The dystopian show “The Man in the High Castle” depicts two parallel universes: one in which the Germans and Japanese won World War II, and one where the Allies did. The main characters bounce between these two polar opposite realities. The effect can be dizzying, and yet also clarifying.
Tonight’s Democratic debate showed leadership as opposite from Donald Trump as those two fictionalized worlds. Where Trump is corrupt, the Democrats spoke of reform. Where Trump is self-centered, Democrats dared to care for kids and the poor and the working class. Where Trump is a bully, Democrats were empathetic. Where Trump is a serial liar, the Democrats stuck to the facts.
I think Democrats, especially in Iowa, will love it. Iowans, God love ’em, hate negative campaigning. That’s why negative ads in the 2020 Democratic Caucus campaign are about as common as synchronized swimmers in a Sioux County cornfield. Perhaps that’s why, in the all-important first half-hour of the CNN/Des Moines Register debate the candidates beat their swords into ploughshares.
The days before the debate featured supporters of Bernie Sanders attacking Elizabeth Warren, with Warren countering that Sanders made a sexist statement in a private meeting over a year ago. But when the red light came on in Des Moines, they were both on their best behavior.
It helped that moderator Wolf Blitzer (I-CNN) opened the debate on the biggest question of all: “Why are you best prepared — the best prepared person on this stage to be commander in chief?” Joe Biden owned his disastrous 2002 vote for the Bush war in Iraq. Bernie Sanders chided him for it, but didn’t draw blood, allowing Biden to deftly shift attention to his partnership with President Barack Obama. Pete Buttigieg noted that some of the enlisted troops he served with in Afghanistan are so young they cannot remember when the war began.
Elizabeth Warren gave half of a great answer, excoriating generals who say “we’ve turned the corner so many times that we’re going in circles.” But she also weirdly shoehorned in an attack on “giant financial institutions.” Amy Klobuchar was the only one who truly took the fight to Trump, demonstrating impressive expertise on military affairs, and heart-rending empathy on trade.
Tom Steyer came to life when he spoke about climate change. The question was about trade, but unlike Warren, who seemed to be reaching to include Wall Street in her national security answer, Steyer seamlessly and personally made an appeal to put climate at the heart of any future trade deal.
Yes, there were not a lot of punches thrown. But the dustbin of the 2020 campaign is filled with politicians who used their debate moments to attack. From Kirsten Gillibrand attacking Joe Biden for an op-ed he published decades ago to Kamala Harris hammering Biden on busing, to Julian Castro cheaply (and dishonestly) accusing Biden of not remembering what he’d said two minutes before. All three dropped out before the first vote has even been cast.
Perhaps Elizabeth Warren pulled back from her attack on Sanders because when she attacked Buttigieg in the last debate she gained nothing; in fact she stalled. In fact, Joe Biden had perhaps his best moment when, after noting that Donald Trump is viciously attacking “my surviving son,” he said it was his job to not only fight but also heal.” Beautiful.
The race is extremely fluid. All four of the top candidates: Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg, have at one point led in the Iowa polls. I did not see anyone break out in the debate. The candidates will have to win the old-fashioned way: door to door, farm to farm, town hall to town hall. That is a far better strategy than seeking a knockout in a debate.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House.
Patti Solis Doyle: Klobuchar had the best night but may still fall short in Iowa
Tonight’s debate did not shake up the race. The 60% of undecided caucus voters in Iowa will likely leave this debate still undecided. Biden had a steady performance with particularly strong answers on foreign policy and a demonstration of the ability to not only fight Trump but also heal the country. But Biden’s performance was not a home run, as many of his answers were just lackluster. The same goes for Pete Buttigieg. While Mayor Pete was solid, he never achieved that memorable debate moment.
Warren and Sanders went at it on the “can a woman win?” he said/she said. Senator Warren had a great moment which will be played over and over, explaining it was only the women on stage who had never lost a race. In the end, however, both Sanders and Warren were vociferous in their certainty that indeed a woman can win the Presidency.
It was Amy Klobuchar who had the best night, with consistently strong answers on every topic and a convincing argument that she can beat Trump in a general election, but her performance is likely not enough to get her from 6% to a win, place or show in Iowa.
Bottom line, the dynamic of the caucus remains unchanged.
Scott Jennings: Democrats go into pitiful crouch
I just don’t get the strategy here.
The biggest bombshell of the week was Elizabeth Warren claiming Bernie Sanders told her that a woman can’t be elected president, a stunning attack for one of the three leading candidates to make on another. Sanders gamely denied it, and then just stood there as the moderator appeared to ignore his denial. Then he failed to challenge Warren straight up by demanding she admit she was lying!
