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Will the Debate Put Mayor Pete’s Campaign Back on Track?

Will the Debate Put Mayor Pete’s Campaign Back on Track?

Buttigieg did well in the debate, but it’s unclear if it will stick.
Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP/Shutterstock

In all the discussion of Kamala Harris’s boffo performance and Joe Biden’s bad night, dramatized by the former’s direct confrontation with the latter on his civil-rights record, another candidate who appeared to do well in the second 2020 Democratic debate got less attention than might otherwise be the case. Vox’s assessment of the debate reflected the consensus view that South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg did well:

Almost every breakout moment belonged to Harris, but insofar as anyone else stood out, it was Pete Buttigieg …

Buttigieg needed to remind primary voters why they took such a shine to him in the first place — his calm, sensible intelligence — and he largely succeeded.

He scored some points in particular with his deft comment on the migrant-children crisis that reminded people of his status as the Democratic candidate most willing to take on the Christian right from the perspective of an observant believer:

We have got to talk about one other thing because the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion. Now our party doesn’t talk about that as much largely for a very good reason which was we are committed to the separation of church and state and we stand for people of any religion and people of no religion. But we should call out hypocrisy when we see it, for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.

Until Joe Biden ended his closing statement with the traditional benediction of “God bless America,” Mayor Pete was the only candidate to mention the Almighty, which reinforces his distinction as an openly gay and outspokenly religious candidate.

But Buttigieg’s biggest moment in this debate — when he was directly asked about his handling of a recent police shooting in South Bend, and more generally, his record on police-minority relations — is a bit tougher to adjudge. As I noted earlier this week in a chat with my colleagues Zak Cheney-Rice and Ben Hart, the killing of Eric Logan, an African-American man, by a white South Bend police officer was a multifaceted threat to Buttigieg’s credibility:

[T]he incident has exposed two of his biggest vulnerabilities as a presidential candidate: his not very impressive day job and his not always impressive handling of it, and his notable lack of support from African-Americans.

Indeed, Cheney-Rice and I agreed Mayor Pete might not be able to recover from the incident, which led to renewed criticism of his record from African-American citizens of South Bend, particularly during a tense town hall meeting he called.

At the debate Rachel Maddow got directly to the point:

We are going to begin this hour with Mayor Buttigieg. In the last five years civil rights activists in our country have led a national debate over race and the criminal justice system. Your community of South Bend, Indiana has recently been in uproar over an officer involved shooting. The police force in South Bend is now 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black. Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?

To his credit, Mayor Pete did not hem and haw or try to change the subject, but took responsibility for a bad situation:

Because I couldn’t get it done. My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting — black man Eric Logan killed by a white officer. And I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer says he was attacked with a knife, but he didn’t have his body camera on. It’s a mess. And we’re hurting. And I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community — all of the steps that we took from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact and nothing that I say will bring him back. This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the country. And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.

John Hickenlooper jumped in to tout his record on police-community relations as former two-term mayor of Denver in a way that implicitly threw shade at Buttigieg’s record, and then Mayor Pete’s fellow 30-something Eric Swalwell directly asked him why he didn’t fire the police chief right away once it became obvious that the cop in the Logan case didn’t turn on his body camera. This could have been a dangerous line of inquiry since one of Buttigieg’s problems with his city’s African-Americans stems from his involvement in the dismissal of South Bend’s first and only black police chief, but then Marianne Williamson pulled the discussion into the topic of reparations and the moment passed.

So did Mayor Pete put out the fire on the contentious issue of police racism? It may depend on who you ask. The New York Times interviewed some community activists from South Bend who clearly weren’t mollified:

In an apartment on South Bend’s largely black Northwest Side, the reviews were mostly negative.

“He skipped over all the stuff that’s happened,” said Tiana Batiste-Waddell, referring to a history of police misconduct in South Bend, some of which led to officers being fired or found guilty of rights violations.

“It’s not in his best interest to go into all of it because he knows he didn’t do anything,” said Jordan Geiger, who works for a nonprofit group.

“But he needs to speak to those,” Ms. Batiste-Waddell said. “That’s how I believe our department got to the point of killing a black man. Because none of the other racial things that have happened have been addressed.”

Obviously the Logan shooting is still a big issue in South Bend. Logan’s family is suing the city for damages under civil-rights laws, claiming his killing was racially motivated. The county prosecutor has asked a local judge to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the incident. Buttigieg himself has called for an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. So the Logan tragedy and the surrounding disputes aren’t going to go away. The Times’ judgment on the impact of the mayor’s handling of it all is probably right:

There has been little polling since the shooting took place. But Mr. Buttigieg’s attempts at damage control, in the form of readily voiced contrition and community meetings that were raw and chaotic, may be more convincing to voters nationally than locally.

So he has more work to do to recover fully as the nominating contest gets closer to actual voting.

Will the Debate Put Mayor Pete’s Campaign Back on Track?

