Most importantly, I think there was more of a "shake-up" tonight compared to last night, where for the most part everyone just treaded water. Here we saw a candidate who had struggled to gain traction really shine (Gillibrand) and two who had been near the top really stumble (Harris and especially Biden).
Now for individual assessments:
- Joe Biden: Not a good night for him. True, he was in a tough spot, as he clearly had a target on his back and was taking a lot of heat from other candidates. But he didn't do himself any favors, either. He was garbled, he had little narrative other than "I was next to Obama when he did a bunch of great things", and his exchange with Harris on school busing was the worst moment in the debate that didn't involve Marianne Williamson speaking. This is the sort of performance that a lot of us feared would start his inevitable unraveling. C
- Bernie Sanders: While not exactly scintillating, I'd say this was a successful night for Sanders. Somebody drilled into him that he needed to not be overtly antagonistic to the other Democrats on stage, and he for the most part stayed disciplined on that score. The ending bit where he specifically complimented the other "good ideas on stage", before pivoting to his need for a political revolution, was the right frame. And while I don't think he really stood out, he didn't need to stand out -- he just needed to stand back and watch Biden go into free-fall. A-
- Kamala Harris: One of my early favorites, but I have to say I was not impressed. She seemed shaky and unsure of herself, like her nerves had gotten to her. She improved as the night went on, and got lucky that Biden's truly terrible answer on busing bailed her out at one point, but overall she did not seem ready for primetime and that surprised me. C+
- Pete Buttigieg: He's a good speaker, but not a lot else was going on. He'd clearly prepped the hell out of the question on the shooting in South Bend, and the answer wasn't bad, but he got baited into being defensive in an exchange with someone (Bennett?) that did not go in his favor. Still, on the whole, he probably held steady. B
- Kirsten Gillibrand: She was, in my view, the breakout winner. She was smart, composed, and substantive, and had a clear narrative around protecting women and families. I liked Gillibrand before, but had kind of written her off because she wasn't getting any traction in the polls. I wonder if she might see a bump after tonight. I thought she was really strong. A+
- Michael Bennet: Seemed like a fine, basically progressive generic White guy, which isn't good enough for a guy like him in a field like this. C+
- Eric Swalwell: Had a bunch of smirky little lines that weren't as clever as he thought. Otherwise unremarkable. C
- John Hickenlooper: He really seemed committed to red-baiting, and I do not think it's a winning strategy. He's, at best, third on the depth chart for the "moderate" lane behind Biden and Klobuchar, and Klobuchar in particular would wipe the floor with him (possibly literally, if he forgets to bring a salad fork). D+
- Andrew Yang: He's at his best when talking about the freedom dividend, which makes sense since that's his signature. On any other issue he sounds like a tech bro who thinks doing well in Silicon Valley qualifies him to run the world. Do you remember when we were all aghast at Mark Zuckerberg running for President? This is the same thing, except less interesting. I do not think drawing a straight line from "enthusiasm on Reddit boards" to "Democratic debate stage" is proof that our democracy still works. C
- Marianne Williamson: Who is this women? What is that accent? Why is her first call as President to the Prime Minister of New Zealand (to say "nuh-uh -- we're the best place to raise a child!")? It was physically uncomfortable listening to her tonight. I don't know what specific conspiracy theories she believes in, but I have no doubt she believes in some. F
At this stage in the game, I'm mostly concerned with winnowing the field down to something manageable so we can actually have a reasonable nominating contest. So here's my take on who (from both evening's debates) should drop out (or at least be cut from future debates), based on their performance and my assessment of whether there's any plausible route for them to make a serious play in the contest.
- Drop-outs: Williamson, Swalwell, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Delaney.
- Bubble (they should probably all drop out too, but it's early and I'm feeling nice): Yang, Bennet, Gabbard, Inslee, De Blasio.
UPDATE: Reading through others reactions, wow am I ever in the minority re: Harris (and again -- I'm a Harris fan! She was my off-the-blocks favorite! So this isn't anti-Harris hostility). And obviously it matters more what others think than what I think. Likewise, nobody else seems to have even noticed Gillibrand, let alone given her the sort of breakaway credit I did.
Yesterday I think my views aligned with the CW, today clearly they don't. But since most of my appraisals were based on my assessment of "will this appeal to people", you should take the crowd's wisdom over mine. Harris surge!