The Slatest

Winners and Losers of the New York Times Roundup of the Debate Winners and Losers

New York Times debate-pundit heads arranged on a scoring scale, with a speech balloon saying "Didn't dominate" emerging from Liz Mair
New York Times screenshot

Was it hard to keep track of 10 different people blurting out short answers on the CNN Democratic debate stage last night? The New York Times opinion section decided to help by getting 14 different people to give their evaluation of all 10 performances, with scores attached, for a total of 140 debate opinions. They then plotted the columnist opinions on 10 different horizontal axes, for extra clarification.

Here’s how the debate debaters stacked up, each scored on a 14-point scale, from “worst analysis” to “good analysis and I’m sorry they made you do this”:

Liz Mair

0 /14

The Republican consultant and serial identity-fabricator criticized Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for “engaging 1 and 2 percenters in fights” and “punching down”—apparently using “1 and 2 percenters” to mean not the people in the top 1 or 2 percent of the national wealth distribution, but the other candidates who are only at 1 or 2 percent in the primary polls. That is, Warren and Sanders made the mistake of debating the candidates who were assigned to appear onstage with them in the debate, and who CNN’s moderators were encouraging to directly challenge them, when they should instead have picked fights with Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, who were not there.

Gracy Olmstead

1/14

I don’t know who this person is and they wrote nothing worth reading. So, John Hickenlooper, basically.

Sarah Vowell

1.5/14

A scowling head ostentatiously seizing the far outlier ends of the Times’ floating-head-based axis thing, Vowell was “enraged to a degree that I cannot adequately describe in a family newspaper” by Sanders and Warren describing the Republican talking point about universal health coverage meaning abolition of private insurance as a Republican talking point, while being captivated by the “democratic spirit” of Steve Bullock because he refused to “demonize” fossil fuel companies.

Bret Stephens

2/14

Ringing praise of the oafish John Delaney—“Democrats desperately need to hear the voice of someone like him, who speaks for a lot of voters turned off by the constant demonization of the private sector coming from Warren and Sanders”—carried the Never-Trump lib-baiter one step further down the road toward his inevitable declaration that he can’t support Trump’s opponent in the general election. On Warren, he went with being “put off by her repeated attempts to speak past her time.”

Nicholas Kristof

3/14

An establishment liberal with an establishment job. Marianne Williamson “shouldn’t have been in the debate to begin with”; Sanders was “perpetually angry, in a way that I found offputting.” He did get off a decent burn on John Delaney, though: “He had lots of debate time, in which he reinforced the idea that he should not be the Democratic nominee.”

Peter Wehner

3.4/14

Going back to reread the Times discussion, I realized I had totally failed to register that this person existed. “He’s an odd combination of overly earnest and inauthentic” was not a bad take on Beto O’Rourke, though.

Will Wilkinson

4/14

Some decent zingers (Hickenlooper is “entirely liberated from the burden of captivating personal qualities”) couldn’t overcome occasionally incoherent analysis (“Delaney got viciously dunked on—and it leveled him up”) and the burden of always going last in the Times’ alphabetical rotation.

David Leonhardt

5/14

If someone fed the full corpus of conventional political discourse into a neural net and pointed it at Tim Ryan, it too would spit out, “His blue-collar, Midwestern message is one Democrats need to hear, but I don’t see how he generates enough excitement to rise to the top of the field.”

Ross Douthat

5.5/14

Dancing through the hall of mirrors inside his own brain, the spiritual seeker’s child turned Catholic reactionary felt a rush of vertigo in the presence of Marianne Williamson: “Marvelous again, not enough airtime, but if she doesn’t get to 5 percent in the polls, the Democratic Party should disband.”

Charles M. Blow and Gail Collins

8/14

A tie. The op-ed veterans delivered straightforward, mostly plausible analysis of the candidates, their positions, and their performances. What was that doing in this roundtable, or anywhere near CNN’s janky, overcrowded debate?

Maureen Dowd

10/14

If the disrespectful masses ever do drive the put-upon putdown artist from her Georgetown mansion, she can follow Williamson into the desert: “Sneer if you will, but a call for a little spiritual healing is in order in the unspiritual, racist, hate-filled era of Donald Trump. … Debates are about the visceral, and Williamson has that down. Not since Admiral James Stockdale, a fan of the Stoic philosophers, opened the vice presidential debate in 1992 by asking ‘Who am I, why am I here?’ has there been a line as arresting as this one by the philosopher of love: ‘If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.’ ” Inspirational!

Jamelle Bouie

12/14

Should have used his Jim Ross routine (“As God is my witness, this man was snapped in half”) on the entire field, not just John Delaney.

Michelle Goldberg

14/14

Gave each candidate the required numerical score and nothing else. A model for everyone.

Yes, the top two finishers in the roundup of winners and losers of the roundup of debate winners and losers both used to work at Slate. Perhaps that is a coincidence, perhaps it is not.