Democratic Debate Détente in Atlanta

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ATLANTA — William Tecumseh Sherman burned this city to the ground 155 years ago this month, but the candidates gathered here Wednesday night showed little interest in torching one another.

Though no one tried singing “Kumbaya” during the fifth debate of the Democratic primary, by unspoken agreement or political chance a sort of détente broke out on stage as the field mostly directed their collective fire toward the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Of course, it wasn’t expected to be this way, especially not for Pete Buttigieg.

The conventional wisdom was that the mayor of South Bend, Ind., would have a newly drawn target on his back. He now leads in Iowa. He’s competing for first place in New Hampshire. But he was mostly overlooked again by opponents, just as he’s been for much of his candidacy.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar was given a chance by the moderators to bloody Buttigieg for lack of experience and for occupying a spot onstage that could have gone to a woman. She demurred.

“I've made very clear I think that Pete is qualified to be up on this stage, and I am honored to be standing next to him,” the Minnesotan said before bemoaning the fact that “women are held to a higher standard” and that it is impossible to play “a game called ‘name your favorite woman president.’”

Sen. Kamala Harris was also offered an opportunity to go after the mayor after his campaign shared a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to illustrate his plan for helping black Americans. Previously one of the more ruthless contenders in the field, she looked the other way on Wednesday. “I believe,” the California candidate said, “the mayor has made apologies.”

Before the debate began, Democratic Chairman Tom Perez promised RealClearPolitics a clash of ideas: “We have a great competition, and that will produce a battle-tested nominee.” The more than two-hour contest hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post didn’t produce a champion, and what was billed as a possible melee turned into coordinated target practice as aspiring nominees took turns aiming at President Trump.

Though each wants to compete against Trump next November, all said he has committed impeachable offenses and should be removed from office early.

This may explain why they didn’t pull knives on one another. “There were no conflicts of consequence,” Democratic pollster John Zogby told RCP, “because it would have given ammunition to an incumbent president who has had arguably the worst days of his tenure.”

The debate followed on the heels of impeachment hearings that had cable news anchors and commentators atwitter -- in the original sense of that term. A key witness, Gordon Sondland, testified Wednesday that the president improperly leveraged foreign aid to Ukraine for personal political gain, and implicated others in the White House as being in on the plan. It provided an opportunity to cast the president as unfit and was a particularly fat pitch down the middle for former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I learned something about these impeachment trials. I learned, number one, that Donald Trump doesn't want me to be the nominee,” he said of Trump’s attempt to get the Ukrainians to shovel dirt on the foreign business dealings of his son, Hunter. “Secondly, I found out that Vladimir Putin doesn't want me to be president.”

The target of choice in each of the earlier debates, the national front-runner then turned seamlessly to an argument about his relative electability, all but admitting that impeachment would ultimately fail to remove the president from office. None of his competitors challenged him on this point. They didn’t really challenge him on much throughout the rest of the night, aside from some mild follow-up on one of his trademark gaffes: Biden claimed to have won the endorsement of “the only African American woman who has ever been elected to the United States Senate,” drawing an incredulous reaction from another black female senator standing several feet to his left. Kamala Harris quipped, “Nope, that’s not true,” as he corrected himself, saying he meant to say “first,” not “only.” (The endorsement came from Carol Moseley Braun, who represented Illinois in the 1990s.)

Democrats didn’t close ranks and hold their fire on the former vice president because of party loyalty. They had seen previous volleys bounce off him and ricochet back. “In a multi-candidate primary, it’s very difficult to make progress by attacking your opponent,” prominent Democrat Matt Bennett explained to RCP. “You might get a moment, but as [Julian] Castro and others have discovered, it’s just as easy to hurt yourself.”

Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, rode high for a hot second after obliquely knocking Biden over his age. But criticism followed and there was no polling benefit for Castro, who barely registers 1% in the RCP average and did not qualify for the Atlanta debate.

In fact, there were moments of relative friendliness sprinkled throughout the debate. “I think Joe is right,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said of Biden during one early exchange. “I just want to stick up for Tom,” businessman Andrew Yang said in defense of billionaire Tom Steyer during another. But if Democrats think such supportive exchanges will prepare them to enter a thunderdome with Trump, they are likely mistaken. He won’t have anything nice to say about any of them, least of all Biden.

Earlier in the day, the Trump campaign tweeted sarcastic “congratulations” when news broke that an Arkansas woman claimed in court that Hunter Biden had fathered her child at a time when he was dating the wife of his deceased brother.

While there were some intense flashes — Buttigieg tangling briefly with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, for instance — Trump-like invective was not part of the discussion. California Rep. Katie Porter, a surrogate for Warren, told RCP after the debate that this civility was the result of an all-female moderating panel. “The moderators did a fabulous job,” she said, “and this is why a woman’s voice at the table matters.”

Not only does it lead to better questions, Porter insisted, but it also demonstrated why a woman president is preferable: “They’re going to make a better president. They’re going to govern better.”

The co-chair of the Biden campaign didn’t agree. Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond said that the relative civility on stage was a reflection of the seriousness of the race. The country is at risk of reelecting “the worst president in the history of the United States,” he told RCP. And so, “people are starting to say, ‘Let’s focus on the issues, and we will for the most part forfeit scoring cheap political points.’”

A calm debate didn’t automatically mean substance, however. Richmond wasn’t happy with the format, asserting that “these debates are a clown show” -- contests heavy on boilerplate and light on substance.

The night ended in light sparring, at least compared to earlier skirmishes. But this makes sense to Bennett. “These aren’t closing arguments; they are opening statements,” he said less than three months before the Iowa caucuses. “Most voters are just barely beginning to tune in.”



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