(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Well, that was long.
Those who thought the Democratic debate Thursday night — a marathon session lasting more than 2 1/2 hours — would be important because it was the first showdown between former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren were bound to be disappointed, because politics doesn’t actually work that way, at least outside of bad movies, TV shows and Marco Rubio campaigns (OK, it sometimes works that way). Political disputes aren’t actually settled in direct combat, especially the high-school debate version of it. The ABC News personality George Stephanopoulos nevertheless tried to bait Biden and Warren (and, to a lesser extent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont) into fighting over health care, and all three of those candidates dominated the early part of the event, but no one threw a knockout punch because those are, for the most part, fictional.
Indeed, Biden, Warren and Sanders — the best-known candidates, with plenty of party actors who support them and plenty of other resources — didn’t really have much at stake in this debate. Sure, it was a chance to impress some people or to slip up conspicuously, but most debate effects are short-term and wear off quickly. That’s always been true, and those who forgot it from previous cycles could have watched the short-term dip Biden took in the polls after doing badly in one encounter in the first debate back in June. He recovered within a few weeks.
No, the candidates who had the most at stake were those who haven’t caught on yet but might well be serious contenders if they do ever break through because they have conventional presidential credentials and orthodox positions on public policy. That was especially true for Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and for former Housing Secretary Julián Castro. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke might fall in that category, too. Each of them still theoretically has a chance at the nomination, but their windows are closing, and so this debate and the next one in October really are critical for them. Moving up only a few percentage points — a five-point mini-surge up to 6% or 8% in horse-race polls — really could create a larger surge, and perhaps a top-four finish in Iowa, where the caucus on Feb. 3 will be the first presidential contest of 2020.
(Senator Kamala Harris of California is probably doing well enough that her window isn’t closing yet; the remaining candidate on the stage, the entrepreneur Andrew Yang, is actually polling a little better than some of the others, but there’s little sign of any support from party actors, and he would be unlikely to get the nomination no matter what happens in the debates.)
Here’s where immediate debate analysis, however, runs into a wall, because what really matters is what happens next. Booker, Klobuchar and Castro all had what seemed to me to be good moments Thursday night. So did Buttigieg and O’Rourke. But there’s no way to guess whether those moments will be highlighted on MSNBC and CNN, or become clips that get momentum on Facebook or Twitter, or otherwise get people talking and thinking about candidates other than the polling leaders. Of the five, the one who came most committed to an apparent high-risk, high-reward strategy was Castro, who directly confronted the 76-year-old Biden with a thinly veiled attack on him over age. Most of the political scientists and journalists in my Twitter feed thought it went poorly, but who knows how it will look to regular voters — or, perhaps more importantly, whether it will get enough pickup to make voters aware of Castro’s presence and start treating him as a major candidate.
Meanwhile, the horse race is only part of the campaign. Debates are important because of policy discussions, with candidates forced to stake out policy positions and priorities as part of their party’s efforts to reach consensus on what they will do if they win. I heard a lot of complaints from journalists as the debate went on because the ABC News moderators went over familiar ground, especially on health care. But that’s how the process is supposed to go: Candidates set out positions, get pushback, assess what’s viable, and either modify their ideas or stick with them.
That process works best when moderators toss out policy questions, especially simple ones that let the candidates go where they want. ABC’s moderators sometimes did that, but sometimes fell short, resorting to gotcha questions. In a long segment at the end asking the candidates to riff on professional setbacks, they abandoned policy altogether. As a result, a fair number of topics, from Russia to reproductive rights, were ignored or touched on only briefly. Of course, that’s one of the reasons to have multiple debates.
Meanwhile, the 10 candidates on the stage (half the number that participated in the June debates) comprised a respectable group; with the exception of Yang and perhaps the relatively inexperienced Buttigieg, it’s easy to imagine any of them being competent presidents. Not, to be sure, presidents who would draw a lot of Republican support; even the supposed moderates such as Biden and Klobuchar are mainstream liberals who would probably be similar ideologically to former President Barack Obama if they were elected. But they all seem comfortable talking about public policy, foreign and domestic, and if anything the conversation moved too deep into process — except to those of us who are thrilled by discussions of budget reconciliation and Byrd rule reform.
And it’s only a few more weeks until they do it all again.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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