LOS ANGELES — Hold on, did you catch that? It sounded very much like a sentence flowing from the lips of former Vice President Joe Biden: Nouns and verbs strung together in a linear way — no detours or ellipses — that made a concrete point with clear meaning.
He had a whole bunch of them over the course of Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, easily his most commanding performance of the six encounters this year.
Also a bit unusual: A couple of self-deprecating quips from Sen. Bernie Sanders, along with some other at least moderately successful attempts at humor that are not always part of his debate repertoire, delivered in a playful style rather than a cranky and self-righteous one.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, too, had a strong debate, making her standard case for her brand of sensible midwestern centrism without the corniness and over-preparation that in previous debates was so evident. There were moments of plainly unfeigned irritation — aimed especially at Mayor Pete Buttigieg — that did not come off as irritating, as judged by audience reaction in the room at Loyola Marymount University and post-debate chatter.
On the eve of the holidays, in a national polity otherwise consumed by impeachment, probably the people paying the most attention to the PBS NewsHour/POLITICO debate were those who are pretty well hooked on this stuff. But they were rewarded for their perseverance with a debate that seemed striking for its lack of artifice and frequent evidence of intelligent life on stage.
Biden came off as both more articulate and relaxed in this debate, as he made old points in new and more effective ways.
Embedded in plenty of familiar rhetoric and ideological divisions — centrists and progressives arguing about electability and how far is sensible to go in expanding government-run health care — there were several spirited moments that were genuinely entertaining. This was not because they featured collisions in the demolition-derby sense but because they highlighted revealing differences in perspective and political style without eye-rolling contrivance.
A good example was the clash between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg, over whether he’s compromised by holding a fundraiser with rich donors at a “wine cave” featuring $900 bottles of the good stuff, or she is compromised by not collecting every dollar possible from people determined to beat Donald Trump and by projecting a superior air about ethical standards that she didn’t practice herself until recently.
Unlike some early 2019 debates, candidates did not come off as though they were laboring obviously to impress certain constituencies or project ideological personas out-of-sync with their past records or worldviews. What’s more, all seven candidates — even people sometimes dismissed as novelties like Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer — who met the Democratic National Committee’s polling and contributor thresholds to make the stage presented themselves as crisp, comfortable and fluent in the debate format.
That fluency must have grated well-credentialed candidates who didn’t meet the thresholds, like Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Booker, or former Obama housing secretary Julián Castro. The candidates in L.A. sounded fluent largely because they have had more opportunities to practice fluency.
This was most striking in the case of Biden, whose past debates have varied in a narrow spectrum between “well that wasn’t actually so bad” to “wow, that was really pretty bad.”
He came off as both more articulate and relaxed, as he made old points — in favor of incremental expansion of Obamacare rather than mandatory Medicare for All and touting his Washington and foreign experience — in new and more effective ways.
The evening started out in a perfunctory fashion, as it seemed candidates were determined to not move beyond the well-grooved tracks laid in previous encounters. But the whole stage seemed at once to exhale and show life after the first break.
POLITICO questioner Tim Alberta invoked former President Barack Obama’s recent interview saying many of the world’s problems stem from “old people, usually old men, not getting out of the way.” Alberta puckishly noted that Obama surely didn’t clear that line with the 77-year-old Biden. Biden shot with a smile that he was pretty sure his old boss “wasn’t talking about me.”
The two most left-leaning candidates also pushed back. Sanders, 78, said he disagreed with Obama about age, adding wryly this was “maybe a little self-serving.” Warren, reminded that she would be the oldest president ever inaugurated at age 71 in January 2021, responded to applause, “I would also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated.”
The debate reflected outside circumstances in revealing ways.
It’s not every day that you get a presidential debate one day after the president of the other party is impeached by the House. But most candidates didn’t take PBS moderator Judy Woodruff up on her request to explain why — unlike with Nixon during Watergate — public opinion remains largely frozen on partisan grounds, rather than reaching a broader consensus about holding presidents accountable. And after that first question these Democrats simply avoided the subject. That suggested the candidates’ appraisal that even many average Democrats have already moved on from the constitutional drama on Capitol Hill, perhaps in part because they regard Trump’s Senate acquittal as inevitable, and want to hear instead how Democrats propose to beat him at the ballot box.
This debate also made clear how eager rivals are to haze Buttigieg and halt his recent rise in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. In addition to the shots at the mayor from Warren, Klobuchar seemed both genuinely offended and also grateful for an occasion to get in his face when he said his views on immigration flow from life experience and weren’t “formed in committee rooms in Washington.”
She told the 37-year-old mayor that he sounded “dismissive,” and lectured him sharply on the substantive achievements she and others — including Biden, Warren and Sanders — who have served in the Senate, have produced.
The volley between them highlighted another important dynamic of the debate. The older candidates — Biden, Warren and Sanders — all gave effective performances. But their messages are by now highly familiar to voters who have been following the race for nearly a year.
It was younger candidates — Buttigieg and the 59-year-old Klobuchar, 40 years younger in one case and almost 20 in the other — that lately have been injecting dynamism into the race and presenting themselves to debate-watchers and voters in a new light.