This is perhaps the most direct character attack of the primary (well beyond the tame wine-cave drama) and Sanders just basically stood there and took it, which must have been demoralizing for his supporters. Warren has made up other things in the campaign and yet Sanders just didn’t challenge her veracity on this one at all. Stunning.
And then there’s the overall lack of any meaningful challenge to Joe Biden, the national front runner. Sanders challenged him a little bit on foreign policy to open the debate but that too was fairly tame. The rest of the night people just left him alone, which is nuts when you consider that for any of the rest of these candidates to win they have to defeat Biden!
So, my takeaway is — why do the Democrats just stand there and let things happen to themselves. Biden is ahead nationally, and nobody did anything to stop him. Warren is effectively calling Sanders a backwoods misogynist and he slinked off into a corner.
How do these folks hope to get the nomination or win the White House in such a pitiful crouch?
Frida Ghitis: Klobuchar wins, Biden doesn’t lose
Two important things happened in this debate, and both work in favor of Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The first was a much-needed discussion about women in the 2020 election; the second was a winning performance for moderates over progressives, accentuated by the rift between progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
It was that scuffle between Warren and Sanders, who had entered the election with something of a non-aggression pact, that opened the door to a salutary airing of the subject of “electability,” a sexist prejudice disguised as strategy.
When confronted with the claim that Sanders told Warren that a women could not win, Sanders denied it, arguing that he has always believed in women. But Warren rejected Sanders’ denial, and grasped the electability matter with both hands, demanding to talk about the elephant in the Democratic primary living room, the claim that a woman can’t win in 2020.
“It’s time to attack it head-on,” she said, brandishing a memorable and devastatingly effective fact. “Look at the men on this stage: Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are women.”
That helps Warren against the men, but it does nothing to help her against Klobuchar, who underscored the impressive fact that, “I have won every race, every place, every time. I have won in the reddest of districts,” in urban, suburban and rural areas.
That argument also undercuts former Vice President Joe Biden, who is marketing himself as the most capable among the candidates to win with Republicans and independents disenchanted with Trump.
Biden was an evanescent presence on the stage. He has come a long way from his early performances. He was solid, showed confidence and made some good points. Most of all, he made no big mistakes. But no one would accuse him of giving a rousing performance. As the candidate leading in the national polls, Biden didn’t need to win. He only needed to hold his own, to keep from losing ground, and he did that.
The moderates: Biden, Klobuchar and Pete Buttiegieg — always polished and impressive — came across as much more reasonable, knowledgeable and able to make things happen in Washington and on the global stage. Their responses on foreign policy — Iran, troop deployments, North Korea — and trade sounded like the kind that win elections.
Moderates beat progressives. Women made gains. In that Venn diagram, only one of the candidates stands at the intersection of both categories. That is Amy Klobuchar.
Aaron David Miller: All the candidates failed on America’s global role
After six Democratic debates in which foreign policy and national security received short shrift, I was really looking forward to a robust discussion during the seventh, especially given the real time crisis with Iran. I should have known better. There was too little discussion of the current crisis with Iran and too little about each candidate’s conception of America’s role in world. Here are my depressing and sobering takeaways.
Biden’s missed opportunity. He came close to articulating a strategy on North Korea. But the former Vice President missed a huge opportunity to demonstrate his experience, authority and clarity on foreign policy or why he was best credentialed to serve as commander-in-chief. It was the height of irony that the first candidate to even refer to the notion of an overall strategy was Tom Steyer — the guy with the least foreign policy experience.
No coherent vision. Given the extent of Donald Trump’s diplomatic malpractice, a huge opportunity opened up for any of the candidates to lay out a coherent vision and role for America in the world — simply and clearly. And each candidate was offered at least two chances to do it. None did. What they did offer up — using more diplomacy; working with allies; getting out of endless wars — represented slogans and bumper stickers and offered not a single idea of substance on how they would approach these issues or the other serious challenges America confronts.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a State Department Middle East analyst negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.
Julian Zelizer: Eizabeth Warren had the best moments
It’s unclear what a strong debate performance can accomplish at this point. It might be that concerns about electability are so strong that they will give Biden the victory, or that Sanders’ grassroots support is so strong that Warren can’t undercut his strength.
Sarah Isgur: Warren’s good night but missed opportunity
Tonight’s debate was one of the last opportunities Warren had to make her case to Iowa voters. So the question isn’t whether she had a good night. She unquestionably did. The question is whether she had the type of great performance that moves Iowans to change their votes from Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg.
Sarah Isgur is a CNN political analyst. She has worked on three Republican presidential campaigns and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.