachment and corruption.
Now, on to the grades...
David's grade: A. On his 77th birthday, the former vice president delivered his best performance yet. Yes, there were a few of those signature Biden moments. He apparently forgot that Kamala Harris exists, and he weirdly used "punching" to explain how he makes progress in fighting violence against women. But he’s right that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin don’t want him to be president.
Jill's grade: B+. Biden beat my expectations. It was reassuring to hear someone express familiar American values — like making the Saudis pariahs over the Khashoggi murder, and letting an independent Justice Department decide whether to prosecute former president Trump. And when Biden said we have to change a culture of violence against women by “punching at it and punching at it and punching at it,” that was not a sign of slipping with age. That was vintage Biden.
David's grade: W. What is he waiting for? Like Bernie Sanders, Booker didn’t bring anything new to his argument, until that closing statement. That was inspiring, but was it enough? I don’t think so.
Jill's grade: C+. The New Jersey senator hinted at ways he could define himself and stand out in this field when he said raising the minimum wage is fine but many people aspire to be entrepreneurs, that a wealth tax would be “cumbersome,” and that he started his career as a tax lawyer. But it never came together.
David's grade: A. Nobody laid a glove on him. He solidified his position as an Iowa and New Hampshire polling leader. He handled doubts about his ability to reach out to black voters with an honest comparison of his experience as a gay man to that of African Americans without saying they were the same.
Jill's grade: B+ The South Bend mayor defused one critique (on his inability to attract black voters) with grace and another (about his lack of experience) by touting his non-Washington resume and judgment. He also managed to strike one of the few optimistic notes of the evening, noting “extraordinary potential” in the American majorities ready to tackle issues like immigration and guns.
David's grade: C. She’s the only one who really tried to go after Mayor Pete and stuck with it, so she may get some notice for that, but other than that she was flat despite putting her Hawaiian heritage on display.
Jill's grade: D. The sooner she exits these debates, the better. She has some robotic party boilerplate down, but she's often in a blame-Democrats mode. During the debate the Trump War Room actually tweeted her statement that “Our Democratic Party, unfortunately, is not the party that is of, by and for the people” — with a 100% symbol. At one point a moderator started out, “Congressman Gabbard, as president…” Uh, no.
David's grade: C. Repeating “Kamala Harris for the people” won’t win it for her. Nor will pointing out that her whole career has been in government. At least she didn’t get in trouble over her hypocritical positions as a prosecutor. Her “Trump got punked” response on North Korea was the best foreign policy answer of the night.
Jill's grade: B-. She came across as tough when she said that “we have a criminal living in the White House” and that Trump had been “punked” by Kim Jong Un. But she also came across as preoccupied with identity politics — the candidate to best “rebuild the Obama coalition” and speak to people regardless of race, gender, geography, party, and so on. Does that cover everyone? She went through the list at least twice. I thought — hoped — that Democrats had transcended that way of thinking. It is not a winner.
David's grade: F. I think this was her worst shaking performance yet. She looks like she needs to see a neurologist. I can’t see her standing up to Donald Trump until she has that under control.
Jill's grade: B-. She got some mileage out of name checking (first and only to mention House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and almost-Georgia-governor Stacey Abrams) and her Senate record (“I have passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat in that gridlock of Washington”). But that is not the vision thing. In the more or less centrist lane, Biden and Buttigieg outdid her on that score Wednesday night. (I don't notice this shaking thing David keeps mentioning.)
David's grade: C. Tonight was a good example of why the Vermont senator is a fading candidate, and it had nothing to do with his recent heart attack. It's just that we’ve heard all his answers before, and nothing has really changed from 2016.
Jill's grade: B. He is as constant as a northern star, as Joni Mitchell might put it, with his trademark blunt rhetoric right out of the box: Trump as a historically corrupt, pathological liar, a health system that is cruel and dysfunctional, the terrible Iraq war that Biden supported and he opposed. He wants to bring home the troops — “and unlike Trump I will not do it through a tweet at 3 o’clock in the morning.” I don’t doubt that, but I do doubt he will have that chance.
David's grade: T (for term limits). A gimmicky process argument isn’t going to give him any more traction than his focus on climate change.
Jill's grade: C-. He is rich, he wants term limits and he’d be the climate president. Maybe that’s enough for some people. When will this field start shrinking instead of continuing to grow?
David's grade: F. The Massachusetts senator put on display of why she would be a terrible general election candidate. Asked how she would bring the country together, she answered with her wealth tax. She actually argued that Republicans care about it just as much as Democrats and Independents. That’s delusional.
Jill's grade: C+. Are these people getting worse, or have we just heard it all before? Warren opened with a good segue from impeachment to the money-corrupted political system that brought us stunningly unqualified ambassador Gordon Sondland, but it was downhill from there.
David's grade: D (as in the disappearing candidate). He spoke the least of the candidates, according to the Washington Post, and barely mentioned his signature issue, the $1,000 "freedom dividend." He did have a couple brave answers saying that “in many cases it would be better if a parent stayed home with the child” and acknowledging that the mass-shooting and right-wing terrorism problem in this country is a function of men and boys who “don’t have a path forward in today’s economy.”
Jill's grade: B-. Yang showed with his imaginary Putin conversation ("I'm sorry I beat your guy") that he can think on his feet. He's also funny, and seriously, how many women would know exactly which two countries in the world don't have paid maternity leave? But he's not going to be president, entertaining as that might be.
David Mastio, a libertarian conservative, is the deputy editor of USA TODAY's editorial page. Jill Lawrence, a center-left liberal, is the commentary editor of USA TODAY. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidMastio and @JillDLawrence
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democratic debate in Atlanta: Mastio & Lawrence grade 2020 candidates