Democratic Debate #5 Recap: It’s Kamala Harris and Cory Booker’s Time to Shine

Last night, the Democratic Party hosted the fifth of six scheduled debates of the 2020 primary season. The month since our last debate has led to some interesting developments: Tim Ryan, Wayne Messam and Beto O’Rourke suspended their campaigns, Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick announced their candidacies for president, Julián Castro, failed to qualify for the November debate, after participating in October, and looming over all of it: the official start of an impeachment inquiry against the president.

The Participants:

+ Cory Booker – Senator from New Jersey
+ Tulsi Gabbard – Representative from Hawaii’s Second District
+ Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota
+ Pete Buttigieg – Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
+ Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachussetts
+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President
+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont
+ Kamala Harris – Senator from California
+ Andrew Yang – Former Tech Executive
+ Tom Steyer – Businessman

Representation Matters

For the only the second time in history, women outnumbered men on the presidential debate stage last night (the first time was in 2016 when Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill moderated a debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders). In addition to the four female candidates, four women — Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, Ashley Parker and Kristen Welker — were given the responsibility to moderate the fifth debate of the primary contest. Unsurprisingly, the four women moderated the most successful debate of the cycle thus far.

A few things really distinguished this debate from the others, in my view: first, there didn’t seem to be an emphasis in drawing the candidates into fights with each other. If the candidates wanted to throw jabs at one another, fine, but with one exception — when Mitchell asked Klobuchar about criticism of Buttigieg’s experience — the moderators didn’t seem particularly interested in goading the candidates into a fight. It was a welcome change. Also? Four female moderators meant that we finally got to hear the candidates speak on issues that have been ignored, for the most part, on the debate stage. We got to hear candidates talk about child care, housing, paid family leave, #MeToo and reproductive rights. This debate proved, without a doubt, that it matters who gets to ask the questions… and, perhaps more importantly, if we set the expectation that women can ask the questions, there’s no reason to be bothered that it’s a woman that’s answering them too.

That said, I still felt like the questioning could have been more inclusive. Yesterday was Transgender Day of Remembrance and we got not a single question about the scourge of violence that trans women, particularly black and brown trans women, face. Despite a rash of mass shootings over the last few weeks — at a football watch party, a Saugus High School, at a block party — there was no question about how we stem the tide of gun violence in this country. We learned just recently that for the first time in nearly 30 years, the United States went an entire month without resettling a single refugee within its borders… but we got no question about that or about the broader issue of our country’s immigration policy. The latter omission is particularly galling when you consider that, for the first time, the primary field’s lone Latinx candidate was not part of the debate. Surely, it would’ve been more worthwhile to ask candidates any of those questions than asking about how they’ll respond if a “lock him up” chant breaks out at one of their political rallies, as it did at the Washington Nationals’ playoff game.

Harris edges Booker for the win

In most primary campaigns, staffers and consultants tell candidates not to do what Kamala Harris did last night.

Ashley Parker asked Rep. Gabbard to respond to expand on her criticism of Hillary Clinton as the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party” and, as is her wont, Gabbard trashed the party’s former standard bearer as the nexus of the “military industrial complex and other greedy corporate interests.” Gabbard went on to talk about how she wants to end the “Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign policy doctrine of regime change wars” and invest in the needs of the American people. And though her name was not invoked, Parker went to Harris for a response.

“Oh, sure,” Harris said, seemingly caught off guard by the request and then, she did the thing that candidates are told to never do: she punched down.

Conventional political wisdom suggests that a candidate should avoid getting into fights with other candidates polling worse than they are. When given the opportunity to punch down, the leading candidate should demur and pivot onto safer ground. That rule is why, for example, no one bothers to criticize Andrew Yang’s proposal for a Universal Basic Income. Yes, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that Yang’s proposal would destabilize, if not eliminate, the social safety net as we know it, but candidates don’t punch down. Instead, candidates are urged to take the fight to the frontrunners… to cast yourself on their level by engaging with them substantively.

