What the debates taught us

Ira Lacher: “For many Americans who only experience candidates through email appeals or in prepackaged videos, the debates provided an opportunity to see them as people.” -promoted by Laura Belin

Now that the first Democratic presidential debates have come and gone, what have we learned?

Forgetting and ignoring what the national media have said, here’s what I learned from my own and others’ observations from two nights of debate-watching parties.

1. Some hangers-on persist

Climbers included, from Wednesday’s debate: Julian Castro, who was well-spoken and above the fray; Tulsi Gabbard, who made some good points and proved she wasn’t the DINO [Democrat in name only] her critics have accused of her being; and Jay inslee, who broke through as more than a one-issue (climate) candidate. On Thursday, Eric Swalwell, though focusing almost exclusively on younger voters, showed poise and determination.

2. More lost ground

On Wednesday, they included John Delaney, whom social media mercilessly ridiculed; Tim Ryan, who angered most everyone at the watch party by saying the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan until we win the war; and Bill de Blasio, who grossly misstated that he had a good relationship with the NYPD and whom one person described as a “bully.”

Thursday, Andrew Yang was given short shrift by moderators but hardly made an impact when he did open his mouth. Kirsten Gillibrand focused on women but needed to raise her stature dramatically; she didn’t. Same with Michael Bennet, who seemed somewhat confused early on. John Hickenlooper attempted to defend his tenure as governor of Colorado but almost never made it into the venue; when he did, he came off as the oldest candidate by demeanor. And Marianne Williamson proved that the love she professes includes New Zealand.

3. Middle-tier candidates sink slightly

Debate party attendees Wednesday may have appreciated Amy Klobuchar’s obvious laugh lines, but the rest of America didn’t. Nor did they give Beto O’Rourke many high marks for looking like what he is: out of his element. The party was hosted by a Cory Booker supporter, so everyone gave him kudos, but I’ve seen him do better. He should have been more spontaneous and inspiring among that B-squad lineup.

4. Stars remain out.

Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren exhibited the same determination — some would call it stridency — she has shown throughout the campaign, for better or worse.

In Thursday’s main event, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris took the stage. In my opinion, three of the four enhanced their appeal, while one did not: Sanders. It seemed he answered every question with his continuously harsh drumbeat on economic inequality. While this message appeals to his hard-core supporters, it didn’t seem to elevate him to the level of Trump-beater.

On the other hand, Joe Biden had the most to lose, and he refused to buckle. Defensive at times, he maintained his message: “I did it with President Obama.” Whether that appeals to enough caucus-goers and primary voters will be seen in the next seven months.

Buttigieg was the serene voice above the fray. Never has his level-headedness been as apparent as it was when contrasted with the hectoring style of his nine rivals Thursday. Some may argue that he needs to be more emotional to elicit a “yeah!” from voters. But the applause lines he generated did so from nodding heads.

Kamala Harris, on the other hand, performed masterfully, showing off her acumen as a trial lawyer. She constantly evoked applause with references to her childhood and her motherhood and demonstrated an empathy that few others mustered. If there were a clear winner in either of these debates, it was she.

For many Americans who only experience candidates through email appeals or in prepackaged videos, the debates provided an opportunity to see them as people. Voters will have the opportunity to see some of them again. Others will fall by the wayside, perhaps sooner than anyone thought.

Top image: Cropped from a photo Lan Duong posted on Twitter of a Kamala Harris debate watch party in Des Moines on June 27. The author attended a different party that night.

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