More evidence that people are intensely interested in the 2020 election

Last night’s debate on NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo got 18.1 million TV viewers, making it the most-watched Democratic debate ever.

The 2015 GOP debate on Fox News (with Trump) still holds the record with 24 million viewers.


vision 2020

Will the Debate Put Mayor Pete’s Campaign Back on Track?

By Ed Kilgore

Buttigieg had a good debate performance, and was properly contrite in addressing a recent police shooting in his city. But he has more work to do.

The punishment for an infamous moment in recent American history

BREAKING: White supremacist sentenced to life in prison for deadly car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.


the national circus

the national circus

Frank Rich: Kamala Harris’s Debate Performance Should Scare Trump

By Frank Rich

Beyond her dismantling of Joe Biden on Thursday night, she showed off her formidable skill as a prosecutor. That’s sure to unnerve the president.

vision 2020

Elizabeth Warren Thinks We Need More Diplomats

By Sarah Jones

In her first post-debate plan, Warren describes how she would rebuild the State Department and promises not to give ambassadorships to donors.

interesting times

interesting times

Andrew Sullivan: Democratic Candidates Are in a Bubble on Immigration

By Andrew Sullivan

The debates proved that they are fundamentally out of touch with the difficult realities of the issue.

early and often

early and often

Live Polling of the Debates: Good News for Harris, Warren, Biden, and Substance

By Gabriel Debenedetti

These voters liked the senators from MA and CA, but they aren’t yet abandoning the former veep. And they don’t like food fights.

supreme court

Supreme Court to Hear DACA Cases Next Term

By Ed Kilgore

But the Court chose not to review an Alabama ban on the procedure used in most second-term abortions, with Thomas calling for reversal of precedents.


Are These Quotes From Marianne Williamson or Metal Gear Solid?

By Brian Feldman

Marianne Willamson. Hideo Kojima. Two great minds, linked on the astral plane.

Europe is boiling

For a third straight day, a ferocious heat wave is baking large parts of Europe, and the exceptionally high temperatures are making history. On Friday, the town of Villevieille in southern France hit 113.2 degrees (45.1 Celsius), the hottest temperature ever recorded in the country.

The scorching temperature surpassed the previous record of 111.4 degrees (44.1 Celsius) set in the southern town of Conqueyrac in France’s historic 2003 heat wave, which was blamed for 15,000 deaths.

It appeared more than one location had surpassed the 2003 record, as Carpentras in southeastern France rose to 111.7 degrees (44.3 Celsius).

The heat was so intense that, for the first time since initiating its heat warning system (after the 2003 heat wave), Météo-France declared a red alert, the highest level, for the southeast part of the country Friday.

Dem candidates understand that impeachment is not top of mind for a lot of voters

Number of times these words were mentioned at the debate last night:

Mueller 0

Special Counsel 0

Impeach/Impeachment 0

Obstruction of Justice 0


vision 2020

Here’s Who Won (and Lost) the Second Democratic Primary Debate

By Eric Levitz

The ten candidates’ performances, ranked, from best to worst.

We might already know what next term’s biggest case will be

BREAKING: Supreme Court agrees to hear Trump’s bid to end Obama’s DACA program. Case likely to be decided next year in the heat of the presidential campaign.


Harris doing some cleanup from an otherwise bravura performance

Senator Kamala Harris says on @Morning_Joe she probably heard the question differently than other candidates but does NOT support taking away private insurance (despite raising her hand on stage last night).


Hi-larious from the president

Nearly one year after his infamous Helsinki moment, Trump makes light of Russian interference in US elections, smiling along with Putin as he says “Don’t meddle in the election…please. Don’t meddle in the election.”


democratic debates

democratic debates

Marianne Williamson’s Weirdest, Most Wonderful Debate Moments

By Matt Stieb

During Thursday’s Democratic debate, the self-help guru shifted the conversation in unexpected directions, from New Zealand to the moon.

How Much Did Thursday’s Debate Hurt Joe Biden?

You wrote about Wednesday night’s debate that though Joe Biden currently holds a commanding lead in many Democratic primary polls, Elizabeth Warren and co. barely mentioned him. But once Biden appeared onstage at tonight’s affair, that dynamic rapidly changed. Some candidates were not shy about going after him; the night’s most memorable exchange came when Kamala Harris, in what seemed to be a pre-planned attack, raked him over the coals for opposing busing, connecting his stance to her own childhood and putting him squarely on the defensive. Biden didn’t make any big mistakes, but tripped over his words occasionally and looked his age for a good portion of the evening. (No offense to 76-year-olds.) How much do you think tonight damaged him as a frontrunner?

