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Dem Debate Showcases Bernie-Buttigieg Race in New Hampshire

Democrats hit Trump and hug each other as Biden fades.
Bernie Buttigieg

PORTSMOUTH, N.H.— The Democratic presidential contenders can’t quite summon the hate, at least toward each other. This is probably a good thing: few would look at the current state of American politics and say what we need now is more vitriol. But with the primaries finally beginning, a still-crowded field, and money and support dwindling for many, no one was willing to really take off the gloves during last night’s debate. Even in an evening with some substance and some real if truncated clashes, what stood out was the candidates’ unanimity against Donald Trump, their rough consensus on much of a policy agenda, and their unwillingness to descend into a knife fight. Biden hugged Bernie, Buttigieg defended Hunter Biden’s grifting, and everyone was smiling at the end.

Pundits seem to have chosen Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar as the night’s winner. Fair enough. The centrist bronze medalist in Iowa, Klobuchar spent most of her night attacking Buttigieg, evincing real disdain for the Indiana mayor. She seemed particularly irked at his blasé attitude toward impeachment and got in repeated jibes about “political newcomers with no records.” She contrasted herself with Sanders by claiming to be “a candidate who brings people in from the middle.” Klobuchar ended with a plaintive plea for support on Tuesday, which seemed to resonate as “real” with the chattering class at least.

Joe Biden, also ailing in the polls, took the perhaps unprecedented step of conceding the primary right out of the gate. Noting Sanders’ hold on the state and Warren’s status as a neighboring state’s senator, Biden bizarrely predicted another underwhelming finish for himself. He hit his notes after that, speaking with more authority and conviction than usual. But the message was the same: the Obama restoration, a return to the centrist neoliberalism that was—hush Millennials!—working so well. Biden even indignantly asked Buttigieg: “I don’t know what about the past was so bad…we were just beginning.”

Pete Buttigieg took more heat than usual, a reflection of his tie for first in Iowa. The other candidates all hit him for his lack of experience, with Biden being the most dismissive. The biggest blow came from one of the moderators, Linsey Davis. Asked about why marijuana arrests for black residents were up during his time as mayor, Buttigieg said that they weren’t. Davis refused to back down, eliciting a tortured justification about how marijuana arrests were being used to target drug gangs and murderers. Warren, seizing the moment, drew applause and cheers when she told Buttigieg “You have to own up to the facts.”

Sanders, despite being the clear frontrunner in New Hampshire, took remarkably little fire from his rivals. Only Klobuchar and a hesitant Tom Steyer raised their hands to show that they had a problem with a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” at the top of the ticket. Sanders brusquely promised to support “whoever wins this damn thing.” He stuck to his usual script— Medicare For All, billionaires paying their fair share, and non-intervention overseas—with as much feeling as ever. His opponents, it seems, are vying to be the one to challenge him a state or two down the line.

This may, alas, be it for the Yang Gang. UBI one-noter and real human being Andrew Yang slashed staff after Iowa and received less speaking time than his rivals last night. He had a nice line, calling on America to “disentangle economic value and human value.” The “Math” lapel pin remains endearing. Literally jumping up and down after the debate ended, Yang didn’t seem to mind his fade too much.

Unblinking billionaire Tom Steyer, though, was the most fun man on stage. Equipped with a tartan tie and a fun-but-serious boomer dad vibe, Steyer hammered on the economy and on race, labeled the U.S. “the Empire in the Star Wars movies,” and irked Biden by describing a response of his as “a dissertation on being the world’s policeman.” Steyer ventured an attack on Biden for a South Carolina surrogate’s supposed racism, which was brushed off twice. He voiced his support for reparations for slavery. Off to South Carolina today while the New Hampshire primary is just days away, Steyer’s gambit is clear: pull enough black support from Biden to kill the former vice president’s campaign and insert himself into the front rank of centrist contenders. He may pull it off.

All the Democratic candidates bewailed Donald Trump’s manifold sins and wickedness. Spelling out how to beat him was another matter. Elizabeth Warren, who could have run a whole campaign on anti-corruption but chose not to, struck that note once or twice and then left it. Sanders pushed the necessity of higher turnout, noting that he increased under-29 turnout 30% in Iowa (though overall turnout stayed flat). Others made even less convincing cases. Marianne Williamson was missed.

In the end, one doubts any of this will really move the needle. True, polling finds that about 40 percent of likely New Hampshire voters could change their minds. But airing in the Friday night TV dead zone, with the primary four days away, the debate will probably only affect a weird species of voter: the political junkie who’s nonetheless still uncertain about who to vote for. It looks like a Bernie-Buttigieg race in the Granite State.

Gil Barndollar is a New Hampshire native and a fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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