Democratic debate in Houston: From A to F, Mastio & Lawrence grade the 2020 candidates

Jill: The best parts of this debate were the beginning and the end. In their opening statements and closing remarks on professional setbacks, these candidates distilled their essence and showed who they are. And that is what regular voters want and need to know. Even devoted policy junkies might have taken a popcorn break during an argument over automatic enrollment versus opting in to a hypothetical plan of Medicare for whoever wants it. But, in the personal moments that framed the debate, anyone looking for an alternative to President Donald Trump probably would have found more than one successor who would do.

David: The health care discussion was a disaster for Democrats, making the party look like a gaggle of socialists bent on beating each other to the far left flank. The remaining moderates, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, came through the night with the most bruises. Sure, there are plenty of plausible alternatives to Trump, but how extreme will the last person standing appear after more of these debates? Trump is smiling. 

Now, on to the grades …

Joe Biden

David’s grade: F (for feeble). “Make sure you have the record player on at night?” Who even has a record player any more, and what does that have to do with education? That flub capped off a night of dodging questions and mishandling tough moments, including a wandering mess of an answer on his support for the Iraq war. What a disaster.

Jill’s grade: B+. This was a Biden who perhaps had chugged a can of Red Bull before coming onstage. There was a no more Mr. Nice Guy aspect to him. He had at least one slip-up besides the record player (90% of Americans support comprehensive gun background checks, not an assault weapons ban as he said). But overall it was an energetic performance interspersed with cutting retorts, especially to former Housing Secretary Julián Castro’s  repeated attempts to make Biden seem old. Those rooting for Biden will feel better about him after this outing. 

Cory Booker

David’s grade: C. I came away from the debate thinking the New Jersey senator was the most likable and potentially inspiring, but I can’t figure out why really. Can you get much leverage from the bold plan to create a White House office to target white supremacy? I don’t think so.

Jill’s grade: B+. He emerged for the first time as a real competitor who could frame issues with a relatable urgency. It was refreshing to hear a Medicare for All supporter argue for progress however we can get it, because people have high blood pressure and unaffordable insulin “right now.” He was talking about guns when he said we have a “crisis of empathy,” but I think people understand that is the broader problem right now in the Oval Office. (Also, he would probably be the first president who lost out to penguins in an Academy Awards competition for best documentary.)

Pete Buttigieg

David’s grade: D. The veneer is coming off the mayor from Indiana. He didn’t stand out as particularly articulate as he has in previous debates, and he said some monumentally foolish things. First, about Afghanistan, the war he served in: “The best way to avoid an endless war is not to start one in the first place.” Well, anyone who remembers 9/11 knows we didn’t start the war in Afghanistan. Second, given a chance to say something important about reforming education, he said the first thing he would do is “put in place a secretary of education who actually believes in public education,” as if who the education secretary is actually moves the needle. Please.

Jill’s grade: B-. He had a few memorable moments, such as when he told Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders his Medicare for All plan amounted to “my way or the highway” and said that as a soldier serving under don’t ask, don’t tell and a public official in conservative Indiana, “I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I was, was going to be the ultimate career-ending professional setback.” But Buttigieg was outshone for most of the night by the more dynamic people onstage with him.

Democratic presidential candidates at debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019 (Photo: Robyn Beck)

Julián Castro

David’s grade: C. He will be remembered for taking it to Joe Biden and making the former vice president look weak and lost on stage. Too bad it was the former Housing secretary who turned out to be wrong. Right or wrong, the way Castro handled it will probably hurt him at the polls. Democrats didn’t need his attack to reveal how fragile their frontrunner remains.

Jill’s grade: C-. I was not a fan of how he went after Biden. How many times did he have to say to him, “You just said that two minutes ago. You just two minutes ago … Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago …” Five times, I guess. Also, his defense of his pugnaciousness was “that’s called an election.” But others managed to mix it up without seeming like they were bashing their grandfather. I’m not sure where Castro goes from here.

Kamala Harris

David’s grade: D (for dangerous). Instead of acknowledging the reality that the Second Amendment makes regulating guns hard, the California senator chose to feed Democratic primary voters the falsehood that all a president has to do is sign some executive orders. Instead of rebuking Trump’s lawless presidency, she plans to build on its executive overreach. She wilted under scrutiny for her record as a prosecutor and California’s attorney general.