Clearly Harris’ team saw an advantage in directly pursuing Biden’s voters that others — who were afraid of antagonizing his supporters — didn’t. But Biden’s team was roundly rejecting the idea that he was grievously hurt by these exchanges — “voters, not Twitter!’ was their informal post-debate rallying cry. The beauty here is we’ll see, and soon. One interesting thing: the conventional wisdom in the spin room did seem to shift from “Harris seriously hurt Biden’s chances tonight” to “but maybe she looked overly scripted, and real voters won’t care” fairly quickly. Until we get numbers, of course, this is all just pundit talk. But what the exchange clearly did was establish that his model is likely not the only electable one.

Interesting. It definitely was a script, and it did feel a little uncomfortably opportunistic to me. On the other hand, Harris has been underperforming expectations so far, and this is a moment people will remember. So even if it doesn’t hurt Biden, it will likely boost her, correct? She was excellent beyond that exchange, too.

I’m not sure I agree that she’s been underperforming, but she’s been holding steady at a fairly low number, all things considered. What she definitely did tonight was establish herself as a top-tier candidate. But what does that really mean, in practice? It means we mean something new by “top-tier.” That tier is Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren, and Buttigieg, but not necessarily in that order, at all. The difference: before there was a tippy-top-tier of Biden alone. I’m not convinced that’ll still be the case — at least as far as pundits and analysts are concerned. Again, we’ll see how voters feel.

19 of these people may soon agree.

Haha. Beyond Biden and Harris, did you think anyone boosted or damaged their candidacy in any serious way?

Gillibrand successfully made herself a major character in the night’s drama for much of the night, and I think Bennet forced his way into more conversations than anyone expected. But if you’re Hickenlooper, you’re not going to be happy to be so far to the edges of the debate’s central moments, only to see your former chief of staff overtake you.

Gillibrand said basically what she’s been saying on the trail for something like 6 months now. The difference is she interrupted the field and edged her way into the night’s discourse on a few issues where she felt she’d been overlooked. It was an obvious strategy, but the night’s biggest takeaway has to still be about Harris and Biden.

One thing that’s fascinating: Bernie Sanders essentially being at the periphery of so much of this, despite being literally center-stage.

Not so different from how it’s felt in the campaign generally lately.

He stuck to his greatest hits, as he often does, but that meant that he didn’t do much confrontation until the end, on Iraq.

Going into this debate, Pete Buttigieg had hit a rough patch in his charmed rise, after his shaky handling of a police shooting in South Bend. In one of the more striking moments tonight, he fielded a question about it by admitting that he had failed to adequately reform his police department. What did you make of his response?

He obviously knew it was coming, and admitting fault was a deft way to get credit for what’s widely been seen as a rough response. One thing that stuck out to me was that many expected someone to attack him for the response. No one expected that to come from Hickenlooper, and then Swalwell. That limited discussion of the actual substance.

Yeah, Swalwell yelled at him to fire his police chief, drawing a glare from Buttigieg.

Finally: what did you think of tonight’s moderators? I thought they asked pretty good questions and for the most part imposed order, though there were some stretches of lawlessness.

Strategic lawlessness! It was slightly strange that these candidates got to respond to what happened on the previous night, but clearly the moderators wanted to put on a show and maximize meaningful conflict. I think it worked, and I don’t have a problem with candidates running over their time. Rules shmules.

One thing that will definitely change about the questions in future debates: Harris and Warren will both have to defend their records now.

democratic debates

democratic debates

Biden’s Bad Night Exposed Some Dangerous Weaknesses

By Ed Kilgore

Biden looked old, ill-prepared, and vulnerable to an African-American challenger in the first debate. He must bounce back quickly lest it get worse.

democratic debates

democratic debates

Snap Judgments of All 7,000 Democratic Candidates

By Madison Malone Kircher

A two-hour debate is not enough time to develop nuanced opinions. But it’s plenty of time to develop totally unfair assessments of each candidate.

More of the same

After last night’s truth parade, Biden brought back the bullshit

Biden’s claim tonight that he only opposed federally mandated busing and did not generally oppose “busing in America” was a flagrant misrepresentation of his position in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He’d made crystal clear he opposed busing as a concept, as a matter of principle.


When gut feelings need a gut check

I would just like to remind everyone on this website that President Donald Trump lost all three debates. #DemDebate2


Debate drama — or deck chairs?

These debates are making it clearer than ever to me that America doesn’t understand how the climate crisis touches pretty much every area of policy…health, mental health immigration, geopolitics, trade, manufacturing, etc. etc. etc.


early and often

Kamala Harris Just Jumped Into the Top Tier

By Jonathan Chait

But she also laid a couple traps for herself that could hurt later.

Another frame for Harris’s interjection

It’s been a minute and I am still shocked at Kamala Harris stating the obvious: As a black person, I would like to say a word on race.

That is a stance so many black people have to take in crowded rooms to get heard.


Turning a lucky break to her advantage

When all is said and done, no one will be happier with the way the debate stages lined up than Harris, who got to leave a lasting impression by speaking on Thursday, and who took advantage of the chance to face off directly against Biden and Sanders


Biden’s director of strategic communications, after the debate

Twitter vs. Voters


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