ATLANTA — The fifth Democratic debate was a study in omission, with candidates revealing their strategies and theories of victory by what they chose not to say. Moderators set the tone, focusing on fresh topics (paid family leave, America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia) rather than litigating the past few weeks of arguments.

The candidates largely went along, using the briefer format (two hours with overtime, rather than three) to make their preferred case for how the party can win. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., delivered a Medicare-for-all answer that would have silenced her critics in October; Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., made the kitchen-sink attack on Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii that she whiffed four months ago. And South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had been pointedly criticized by Harris and others in the last few weeks, took only a little incoming, toward the end of the night, after the ink was drying on stories about how Buttigieg was in the clear.

Joe Biden. He’s become the most consistent debater in the field, and not always in a good way. Biden always emphasizes his long experience, and the easy-to-imagine work he’d do as a new president, undoing the Trump administration’s work. But for the third time, Biden’s campaign previewed a strategy that the candidate himself abandoned. An attack on Warren’s Medicare-for-all “candor” never materialized, with Biden instead arguing that his own health insurance plan would “trust the American people to make a judgment what they believe is in their interest.”

Biden also said something memorably confusing toward the end of the night, which has become a theme of these debates. Here, it began with a minor slip, saying he had been endorsed by the “only African American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate.” He meant “first,” and said so after a befuddled Harris threw up her hands up. But then he went on to suggest “one of the reasons I was picked to be vice president was because of my long-standing relationship with the black community,” an intriguing remix of history; Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign saw Biden as a running mate who could answer concerns about Obama’s experience and appeal to Midwestern white voters, not fix any problems with black voters.

None of these debates has left Biden in a stronger position in early states; none has changed how Democrats see him, as the candidate most appealing to general-election swing voters.

Elizabeth Warren. She spent most of the past month answering the question that bedeviled her in October’s debate: Could she be straight with voters about the costs of Medicare-for-all? Wednesday’s debate gave her an answer, as her rivals had next to zero interest in re-litigating the Medicare-for-all fight and no rebuttal to her new transition plan. Warren got to deliver exactly the pitch she wanted: She’d quickly enroll millions of Americans in an expanded health insurance system with “vision and dental and long-term care,” then move to universal coverage “when people have had a chance to feel it and taste it and live with it.”


Some minor verbal flubs aside (a “billion” when she meant “million”), Warren executed her usual plan: Pivot to the deeper problems she wanted to fix and reject the idea that she was too left-wing. Only Warren was asked whether she’d “use taxpayer money” to unbuild new sections of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (she pivoted to attacking the “zero tolerance” family separation policy); only Warren was asked whether antiabortion Democrats had a place in the party. Several times, she made a specific argument for black voters (the wealth tax, for example, would help “stop exploiting the women, largely black and brown women,” who work in child care), which was pitched to her potential audience, not debate commentators.

Warren’s early success in these debates came with no fireworks, no breakthrough moments, apart from a quick put-down of former Maryland congressman John Delaney in July. Wednesday’s debate was a return to the norm, with the candidate describing an agenda that could be passed with a few popular tax hikes on the rich. It worked before, and it’s to be seen whether it works after a month of Medicare-for-all arguments.

Pete Buttigieg. His trajectory has been remarkably similar to Warren’s in these debates – a steady rise, then one debate where the counterattacks are a little softer and more tentative than expected. That was what Warren experienced in September and what Buttigieg got Wednesday. There was just one question about his embarrassing “Douglass Plan” rollout, which counted endorsers who had not actually endorsed him, and Harris opted not to chase it. (“I believe that the mayor has made apologies for that.”) Buttigieg’s opponents mostly set him free to pitch his potential as a candidate and not bog down in his record.

“I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me,” Buttigieg said in what could have been the most challenging round of questions. “As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.”

The irritation other Democrats have for Buttigieg flashed only a few times, subtly (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey noting that he had run the “largest city” in his state) and less subtly (Sen. Amy Klobuchar contrasting her legislative wins with Buttigieg’s aspiration). Going negative is risky, and Buttigieg, last month, was the first Democrat to do it effectively. No one tried to do it better Wednesday.

Bernie Sanders. Like Buttigieg, he’s sometimes ignored by opponents because they don’t see him as a threat for the nomination. The tight format of a debate accentuates this; after Sanders made a historic defense of Palestinian “dignity” and called for “rethinking who our allies are around the world,” moderators moved on and asked Warren about the virtues of military service. Several times, he was left out of discussions where his bigger vision – housing policy or immigration – would have separated him from the field.


