Pete Buttigieg, Riding High in the Polls, Gets a Pass in Muddled Democratic Debate

Michael Tomasky
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty

The oldest and most obvious rule of multi-candidate debates is that the frontrunner is going to get attacked. Happens every time. 

But it didn’t happen at Wednesday night’s Democratic debate. Pete Buttigieg is the frontrunner now, at least in the early states, so the conventional wisdom was that this was the night the others were going to put Pete through his paces.

Lo and behold, though, they didn’t. Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris both had obvious, hanging-curveball chances to thwack him, and both took a pass. Klobuchar’s moment came early, when a question invited her to belittle his experience and she chose not to do so, saying it was an honor to share the stage with him even as she stressed that women were held to a higher standard. Harris’ came late, when a question gave her a chance to follow up on an earlier criticism of Buttigieg on racial issues, and she said well, I was just responding to a question I was asked.

Yes, Tulsi Gabbard did attack Buttigieg, over that troops-in-Mexico thing, but she’s such a weirdo with such a clumsy touch—Buttigieg won the exchange easily, and did well overall—that she proves the point: attacking Buttigieg wasn’t worth the trouble. 

What gives there? The Occam’s Razor answer is that the rest of them aren’t taking the idea of Buttigieg as frontrunner seriously. And they’re probably right. Yes, he’s a good Iowa candidate, not just for the state but for the particular kind of Democrat who goes to caucus in Iowa. That one New Hampshire poll with him way ahead is pretty obviously an outlier. 

So where does he go from Iowa, even if he wins it? Speaking of Iowa: Did you notice that the undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers, coming off a historic win over Penn State, played at Iowa last Saturday? And those crusty, nocturnal cynics in Vegas had Iowa as the favorite. They just didn’t believe the Minnesota thing.

And what happened? The cynics were right. Minnesota lost. 

Buttigieg is Minnesota. Probably. At least, that’s what the other candidates seem to believe.

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So if he’s Minnesota, who’s Alabama? Actually, that’s a very fitting question, because this year in college football, even Alabama isn’t Alabama. This year in college football, nobody knows who’s No. 1. And it’s the same thing here. They’re all playing hot potato with the crown.

Any tectonic shifts? Klobuchar probably had the most stand-out-ish kind of night. She had a few good lines (“If you don’t think a woman can beat Donald Trump… Nancy Pelosi does it every day”) and she used her time well. Harris was good again for the first time in a long time. Cory Booker had a few interesting moments. The most noticeable one was toward the end, on marijuana, but at the beginning he dared to talk about growth, a supposed no-no in these left-ascendant times.

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Among the Big Three, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were steady. Warren actually handled Medicare for All well for the first time ever. She explained her new two-stage transition pretty plausibly. Sanders played error-free ball, mostly, and probably had his best moment on climate change. On Medicare for All, he was unapologetic, everything free, first week in office, which is of course impossible but which appeals to the people it appeals to.

Joe Biden was more complicated. He had his usual series of bizarre moments. It was weird to say we’re going to keep “punching away” at violence against women. He stepped on himself badly on the topic of his black support. First of all, why brag about being endorsed by Carol Moseley Braun, whose record as Illinois senator was far from stellar and whom nobody remembers? He said “only” black female senator. He meant first. But there are two. The second was standing on the stage. Ow.

He had some good moments and was having his best debate until then. He was good on being the commander in chief; also on letting his attorney general decide whether Donald Trump should be prosecuted. 

But that slip of the tongue that canceled Harris out of existence… is that the sort of thing that black people, black women in particular, might notice and talk about at church next Sunday? All these people who think he’s a dead man are, I think, being wishful. He has support among black and non-college voters (two-thirds of the party, that latter category) that the others can only dream of. But if his black support slips, we’re in a different ball game.

The debate came at the end of a long, exhausting day on Capitol Hill that was a good day there for Democrats. Maybe Gordon Sondland ate up all the emotional energy the political class had for Wednesday. Whatever the reason, the debate only ended up making everything more muddled than it was. We’re all confused about the state of this race, and this debate proved that the candidates are just as confused as we are.

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