The Big Losers of the New Hampshire Debate


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So I was wrong. Really wrong. I said on Friday morning that it was unlikely that Pete Buttigieg's rivals on the Democratic debate stage in New Hampshire on Friday night would be eager to attack him. I also predicted that generally we might see relatively few fireworks.

But especially in the first hour (and, to be fair, often in response to moderator questions), it was perhaps the most contentious presidential debate of the cycle. There were plenty of hits on the former South Bend mayor, who claimed victory in the chaotic Iowa caucuses this week.

The most notable punch: Amy Klobuchar attacked Buttigieg's anti-Washington rhetoric, quoting his claim that watching the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump made him want to turn the channel and watch cartoons. Her rejoinder: That insult and others "makes you look like a cool newcomer. I don't think that's what people want right now. We have a newcomer in the White House, and look what that got us."

Will it all be enough to slow Buttigieg's momentum in New Hampshire? That depends on the people who were watching - and, especially, on how the media portray the debate and whether (and how) the tone of this coverage changes over the next few days.

I won't predict any of that. But I will say that while Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren all had good moments, this debate belonged to Klobuchar. For once, she hit all her marks, whether attacking one of the others, joking with Bernie Sanders about a bill they had co-sponsored, or - again and again - turning each answer into an attack on Trump.

Klobuchar is the only one to regularly use humor and deploy prepared zingers, such as a riff she has about all the various people Trump blames for his troubles. She had a nice closing about Franklin Roosevelt caring about regular people, and promising that she does, too. She gave a similar bit in a CNN town hall on Thursday night, and the Friday version was far, far better.

Will it matter? Unlikely. The Minnesota senator finished fifth in neighboring Iowa, is currently polling in fifth in New Hampshire, and is surely going to use every last dollar she has raised in that state. Realistically, even a strong third place in New Hampshire probably leaves her with too much to do, and, given that she's being outspent, she would need a lot of positive media coverage in the few days before Tuesday's primary to have a chance at that.

As I said, it wasn't as if the leading contenders had bad nights. Buttigieg had a very nice moment when, asked about Hunter Biden, he defended the former vice president. As for Biden, after sleepwalking through the debate's first few minutes, he woke up and sounded forceful, especially in asking the audience to stand in appreciation of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the Ukraine scandal witness whom Trump fired earlier in the day.

Sanders gave what I thought was a more controlled performance than usual; Warren was her usual strong self in explaining plan after plan. (Her supporters were complaining on Twitter during the debate that she wasn't getting enough time. They were correct, but she used what she had well.)

It's always hard to predict reactions, but I doubt anyone leaning toward any of these candidates was driven away by how they performed. (Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer were also at the debate and continue to be irrelevant to the nomination process.)

The real loser? ABC News, beginning with George Stephanopoulos. Missing were invitations to discuss public policy - an approach that is most informative to voters and helpful in letting the candidates sort themselves out. Instead, we had gotcha questions about their records with tough follow-ups if they ducked the query. That strategy may be great for a press conference or a one-on-one interview, but it's all wrong for a candidate debate.

The weird framing of some policy issues seemed designed to force candidates into tough choices. Appropriate for a high school debate, perhaps, but it turns a presidential debate into a skill contest of who is best at recasting questions to their advantage. The candidates were asked about campaign strategy and tactics. Boring and uninformative.

Over and over, the moderators seemed intent on provoking fights between the candidates. It got so bad that once they had asked each of the candidates on stage to unload on one another, they eventually asked them to attack Michael Bloomberg, who wasn't even there. Again: If candidates want to slam each other, that's their business, not the moderators'.

As a result, even in a pretty long debate, fewer topics were covered and in less detail than we've seen previously. I think it's time for both political parties to at least consider producing their own debates. My guess is they can find someone who will televise them.

(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katy Roberts at

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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