The moderators of the fourth Democratic debate of this 2020 election season apparently decided that with 12 candidates on stage, even three hours wouldn’t be enough time for everyone to make opening statements.
Even so, they all found plenty of time to talk about why they think President Donald Trump should be impeached.
With that topic the focus of the first few questions on Tuesday night in Ohio, the candidates settled into their anti-Trump talking points — yet few of them shared their own vision for how they would lead America.
Billionaire Tom Steyer, in fact, introduced himself by reminding Americans this was his first debate and that President Trump was a criminal. Really? How did that slam give Ohio voters and everyone else a window into who he is or what Steyer would do as president?
It went downhill from there in terms of the candidates using their debate time to promote themselves vs. bashing Trump.
Here’s how both the frontrunners and the longshots faired in communication skills and styles on stage.
Confrontations and challenges. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is now leading in many polls, so it was no surprise she was the biggest target on Tuesday night. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, squared off with her on her refusal to give a “yes or no” answer about whether or not she’ll raise middle class taxes with her Medicare for All plan.
She deflected and never answered the question — even though he pushed her to do so several times.
This isn’t the first time Mayor Pete criticized Warren about sidestepping questions and being “extremely evasive.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said Warren was more focused on being punitive than lifting people up. Even tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro took swings at her about the impact of automation on jobs and corporations’ lack of loyalty to American workers.
Most interesting were the “challenges” that came her way from both Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) on two different topics. First, Gabbard challenged Warren to join her in calling for an end to a regime change in Syria. Warren clearly was surprised — but ignored it and responded by bashing Trump policies (and speaking over the moderator to do so).
Later, Harris pushed hard on Warren. She challenged Warren to join in her effort, in the name of corporate responsibility, for Twitter to shut down Trump’s account. Warren also ignored that and used the opportunity of extra time to say why she isn’t taking money from big-tech firms for her campaign.
No matter how hard Harris pushed, Warren didn’t take the bait; she stayed on her own message. None of these strikes by the longshots landed hard enough to shake Warren — and likely reinforced her current frontrunner status.
Candidates vs. moderators. With so many people on stage, it wasn’t surprising most of them not only talked over the CNN moderators but even held up fingers now and then and declared, “I’m not finished” or “This is important” — and barreled on.
In this fourth debate, as compared to the three previous encounters, the candidates ruled more than the moderators did.
But Gabbard struck out hardest when she talked of her disgust about the smears against her from CNN and The New York Times. She noted that one Times journalist even claimed she was “a Russian asset.” Other than Trump’s attacks on the media, we typically haven’t seen presidential candidates go after the press like this.
After an earlier debate, Gabbard was the most Googled candidate of all; let’s see if her strong stance on this issue on Tuesday night brings a repeat of that.
Eye contact and body language. Yang and Steyer were out of their element on the political stage. Yang was stiff and scripted; he spoke in a monotone. His signature tie-less fashion was accompanied by a “MATH” lapel pin. That might be considered cool at a tech or education conference, but for a presidential debate he risked turning off patriotic voters and may even have reinforced the appeal of former Vice President Joe Biden — who was wearing an American flag pin on his lapel.
Steyer faired far worse. He stared directly into the camera and never looked at the live audience, the other candidates, or the moderators. His tough talk couldn’t be taken seriously when he looked stiff and uncomfortable among the other candidates.
Communication with voters. Biden, who has fallen behind in the polls, needed a strong night. It didn’t happen. Right out of the gate, he looked shaken when asked about his son’s involvement with Ukraine. Biden also lost his train of thought and misspoke several times; some comments simply didn’t make sense.
He received fewer questions from moderators than in earlier debates, which gave him a lower profile on stage. This doesn’t augur well for his campaign.
The attempts by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to be more relevant as a candidate fell short. Her jokes went nowhere — which made her appear even more uncomfortable. She was the only one who said “when I’m president” — but her nerves got the better of her and she often spoke until she was breathless.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) repeatedly felt the need to remind fellow Democrats they should be going after Trump — not each other. This attempt at a “nice tone” hardly showed the “fight” most voters wanted to see in their chosen candidate.
All eyes were on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as he returned to the debate stage for the first time since his recent heart attack. Sanders’ rhetoric was significantly toned down. He looked confident if a bit frail as he smiled and joked with other candidates.
While Sanders didn’t have any knock-out punches, his actual presence on the stage, his thanks to others for their best wishes, and his commitment to continuing his campaign left an impression.
Most memorable. Bernie’s smooth return coupled with his jovial attitude offered a side of this candidate voters rarely see. Viewers likely won’t remember, however, the ho-hum performance of O’Rourke and Castro, however. Neither grabbed attention, with the exception of O’Rourke’s squabble with Buttigieg over gun policy. But it is doubtful any of them will bump beyond their single-digit poll numbers.
The next debate will be held in the Atlanta area on November 20 — that will likely bring forth the real frontrunners.