Sanders, like Warren, also benefited from the strange way Biden and Buttigieg had set up questions about “division.” It was simple: He was for a big agenda that most Americans already wanted. “Yeah, we’ve got to deal with Trump,” Sanders said, “but we also have to have an agenda that brings our people together so that the wealth and income doesn’t just go to the people on top.” And he was not baited into an argument with Warren, whom he’d criticized over the details of her Medicare-for-all payment and transition plans. That arrangement, in the past, usually kept Sanders’s support stable while Warren’s increased. But that was before Biden et al began portraying Sanders as an honest candidate and Warren as not.

Kamala Harris. Harris’s first answer, combining her “criminal living in the White House” with her plea for the “working people who are working two or three jobs,” set the tone: She has overlaid her “3 a.m. agenda” of economic issues, which was not clicking anywhere, with a personal, impassioned promise to “prosecute” the president like a B-movie gangster. “He has conducted foreign policy since day one born out of a very fragile ego,” Harris said, bringing back the diminution of Trump that made her initially so intriguing to Democrats.

Harris’s decision to finally attack Gabbard mattered for the same reason. The Californian’s pitch has always been more about electability than any particular policy; her mistake in July was allowing Gabbard to go unanswered. Harris corrected that error by filling one of the most popular roles for any candidate, defending Barack Obama from his critics.

Amy Klobuchar. She benefited last month from needling Warren on whether her plans were achievable, but she was more subtle Wednesday, the reward of finally taking up some head space for primary voters. “I am not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car,” Klobuchar said, referring to no particular candidate. The senator from Minnesota is never going to compete for left-wing voters, not in the primary; her goal has been to paint a picture of how she would win a national election, so that nervous Democrats see an alternative to Biden.

Most Democratic primary voters are women, and in this debate, Klobuchar took and effectively used the most time to talk to them about electability. “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day,” she said, a line that’s been incredibly effective on the trail – a line that voters, catching dribs and drabs of election information in between impeachment news, mostly hadn’t heard.

Cory Booker. The ongoing mystery of these debates is why Booker, a powerful speaker with a compelling biography and long list of endorsements, cannot break out of the low single digits. He channeled his frustration into some memorably funny lines (“I happen to be the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on this stage”) and an argument for why his personal, love-centric style could carry a national election. “I will do whatever it takes to make sure we bring this country together,” he said, “but it’s not for a kumbaya moment.”


In a debate with fairly little negativity, Booker did the most to set up a contrast where voters took his side: marijuana legalization. “Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people,” Booker told Biden, making use of a recent clip of Biden speaking about marijuana that got little attention before the debate. “The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”

That resulted in Biden’s defensive riff on his endorsements from black Democrats, allowing Booker to do what he’d tried to do all year: Contrast his more immediate, modern policies with Biden’s long record with black voters.

Andrew Yang. In the past few weeks, he’s tried to humanize his message of universal basic income, asking voters to imagine how their lives could change with $1,000 every month. He got and took every chance to do that, especially a curveball question on fighting the rise of white supremacy. “We have to get into the roots of our communities and create paths forward for men in particular who right now are falling through the cracks,” he said, going further than the usual answer of stepped-up law enforcement.

Tulsi Gabbard. The defining moments of her campaign so far were the July attack on Harris and her weeks-long demand for an apology from Hillary Clinton, who had accused her of being “groomed” for a Trump-assisting third-party campaign. Both gave her an audience that overlaps hardly at all with her rivals: conservatives and independents who, like Gabbard, think the party is corrupt. Her problem Wednesday was that she got to talk about almost nothing else: A round on voting rights became an argument with Buttigieg over his “inexperience in national security and foreign policy.” (Gabbard had jumped on a largely misreported Buttigieg point about cooperation between American and Mexican military forces.)

Tom Steyer. The first negative exchange of his campaign so far, a back-and-forth with Biden, revealed less about Steyer than about what his rivals think about him: Why is he doing this? Steyer’s fundamental problems are a business-experience-not-politics pitch, which most Democratic voters don’t want, and a focus on term limits as his major structural reform. Democrats don’t find that compelling, either. “Even Mayor Pete Buttigieg will not talk about term limits,” Steyer said, a zinger with no constituency.

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