We’ve now lived through four Democratic debates. It feels like more, both because it was more (technically, there have been six nights of debates) and because they have been extremely repetitive (each must start with “Medicare for All,” apparently). But a big part of the problem remains obvious: There are too many Democrats running for president. On Tuesday night, there were 12 candidates onstage, out of 17 (the five who didn’t make the cut, Michael Bennet, Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock, Marianne Williamson, and John Delaney, should take the hint).
But a dozen candidates is still far too many. Back in July, Slate staffers recommended six candidates who should drop out immediately (only two of our selections, Bill de Blasio and John Hickenlooper, actually did). Despite those lackluster results, we thought we’d try it again.
If you’re going to object to being called a “Russian asset and an Assad apologist,” as Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard did, it’s not such a great idea to repeat those governments’ talking points to the extent that the audience starts to wonder if your programming is malfunctioning. Gabbard used the phrase “regime change war” a total of 11 times during the debate—including six times in one answer. In addition to being strange, the repeated characterization is just plain wrong.
There are a lot of ways to describe the often incoherent and counterproductive U.S. strategy in Syria, but “regime change war” is specifically not what’s happening there. (It is, however, how the Russian government would describe U.S. policy.) It’s a particularly odd note to harp on after a week that saw a decision by Donald Trump result in the regime dramatically expanding the territory under its control. If this is regime change, it’s a very indirect way to go about it. Gabbard had threatened to boycott this debate, changing her mind the day before. She should follow through on that threat for the rest of them. —Joshua Keating
Pete Buttigieg (I refuse to call him Mayor Pete. It’s not a particularly catchy nickname. It’s not easy or pleasant to say. It’s insane that everyone collectively agreed calling him this makes any sense at all.) knows he’s not going to win the presidency. He may be polling better than the majority of the current contenders, but that still only places him at a little over 5 percent. And considering his consistently godawful numbers among black voters, he’s not exactly poised to pick up Joe Biden’s base should Biden drop out (even though that was the play he appeared to be making).
One reason he might still be chugging along is so he can set himself up to be vice president for … well, that part’s not clear. Biden has already said he’d prefer to pick “someone who was of color and/or a different gender.” (Lots to unpack there!) Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren certainly aren’t going to pick him and Pete, judging by his recent swiping at Warren, knows it. Kamala Harris … might? But at this point, a Candidate Harris is a stretch in itself.
The only reasons for Pete to still be running that actually make sense are more or less about ego. Establishment media types love him, he gets great press, and I’m sure our good McKinsey boy has enjoyed being courted by his various high-dollar donors. Plus, if he drops out, he’d have to go deal with the mess he made. In other words, every reason he wants to stay is another reason why he needs to go. You had some fun, Pete. Time to go home. —Ashley Feinberg
Billionaire progressive Tom Steyer has justified taking up space in the presidential race by saying he’s uniquely qualified to explain how Trump has failed America and to sell impeachment to voters. But so far, the only issue benefiting from Steyer’s advocacy is Steyer’s candidacy, and even that has only gotten the tiniest of bumps. Elected Democrats are setting the gears of impeachment proceedings in motion. The other candidates are plenty fired up against Trump and can speak eloquently about the ways he’s defiling our democracy. Steyer doesn’t bring anything to the race that his opponents don’t already have—except, crucially, bankloads of money.
