Harris considered big winner in second Democratic debate

Democratic presidential candidates answer a "show of hands" question during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

By Patrick E. Waldinger

Democratic presidential candidates answer a "show of hands" question during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Harris considered big winner in second Democratic debate

By Patrick E. Waldinger
Patrick E. Waldinger, assistant director of debate and a lecturer in the University of Miami School of Communication, dissects Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate.

On Thursday night, the Democrats squared off again in Miami, this time with ten different candidates. This debate was highly anticipated, having some big names – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg – all on stage together. 

The tone of Thursday’s debate was so different than Wednesday’s that it is difficult to believe that all 20 are running to win the same position. The debate was barely two answers in and already the candidates were interjecting, attempting to hijack the attention. Unlike the first night, this strategy did not benefit the lesser-known candidates. 

Before Thursday’s debate, I had highlighted what to look for from the big names. Let’s review:

“Harris, a former prosecutor, will look to shine”

Mission accomplished and then some. An extremely impressive performance. By almost every metric, she won. She was on an entirely different level – playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers. All of her moves were strategic and calculated, yet she delivered them in a way that did not seem rehearsed or forced.

She literally controlled the debate when she spoke. She was able to dismiss time limits - daring the moderators to interrupt her, which they barely did. She demanded to speak on the race question and the moderators acquiesced. During which, she directly questioned Biden several times as if he were a witness in cross-examination. She did not need a moderator; she was the moderator, even scolding fellow bickering debaters that the audience does not want a “food fight.”

This dominant performance will carry her for a long time. There are 11 more primary debates and none will be as relevant until all of the big names are on one stage – likely not until 2020. Until that happens, she can ride this performance’s coattails. In future debate, she will have to be prepared for others to attack, especially regarding her prosecutorial background, but this lawyer will prove a formidable challenge.

“How will Joe Biden handle being directly challenged?”

The answer: not well. Biden was attacked by almost everyone. To be fair, Biden seemed prepared for the criticisms and, until the Harris exchange on busing, he was fending them off well enough. As the frontrunner, he will always have to play defense but he needs to get a little better on offense, perhaps focusing more on electability as the key issue. 

The back and forth with Harris really damaged him. Biden was prepared for the question, even taking a jab at Harris being a prosecutor. Harris, though, did not relent and that flustered Biden until he made a huge mistake. He lost the Harris interaction because it was a rebuttal to the rebuttal. He needs to think through a few more steps of the argument to avoid future issues. 

“Bernie Sanders will likely struggle with time”

This short answer format is an anathema to Sanders’ style. He likes to build up his argument slowly. Voters got to know him in 2016, so focusing on catchphrases and soundbites is his best bet in the short term. He will also have to get into details and not rest on ideals. There are several candidates that agree with him on the issues, so that alone does not separate him anymore.

To be fair, Sanders is the one who set the Democratic agenda further left. In the future, he needs to remind the audience that he was the progressive economic flagbearer. Otherwise, someone else may deliver his desired paradigm shift in politics.

“Pete Buttigieg, who appeals to anti-establishment voters, is a wild card”

Buttigieg’s story is fascinating and his “not a typical politician” persona works well in our current climate. His debate performance shows that he is informative and sincere, including when he admitted he failed achieving diversity in the South Bend, Indiana, police force.

While his personality is his biggest strength, it can also turn into his biggest weakness. It is difficult to see him directly challenging the other candidates and, if so, he will always be playing defense. But Mayor Pete is complex and we may soon see his soldier side. A true wild card.

Overall, Harris’ performance simultaneously raised her stock, did severe damage to the frontrunner and stymied Buttigieg’s rise. Absent some extremely serious gaffes, no round of debates will have the impact of the Miami ones until all the big names face off with each other in the same debate. 

Patrick E. Waldinger is assistant director of debate and a lecturer in the University of Miami School of Communication.