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Why President Trump was the real winner of the Democratic debates

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To the attention of millions of Americans, the Democratic Party held its first primary debates last week in Miami. Analyzing both nights, there were few notable changes in the race, regardless of some candidates enjoying good moments or rough patches. Indeed, the candidates sparred over fundamental issues including health care, immigration, and the economy, exposing the deep divide between the moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic Party. But in my view, only one candidate managed to distinguish themselves from the crowded field in a way that will be both significant and meaningful over the long term of this primary campaign.

Pete Buttigieg was the clear breakout star of the second debate this week. The South Bend mayor delivered a series of persuasive arguments and challenged Joe Biden for which candidate has the most compelling policy alternatives to President Trump. Of course, Kamala Harris had the moment that captured the most attention, challenging the former vice president on his past positions on race, however, it is apparent to me that Buttigieg is a candidate better prepared for the long term of this primary campaign.

One of his strongest moments came as he was accusing Republicans of religious hypocrisy over supporting the hardline Trump administration approach to immigration. Invoking his Christian faith, Buttigieg argued strongly that the Republican Party has “lost all claim to ever use religious language” because it allowed the family separation policy to continue. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg said on stage. “We should call out hypocrisy when we see it.”

Buttigieg, who indeed stands out as a moderate candidate in this field, was able to capitalize by making strong generational points and being as a fresh face with innovative ideas and pragmatic proposals. Buttigieg conveyed some substantive policy solutions and real alternatives to President Trump and the Republican Party in a way that nearly all of the candidates who debated on the first night before him were unable to.

During the first debate, when Julian Castro challenged every candidate on stage as to whether they would repeal the current law which makes illegal entry a federal misdemeanor, several of the candidates agreed that it should not be a crime to illegally cross the border. This was a shocking moment and is indicative of how few candidates in this crowded field actually possess the policy solutions or effective alternatives to those of President Trump that are necessary to win the White House next year.

Further, in what may have been a first in a presidential debate, Buttigieg exhibited humility and admitted that he fell short when asked about the recent shooting of a black man by a white police officer in his city of South Bend. “We are obviously not there yet, and I accept responsibility for that because I am in charge,” Buttigieg said when he was asked about the lack of diversity in the South Bend police force. “Because I could not get it done,” Buttigieg explained. “My community is in anguish right now.”

His admission of fault stood in direct contrast to Biden, who was on the defensive nearly the entire night of debate, as candidates went after the heavyweight leader of the pack with everything they had. To be clear, all of his Democratic contenders are actively running against him, given that he leads in most national polls by double digits. While Biden was certainly on the defensive during the second debate, he was generally able to hold his ground and stick to his strategy of running a high level campaign as a unifying candidate with moderate policy alternatives to President Trump. 

Biden had the challenge of conveying persuasive policies while defending his record against attacks from his progressive contenders. Even in his worst moments, he remained the focus. One of the tensest exchanges took place on the issue of race and civil rights, as Kamala Harris attacked Biden for his words about finding “common ground” with segregationists, saying that it was personally “hurtful” to so many people of color like her.

Though this has been lauded by many as the most consequential moment of the debate, it is unlikely this will shift the primary race in a significant way. Still, this exchange was one of many that exposed the deep racial and cultural tensions between the moderate faction and the progressive faction today of the Democratic Party, something Biden will have to find a way to address if he hopes to maintain his top status.

While many voters were hoping these debates would give clarity on this overcrowded field, both nights of the debates achieved essentially the opposite. Indeed, the only clear winner who emerged from these first debates was President Trump. I say this because the debates put the chaos within the Democratic Party on full display in primetime, all while President Trump addressed pressing global issues like Iran and China.

This is not to say that President Trump is necessarily succeeding in either area. But as the crowded field of Democratic candidates squabbled on stage and jabbed at one another, President Trump was functioning as the commander in chief on these serious matters. Regrettably, regardless of the breakout moment for Buttigieg, the ability of Biden to hold his own, or the powerful speech by Harris, President Trump remains the winner here.

Douglas E. Schoen (@DouglasESchoen) served as a pollster for President Clinton. He is a political consultant, Fox News contributor, and the author of “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”

Tags Donald Trump Election Joe Biden Julian Castro Pete Buttigieg

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