Jill’s grade: B-. After a strong first debate and a weak second, this one scored somewhere in between. Her candidacy still seems undefined and doesn’t hold together. She hinted at a theme at the end with a call for “courageous leadership,” the kind she says she showed taking on polluters in California. Time is growing short to come up with a narrative and figure out how to sell it to America.

Amy Klobuchar

David’s grade: S (for shaky). Challenged to account for her role as a prosecutor in failing to pursue cases against police officers who shot unarmed minorities, the Minnesota senator started shaking and she never quite recovered her cool. Her appeal to moderates never seemed to break through because she keeps telling people about it while failing to show how it would make a difference for Democrats.

Jill’s grade: B-. She presented herself as the candidate for the forgotten moderate voter well enough: “If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes … you’ve got a home with me.” But the old question about passionate centrism arises: Is there any such thing? Also, Biden has that lane, and one reason he has such a hold on it is a personality many people know and love. That’s tough competition.

Beto O’Rourke

David’s grade: A. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.” That will be the line that is remembered from Thursday’s debate, and if the former Texas congressman has a chance to break through, this will be his moment. He clearly had a strategy to make the El Paso shooting the centerpiece of his pitch to primary voters. We’ll see if he overplayed that card.

Jill’s grade: A-. He managed to turn the mass shooting in his hometown into a broader, bolder argument for what the country needs and why he can provide it. That memorable line —“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” — came after he described how a 15-year-old bled out over the course of an hour because there weren’t enough ambulances to get to the wounded. It’s part of his new model of throwing caution to the winds. To me it makes him a stronger candidate. But I’m not a middle-of-the-road suburban voter.

Bernie Sanders

David’s grade: B. Bernie was the same Bernie he always is — crazy socialist community college professor who has an answer, delivered in a shout, for everything. His answer always goes back to the destructive role billionaires play in our politics. The Vermont senator didn’t change anyone’s mind tonight, but he didn’t disappoint his fans either.

Jill’s grade: C. Sanders sounded hoarse and his talking points tired, and the evening had the feel of a valedictory. For better or worse in a general election, he did more than anyone up there to set the party on its leftward course. Many onstage paid him respects. But it was hard not to notice that Warren, whose policy ideas are similar, is better able to humanize and explain them. Debate by debate, Sanders seems to be turning into an elder statesman, and a revered one in some quarters.

Elizabeth Warren

David’s grade: B+. The senator from Massachusetts started off the night with weak answers on health care, dodging the reality of higher taxes for the middle class and simply refusing to acknowledge that the “Medicare for All” plan she endorses outlaws private medical insurance. As the night went on she got better, appearing passionate and informed. She’ll probably come out the winner.

Jill’s grade: A. Warren’s best night yet. She was more relaxed and filled in the blanks about herself to a mass audience. Everyone knows she has many plans, and they’re big and expensive and unabashedly liberal. This time she started right out with growing up in Oklahoma, three brothers in the military in Texas, and her own time in Houston. At the end she talked about her roller-coaster career path in the pre-feminist world. I don’t know if the personal touches will transcend moderates’ concerns about her policies, but for her it was a start.

Andrew Yang

David’s grade: D. The only entrepreneur on stage didn’t say anything all night that stuck with me. His attempt to get attention by giving away cash to 10 families came across as a cheap ploy and got the laughter it deserved from his opponents. He doesn’t belong on the stage going forward.

Jill’s grade: C-. He tried to shake things up by offering a $1,000/month “freedom dividend” to 10 families who explain best how the money would help them solve their own problems. All I could think was that this gives new meaning to the term vote-buying. Yang sounded like a conventional, mainstream Democrat on trade, health care and immigration. But there’s no way anyone’s going to convince me that we can risk another political novice in the White House. Ever.

David Mastio, a libertarian conservative, is the deputy editor of USA TODAY’s editorial page. Jill Lawrence, a center-left liberal, is the commentary editor of USA TODAY. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidMastio and @JillDLawrence

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