An Upside-Down Debate Tests Whether These Clashes Matter

Why you should care

Because the second tier won on Thursday night.

Jennifer Psaki is a former White House communications director who served under President Barack Obama.

We just collectively survived a three-hour presidential debate among 10 Democratic candidates, and that doesn’t count the hours and days of breathless analysis of which candidate needs to do what and who might have a “breakout moment.”

The easiest measure, which also garners the most obsessive pundit analysis, is the polls and especially the impact at the top. So far, debate performances have done little to shake the Democrats’ big three: clear front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden (who had a terrible first debate and a mediocre second debate), Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Thursday night, the standouts weren’t competing in the headliner prize fight between Biden and Warren. Both did fine, and Warren was better especially in introducing more about her bio and Oklahoma roots. Sen. Kamala Harris — who went hard after Biden in the first debate — held her own and tried a new strategy of going after President Donald Trump, but overall was just OK.

Instead, the night belonged to the next group of candidates, the ones far too many are calling “the also rans”: former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Yes, they all have roads to the nomination — some longer than others — but there is room for movement from the second tier for a couple of reasons.

As Americans get to know more candidates better, they may see an alternative they like.

First, Warren is the only candidate of the top tier who has consistently gained support. While her rise has not pulled solely from Sanders, she is positioning herself as a better version of the progressive vision, with less screaming and more polish. There is only room for one of them at the end.

Second, if the goodwill and longstanding support for Biden shows any cracks, his voters might seek a moderate alternative to Warren.

Third, while the race has been described as a battle between the progressives and the moderates, ultimately Americans will be picking one human being, not one ideology. Most candidates and most Americans are not monolithic thinkers aligned cleanly with only progressive or only moderate views.

As Americans get to know more candidates better who haven’t had big national profiles like the top three, they may see an alternative they like. And the benefit of national debates is they can make you want to know more. 

In the same way catchy commercials send most of us to Google to check out a product or a sale, debates are an opportunity to introduce candidates, their personal story and what they stand for to the American public.

Booker showed the field how that is done Thursday night. He gave voters the glimpse of an optimistic, inclusive message that isn’t about tearing other people down (even if he did take a couple of shots at Biden in a post-debate interview on CNN).

That may not make him the nominee, but it is a vision that is desperately needed as we figure out how to take on Trump and offer something different.

Tonight also put O’Rourke back on the minds of voters. The only line I am going to remember is when he said, “Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15.” It won’t make him the nominee, but it laid the marker down for how bold the proposals to address the crisis of gun violence need to be and should be this year.

When I worked for John Kerry during the Democratic presidential primary only sixteen years ago, proving street credentials on protecting the Second Amendment was so important that I remember a discussion about looking for slow pheasants (or another similar semi-expendable bird) so that we could hold a public event where he could go hunting and shoot one. It would be political suicide for a Democratic candidate to go hunting with the media during this primary. O’Rourke didn’t hold back, and that should hit a nerve at a time when we are facing a crisis around gun violence.

The top tier has felt untouchable with Biden, Warren and Sanders — and Harris circling in and out. And the frame of the race as a standoff between the progressives and moderates has felt set in stone. But campaigning and the debates have made the field a little better and the discussion less of a war between party wings.

Thursday night also showed the candidates from the second tier are not running as also-rans. And I doubt anyone who watched the debate is counting them out.

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