Chris Cillizza's winners and losers from the fifth Democratic debate

Sen. Amy Klobuchar came out swinging during the MSNBC/The Washington Post Democratic presidential debate. In the first hour, she spoke more than any other candidate except Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Posted: Nov 21, 2019 6:10 AM
Updated: Nov 21, 2019 6:10 AM

The fifth Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential campaign is in the books.

With only six candidates having qualified for the next debate in December, this was a last-chance, uh, chance for some of them to make the case to voters that they deserve to stay in this race.

I watched and took some notes on the best and the worst of the night that was.

Below, my winners and losers.

Winners

Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator has been desperately searching for a moment over the first four debates -- and she might just have found one Wednesday night. Klobuchar was one of the few people on stage to take on South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (more on that below) and her point about a woman -- still -- not being elected president was strong: "If you think a woman can't beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every day," she said. Klobuchar's biggest issue is that the pragmatic center lane has been dominated by Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden. Her performance on Wednesday night might just change that.

Andrew Yang: Sure, Yang didn't get the chance to say a single word in the first 30 minutes of the debate. (Sort of remarkable given that his arc in the race is directly upward.) But when Yang did get a chance to speak, he came across as, by far, the most relatable candidate on the stage. Yang's line when asked what he would say to Vladimir Putin after getting elected president (he dead-panned, "Sorry I beat your guy") landed well. Yang's candidacy still feels like it is too far in front of where people are -- he's not wrong about data being the new oil, and there are strong defenses for his universal basic income proposal -- for him to be a top-tier contender. But man, he has drastically over-performed expectations.

Kamala Harris: Unlike in the last few debates, Harris seemed much looser -- and willing to take a few chances. (She said that Trump had been "punked" on foreign policy at one point.) That looseness is likely the result of the fact that Harris recognizes she has very little to lose given her abysmal polling numbers and money troubles. But regardless of the reason, it worked for Harris for the night. She got the better of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in a debate over American foreign policy -- a reversal of a showdown between the two at CNN's Detroit debate in late July -- and came across as what her campaign wants her to be: A fighter for the average person.

Pete Buttigieg: It was as though the other nine candidates were totally unaware that polling released in the last few days showed the South Bend mayor as the front-runner in Iowa and surging in New Hampshire. With the exception of a light jab from Klobuchar, no one really took Buttigieg on -- and he notably appeared to get the best of Gabbard in a head-to-head over the military and the role the US should be playing abroad. At one point in the second hour, the moderators teed up Harris to hit Buttigieg on his lack of appeal with black voters. But she said she agreed with him! Buttigieg came across a bit too rote and programmatic for me -- at times it felt as though he was reciting a speech he memorized -- but his campaign will be thrilled that he walks away from this debate without a scratch on him. Plus, you will hear this line from Buttigieg a whole lot in the analysis of the debate: "I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small."

Losers

Debates: Debates are, um, about debating. As in, the candidates talking about where they differ on key issues so that voters are fully informed about the choices before them. That was not what happened in Atlanta on Wednesday night. Instead, the candidates were asked about issues on which they agree totally and completely -- what Democratic presidential candidate isn't going to support impeaching Trump??? -- or given wide berths to offer essentially practiced stump speeches on issues. An undecided voter tuning in to figure out where the differences are between the candidates would be sorely disappointed.

Joe Biden: The former vice president's opening answer was shaaaaaky. And it was made all the worse given that the question was an absolute softball: How did he feel about being attacked by Trump? In the middle hour of the debate, Biden found his footing; his answer on why he wanted to be president and why he was singularly ready to do the job was his best answer of the entire debate season. But then things turned. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker scored with a hit on Biden's equivocation on the legalization of marijuana. ("I thought you might have been high when you said it," Booker joked, to roars of laughter from the crowd.) And Biden committed something he is known for: An unforced error. In talking about domestic violence, he said that people have to just keep "punching" at the problem. I know what he meant. But that was definitely a poor choice of words. And then another: He said he had the support of the only black woman elected to the Senate. Except that he forgot that Harris was on the stage. "Proud to be the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. #DemDebate," tweeted Harris shortly after. (Biden appeared to be referring to former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate -- though not the only one. Moseley Braun is a strong Biden supporter.)

Health care: The issue that has been decisive in each of the last four elections (at least) is health care. It also happens to be the issue on which the four front-runners -- Buttigieg, Biden, Warren and Sanders -- disagree most clearly. So why then did we only have a few minutes of the debate dedicated to it? And none of the differences between the candidates -- "Medicare for All" or not -- were litigated in any meaningful way. Huh?

Tom Steyer: Quick, name something the billionaire said in the debate. Right. Same. And that's the problem. Steyer and his campaign had to be thrilled that Biden somewhat inexplicably picked a fight with him about his involvement in the coal industry, but that fight sort of fizzled before it ever really got started. Steyer isn't going anywhere -- he's got lots of money and is willing to spend it -- but he really needs to find a way to make an impression. And he didn't do it Wednesday night.

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