New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio entered Wednesday night’s Democratic debate riding almost impossibly low expectations. And, if you listened to some of the postgame analysis on MSNBC, you’d think he failed to rise above them.
“I thought the folks on the end did their best to elbow into every discussion they could,” former Sen. Claire McCaskill riffed after the debate. “I found it mildly irritating at times. Maybe it’s just de Blasio is mildly irritating to me. I’m not sure. Or maybe even more than mildly irritating to me.”
“I had the same reaction!” MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace replied.* “I think that might break down along gender—he sounded to me like sort of an obnoxious guy at a restaurant or a bar talking really loudly on his cellphone, like everyone wants to hear what he’s saying. I wanted to hear other people’s answers, and he kept cutting in.”
It’s possible that perception really does break down on gender lines here, but I thought de Blasio had a reasonably OK evening. Before tonight, he was unknown to much of the Democratic electorate. In New York, many residents think of him as a grating oaf who regularly trolls local sports fans by rooting for the Red Sox. Tonight, he presented himself as something else—as a father, as a son, as a guy who can talk pretty compellingly about immigration, as someone other than the guy who once dropped a groundhog to its death.
His first good moment came during a discussion of immigration, during which he managed to sound passionate, fluent, and sincere. “For all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind, who feel the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you,” he proclaimed to wild applause, managing to articulate a simple, populist, and humane line on a critical issue. “The big corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you.” Someone in the crowd actually whooped, something I cannot personally remember happening during a de Blasio speech at any time since 2013.
He managed another striking moment while nominally talking about guns and policing. After touting his record running the largest city and largest police force in the country, and nodding to the need to “get guns off the street” (message: I’m a no-nonsense mayor who understands law and order), it was family story time. “I also want to say there is something that sets me apart from all of my colleagues running in this race,” de Blasio said. “And that is for the last 21 years I have been raising a black son in America. And I have had to have very, very serious talks with my son Dante about how to protect himself on the streets of our city and all over our country, including how to deal with the fact that he has to take special caution because there have been too many tragedies between our young men and our police too, as we recently saw in Indiana.” This statement, in part a swipe at Pete Buttigieg, was strictly true: De Blasio, whose wife is black, is the only candidate in the race with a black son. It was also slightly awkward, given that he was claiming special cred on this issue while standing on a stage with Sen. Cory Booker who, while childless, is himself a black man (the senator later prefaced his own bit about criminal justice reform by saying “as an African American man”).
But you know what? I doubt many viewers noticed that uncomfortable bit of staging. It was a heartfelt-sounding speech, and the fact that de Blasio is raising a child in an interracial relationship was a big deal to the black voters who powered his first election in New York. I thought he introduced that biographical detail to the country pretty well.
Then came his bit about war and peace. This was one of the sections where he elbowed his way in, as McCaskill put it, cutting off Beto O’Rourke to start lecturing the Washington lawmakers on stage about how Congress should actually take responsibility for declaring war again. From there, he transitioned to more biographical detail: “I know the cost of war. My dad served in the Pacific in World War II in the U.S. Army, Battle of Okinawa, had half his leg blown off, and came home with scars both physical and emotional and did not recover,” he said. “He spiraled downward and ultimately took his own life. That battle did not kill him, but that war did.”
A little canned? Sure. But it’s a sad and compelling story that makes the guy who taunted his constituents by eating pizza with a fork more human. It even gives him a little gravitas, talking about war and peace and all that.
My point is, I think there is a strong chance de Blasio might rise as high as 2 percent in the polls. For a bit, at least.
Correction, June 27, 2019: This post originally misspelled Nicolle Wallace’s first name.