That is not what Kamala Harris did.

Given an opening to take a shot at lower polling Gabbard, Harris took it and she eviscerated the Hawaii representative in the process. While some recoiled at the Harris breaking a time-honored debate rule last night, I think it and many of the other answers she gave last night fit perfectly into the campaign’s new narrative of Kamala Harris as a fighter, of Kamala Harris as the anti-Trump. Harris had strong, forceful challenges for the president on North Korea, she was the lone candidate to talk about gender and racial pay disparities (on Latina Equal Pay Day, no less) and recreating the Obama coalition to win in 2020. It’s a narrative that plays to Harris’ strengths and one that requires that Harris throw some punches. Some of her biggest moments on the national stage — her interrogation of Bill Barr, her questioning of Brett Kavaunaugh, her critique of Joe Biden in the first debate — have cast Harris as a fighter and she reclaimed that mantle last night.

I thought Harris’ consistency throughout the debate gave her a slight edge over Cory Booker, in terms of who won the debate. Booker didn’t start out as strongly as Harris, getting into an odd exchange with Elizabeth Warren over her wealth tax proposal. He described her proposal as “cumbersome” and “hard to evaluate” while pushing for a system of more “just taxation.” Booker came close to repeating Beto O’Rourke’s criticism of Warren from the previous debate — namely that her wealth tax is punitive — and I’m not sure that that’s a substantive critique, as much as a stylistic one. But Booker improved as the night went on, employing his well-honed tactic of disarming the audience with a joke (“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters; I’ve been one since I was 18”) before attacking another candidate. His exchange with Biden over the former vice president’s suggestion that marijuana is a “gateway drug” was one of the highlights of the night.

Buttigieg, the frontrunner?

When Elizabeth Warren starting climbing in the polls, the rest of the field started to turn their ire towards her. They ripped her proposals on taxes and job creation and criticized her Medicare for All proposal ad nauseam. Amy Klobuchar accused Warren of trying to kick 150 million people off their health care. They, along with a chorus of billionaires who’d grown increasingly weary of a Warren presidency, demanded answers from her about the math worked, despite not asking anyone else for the numbers. They lambasted her plan to break up big tech, with Yang accused her of solving a 21st century problem “using a 20th century antitrust framework.” And while it was unsettling to watch for Warren supporters, this is what happens to a frontrunner: they face a higher level of scrutiny.

But, oddly, enough, that’s not what happed to Pete Buttigieg last night.

According to new polling, the outgoing South Bend mayor has taken the lead in Iowa and follows just behind Warren and Biden in New Hampshire. And while Buttigieg was attacked directly by Gabbard — with a false accusation that he’d said he would send American troops to Mexico — he didn’t suffer the kind of direct attacks on his plans that Warren did as frontrunner. Given the opportunity to address Buttigieg’s lack of experience directly early in the debate, Klobuchar backed off… though, oddly, she’d try and get the jab in later, without much success.

That said, Buttigieg did not escape the night unscathed: while no one took him on directly, Harris, Booker and, to a lesser extent, Biden were content to see Buttigieg’s candidacy die by a thousand cuts. Every time Harris talked about bringing back the Obama coalition, it was a shot at Buttigieg who mistakenly announced the endorsement of several prominent African-American leaders in South Carolina that he didn’t actually have. When she emphasized the role of black women in the Democratic Party, it was a shot at Buttigieg and his lack of support among that constituency. When Booker said that he didn’t “a focus group to hear from African-American voters,” it was a shot at Buttigieg: a thinly veiled reference the leaked results of a Buttigieg focus group that attributed his lack of support to homophobia. But because he wasn’t challenged directly, Buttigieg couldn’t respond directly… though he tried to stop the bleeding.

“While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin,” Buttigieg said. “I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here.”