He loaned himself $47 million in the third quarter of this year and has already spent the same amount, more than twice the spending of any other candidate. For a guy who claims to be urgently concerned with stopping climate change and defeating Trump, it’s hard to think of a worse use for that big a chunk of change than a vanity project supported by around 1.4 percent of the polled electorate. Consider that whoever actually wins the Democratic nomination will be up against Trump’s gargantuan and growing war chest, and Steyer’s self-expenditure starts to seem at odds with his professed mission. Consider the material difference that money could make in the lives of people struggling under the system that allowed him to make it, and it starts to seem sociopathic. —Christina Cauterucci
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has finally found her voice—and, lucky for her, it’s right when moderate Democrats are seeking a less conspicuously problematic alternative to Biden. At Tuesday’s debate, she put her gloves on and sparred with the new front-runner, Warren, on nearly every issue. The highlights were strong: She aided a multi-candidate pile-on against Warren, who was repeatedly refusing to directly answer how she’ll pay for “Medicare for All.” A bit later, Klobuchar pushed back against a Warren suggestion that most candidates onstage would protect billionaires. (Her memorable line: “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires!” Klobuchar was referring to Steyer, who, see above, should also drop out.)
But, alas, her admittedly stunning debate performance comes a bit late in the game. It’s unlikely that she’ll hit the 3 percent polling threshold for the next debate. She has no major endorsements from outside Minnesota and, within the state, she didn’t get Rep. Ilhan Omar’s blessing either. She’s being outraised pretty significantly by her opponents. Her entire campaign pitch is centered on her reluctance to step outside the confines of bipartisanship. Hell, she even wore a purple suit to signify just how strongly she’s holding onto the fence.
A centrist, we’re-all-in-this-together, hold-hands-across-the-world approach isn’t going to win Democrats the election. But Klobuchar’s opted for moderate positions on issues—like climate change and health care—that still demand political leaps from Republicans and Democrats. (And allegations that she’s cruel to staff and her record as a “tough-on-crime” prosecutor will not help her.) Plus, her ill-timed debate jokes were a disaster. We don’t need more of them. We just don’t. —Julia Craven
Cory Booker has already qualified for the November debate, but he shouldn’t bother going if he’s just going to repeat Tuesday night’s performance. In a debate where the candidates who were actually trying to win the nomination took on risks by going after Warren, Booker turned in his most sunshine-and-vegan-unicorn-farts performance in a long string of them. He went out of his way to defend Biden’s honor after the moderators asked a question about his son Hunter. He too readily took up the role of “candidate who reminds the audience that the real enemy is Trump,” instead of cutting someone. He was running for vice president. He should do it on his own time. —Jim Newell
Even a doomed candidate can make a difference, if they bring courage and focus to their chosen purpose. This is why people talk about moving the Overton Window—because by daring to fight for a difficult or unpopular position, you can change the terms of what people think is reasonable or desirable. Or you can be Beto O’Rourke on guns and manage to present your goals as being drastic without being serious. There was a moment, after the El Paso massacre, when the tall Texan looked like he might become the Jay Inslee of semi-automatic slaughter, using his place on the trail and the debate stages to demand the removal of assault weapons from society the way the Washington governor used his time to demand action on climate change.
But that would have required discipline and attention to the nuts and bolts of the subject. Instead, there was O’Rourke pumping himself up with his willingness to call for confiscation, then deflating into vagueness about how he would possibly accomplish it. Nothing about him inspired hope or confidence—not his blurting diction, thosebursts ofbreathless wordclusters that always make him sound like he’s swinging on mental monkey bars, grasping each thought just long enough to get to the next; certainly not his cynical and confused foray into anti-tax pragmatism to attack Warren’s planned social programs. There was room for him to be a prophet, and he ended up nothing more than a bogeyman: living proof to armed right-wingers that the liberals really do want to grab your guns, and living reassurance that it’s never going to happen. —Tom Scocca
…And actually, one plea for John Delaney to stay in
We live in incredibly fraught times, and it’s rare to find something Democrats can truly unite around. That’s why Delaney is such an unexpected gift. With terrible politics and a personality that consists entirely of being a scold, Delaney is an objectively perfect villain. No one wants to hear from him, he’s a delight to mock, and he reminds us that as much as we may dislike the other people onstage, we will never despise them as much as we despise Delaney. John, my dear friend, don’t you dare go anywhere. The primary desperately needs a heel. And that’s you. —Ashley Feinberg
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus