Yesterday’s Democratic debate in Atlanta played out in front of Americans already exhausted by two weeks of tumultuous House impeachment hearings. At times it felt like the candidates were doing their best to offer beleaguered viewers a much-needed break from the constant stream of combative news clips cascading from Capitol Hill.
For the most part, they succeeded.
What voters saw last night was a mostly forgettable affair unlikely to spur big changes in the wide-open campaign to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE stumbled into gaffe after gaffe. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE (I-Vt.) offered viewers another recitation of his “I wrote the damn bill” one-liner on “Medicare for All.”
Harder to gauge is whether anyone is still paying attention. A Suffolk Iowa poll conducted after October’s Democratic debate showed two-thirds of likely caucus-goers opted-out of watching. If ratings are any indication, 2020 hopefuls are playing to smaller audiences every time they take the stage. Yesterday’s debate, held on the same day when Ambassador Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Biden to mark Tuesday anniversary of George Floyd's death Trump impeachment witness suing Pompeo, State over legal fees America's practice of 'pay-to-play' ambassadors is no joke MORE provided his blockbuster testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, strained the attention spans of even dedicated political watchers.
South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Blumenthal calls on Buttigieg to investigate American Airlines-JetBlue partnership LGBT film festival to premiere documentary about Pete Buttigieg MORE entered last night's debate as the newly-minted frontrunner in Iowa. After four debates where Buttigieg performed ably as a secondary character in a Joe Biden/Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE political drama, last night offered voters a chance to review Buttigieg the potential leading man.
He didn’t disappoint. Building on a campaign that has significantly eroded Biden’s claim to be the centrist candidate of choice, Buttigieg targeted swing voters in the American heartland with an impassioned call to end President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE’s ruinous trade war with China.
“We shouldn’t have to pay farmers to take the edge off of a trade war that shouldn’t have been started in the first place,” Buttigieg said before relating the stories of small farmers whose income has collapsed as a result of China’s ban on purchasing American crops. That message is likely to resonate among rural voters not only for its financial sense, but because Trump’s trade temper tantrum is a major driver of rising suicide rates across rural America.
In a rare moment of high drama, Buttigieg fended off attacks from fellow veteran Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardProgressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition YouTube rival Rumble strikes deals with Tulsi Gabbard, Glenn Greenwald MORE (D-Hawaii), who accused Buttigieg of inexperience and mischaracterized his support for security cooperation between Mexico and the United States by claiming Buttigieg wanted to invade Mexico.
Buttigieg’s counterpunches were cool and targeted, calling out Gabbard’s troubling relationship with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and decrying the attack, correctly, as “outlandish even by the standards of today’s politics.” Gabbard has been a thorn in the side of mainstream Democratic candidates at past debates, but she failed to corner Buttigieg.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who for the last month sat at or near the top of most national polls, recently faced withering fire from Buttigieg, Biden and other centrist candidates over her plan to transition the United States to a Medicare for All plan within three years of her inauguration. You wouldn’t know any of that from the debate, where Medicare for All was covered only in brief.
Faced with a surprising lack of direct attacks, Warren was free to deliver much of her tried-and-true campaign stump speech to the audience assembled at Tyler Perry’s new film studio. That included outlining her progressive housing policy and highlighting the importance of securing generous paid family leave for workers faced with the impossible choice of having a child or remaining competitive in the workforce.
“Housing is how we build wealth in America,” Warren said. “The federal government has subsidized the purchasing of housing for decades for white people, and has said for black people ‘you’re cut out of the deal.’” In one of her strongest moments, Warren pledged to end housing discrimination and implement new policies to even a playing field distorted by generations of racially-biased government housing policies.
On an evening when Buttigieg and Warren dominated the stage, Biden, still the frontrunner in most national polls, succeeded only in raising more questions about his fitness for office. In a particularly ghastly moment, Biden claimed the endorsement of “the only black woman elected to the Senate” as Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris MORE (D-Calif.), the second black woman elected to the Senate, looked on in confusion.
For Biden, whose campaign now survives almost entirely on his claim to be untouchable among African American voters in South Carolina, his inability to remember the African American senator standing just to his right is likely to generate even more anxiety among already concerned donors.
The fifth Democratic debate offered its share of quips and barbs. But faced with historic impeachment hearings and Trumpian rage-tweets, it’s unlikely yesterday’s highlights will linger in voters’ minds. That’s great news for the top four candidates — and a dangerous trend for everyone else.
Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly makes appearances on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.