Political Potpourri

+ I thought Biden had an effective debate — his answer on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was particularly good — right up until the question about sexual violence and harassment. His gaffe and the response to it by the audience threw the former Vice President off his game and he never fully recovered. Particularly maddening was him erasing Kamala Harris from history with her standing right there on the stage. For months now, Biden has been making an electability argument and you have to wonder at what point his missteps start to undermine his most effective message.

+ Biden was so clearly frustrated by his debate performance that he also broke the #1 rule of debates: attacking Tom Steyer for his legacy of investing in coal-mining companies while leading Farallon Capital. Steyer seemed stunned that anyone had bothered to read his opposition research file.

What’d you think of last night’s debate? Did any moments or candidates stand out to you? Any candidate that you found underwhelming?

Next Debate: December 19, 2019 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 396 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for the informative recap, Natalie. I was bummed that Castro was not on the stage so I binge watched “Love It or List It” while following the debate on twitter. I’m experiencing some primary fatigue and look forward to the field narrowing (Biden-less).

  2. i really appreciate the fact check on gabbard and also the contextualization of harris’ debate style; i feel like she’d be one of the strongest choices for the general election if she could only make it there.

    i gotta say, though, i’m surprised at all of the positive feedback booker has received in this column. i guess word of his bs hasn’t left jersey, but he did a real hit-and-run on newark. by the end of his term, robberies had gone up, murders had gone up, he’d received donations from a corrupt watershed development corp, lead levels continued spiraling due to their mismanagement/his oversight, he pumped money into corporate developments and gentrification downtown, he laid off about a thousand city workers, he partnered with mark zuckerberg to slam dunk $100 million into the garbage in a failed attempt to overhaul education, etc. warren’s wealth tax is only “punitive” to him, because he knows he’d get punished.

    • Can I get some sources on the Mark Zuckerberg thing? I’m not a huge fan of Booker, but I’d like to know a bit more context about that whole mess if you have any on hand.

    • Just to clarify, @patrolcat. I have kind things to say about Booker’s debate performance but that shouldn’t be interpreted as any kind of endorsement for his candidacy at all. I have my misgivings about a lot of candidates on the stage but I try to be as dispassionate about recapping the debates as possible.

      Except when it comes to Tulsi Gabbard, maybe. My frustration with her just seeps through my writing.

  3. I think the thing that really annoyed me about this debate, was Steyer claiming constantly that they were the only one willing to fight climate change, and that they had won repeatedly against the oil industry and like…


    No, you aren’t, and no, you haven’t. Practically half of the candidates on stage that are worth mentioning are making climate change a major issue on their platform. And no, you have not won against big oil, because big oil is still a massive issue. We still have leaking pipelines, we still have stuff like the cover up of the BP oil spill in the gulf, we still have attempts to drill IN OUR NATIONAL FORESTS, you know, land literally everybody owns together. We still have a massive reliance on gas powered vehicles.

    Just… this might be a pet peeve of mine, but stop saying you’ve won when all you’ve done is lightly slapped them on the wrist while the oil CEOs pretend to go; “oh noes~ You got me~ Now I can’t afford my fourth yacht” Nobody has won against the oil industry, because oil has literally wrecked us and has us in a stranglehold. I get there is only so much these candidates can do at times, but lets call it what it is, because honestly the oil industry still gets away with the same stuff they always have. /rant

    • Yeah his “I’m the climate candidate” is such a joke. Like no, you fucking aren’t, Tom. Please spare us your bullshit.

  4. I’m no great fan of Tulsi, mostly for her coziness with people on the reactionary right, especially Modi. But the virtual bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and the military industrial complex deserves our criticism.

    In terms of the ecological emergency we’re facing, the next few years are the most important in our future. The only candidate who seems to really grasp the scale of action needed, with a platform to match, is Sanders. Having a habitable future and Medicare for All are my biggest priorities, so he’s the only choice for me. They’re also tied together, because climate is a health justice issue. To create transformative change, we, the people, need to be organized. Sanders gets that, too.

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