Debate Night: The ‘On Politics’ Breakdown

Hi, and welcome to a special post-debate edition of On Politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

After months of volatility, the Democratic primary coalesced into a steadier pattern this summer: a two-tiered race, with former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders at the top, followed by a slim second tier.

And, after that, a whole lot of people who probably don’t have much of a shot at actually becoming president. (Sorry, folks!)

Last night’s debate didn’t appear to change that dynamic.

Yes, Mr. Biden occasionally lapsed into word salad with a dressing of mixed metaphors. An answer on racial disparities in education moved through institutional segregation, school psychologists, teacher pay, and his current and late wives, and ended, somewhat confusingly, by urging parents to keep a record player on at night for the sake of their children. Then, he pivoted to Venezuela. “Well, that was quite a lot,” said Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, when his turn came.

But Mr. Biden survived a flurry of attacks on his health care plan, his vote for the Iraq war, trade policy and even his age. He energetically went after Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders for supporting a “Medicare for all” health care system, and shrugged off a fairly clumsy shot by Mr. Castro aimed at elevating persistent whispers about his mental fitness.

Much of the field is staking their campaigns on an erosion of Mr. Biden’s support, either over time or with a massive, candidacy-killing gaffe. Once voters start paying attention, his numbers will fall, they argue. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Neither Ms. Warren nor Mr. Sanders subscribes to that philosophy. Both are running on their vision for the country: embracing fiercely liberal positions and sweeping change. Much of last night’s debate — most strikingly, the back-and-forth over health care that dominated the opening section — reflected that larger conversation over the direction of the party.

The fact that neither of them had a breakout moment is unlikely to do much to change their standing in the race. They have a message and they know why they’re running, and it’s based on ideas that are much larger than their own biographies.

As for the other seven people on the stage … well, they needed a moment. And they sure tried hard to get one. Senator Kamala Harris laughed mightily at her own canned jokes, comparing President Trump to the Wizard of Oz. “When you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” she chuckled. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke spoke emotionally about the mass shooting in El Paso, his hometown. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he promised, following instructions by ABC News to avoid more serious profanity. And Andrew Yang promised to give 10 lucky people $12,000. (Is that legal? It’s kind of unclear.)

Some did well: Senator Amy Klobuchar had stronger opening and closing remarks than in either of the past two debates. Senator Cory Booker continued to be an effective debater, despite his rather profligate use of the word “dagnabbit.”

Will any of those moments boost them into the top tier of this race? I’m skeptical.

There are four months and 21 days before the Iowa caucuses. Politics is nothing if not unpredictable. Something very well may happen that will change the direction of this race.

But it most likely didn’t happen in Houston last night.

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