Coming out of an embarrassing fourth-place finish in Iowa, Joe Biden needed a strong performance in the Democratic debate held in New Hampshire on Friday night. He did not achieve that goal. He was the weakest candidate on stage: surly, scattered, and at times difficult to understand.
At the beginning of the debate, he even conceded that he was almost sure to lose in the next primary, to be held in New Hampshire on Tuesday. “This is a long race and I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here,” Biden said. The former vice president went on to predict that his leading rival, Bernie Sanders, would win in New Hampshire. “Bernie won by 20 points last time and usually it’s the neighboring senators that do well, but no matter what I’m still in this for the same reason,” Biden admitted.
Telling the audience you are addressing that you don’t expect them to vote for you is a self-defeating act. It reinforced the impression that Biden’s campaign is spiraling downward given by the post-Iowa campaign staff shake-up.
Biden’s best moment was when he chastised President Donald Trump for firing Lt. Col. Andrew Vindman, who testified in the impeachment hearings. “Lieutenant Colonel Vindman got thrown out of the White House today…. [Trump] should have been pinning a medal on Vindman and not on Rush Limbaugh,” Biden thundered, earning the applause of the audience.
Biden’s fall has created an opening for Pete Buttigieg to rise. In his triumph, Buttigieg was even on one occasion magnanimous. But it was noticeable that Buttigieg did a better job of laying out the immorality of Trump’s attack on Biden’s family than Biden himself did.
The biggest problem Biden has in the debates is that he often appears tired. As National Review columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty noted, “Biden really fades in every debate.” Annie Shields of The Nation made a similar point, observing that “Biden really struggles with speaking which, turns out, voters notice.” Writer Richard Yeselson described Biden as “defensive, bombastic, tetchy, frequently incoherent and, most of all, anxious—you can see the flop sweat. He knows it’s slipping away from him.”
Much of Buttigieg’s rise comes from the fact he has been able to style himself as the viable alternative to Biden for moderate voters: a candidate who won’t rock the boat but is young and appealing. The promise of Buttigieg is he offers generational change without any structural challenge to the powers that be.
But after the New Hampshire debates, there might be a shift in the moderate camp away from Buttigieg toward Amy Klobuchar, who had an unusually strong night. Klobuchar was commanding and made a plausible case that her success in Minnesota has made her the candidate most likely to draw swing voters away from Donald Trump.
Klobuchar was especially effective in highlighting Buttigieg’s callowness. “What you said, Pete, as you were campaigning through Iowa—as three of us were jurors in that impeachment hearing—you said it was exhausting to watch and that you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons,” Klobuchar said. She went on to rebuke his clichés against Washington insiders by observing, “It is easy to go after Washington, because that’s a popular thing to do, much harder to take those difficult positions.”
Buttigieg is on a roll after his strong Iowa showing. He’s been surging in the polls in New Hampshire. If his rise is blunted, it’ll be due to Klobuchar. Her swipes at Buttigieg were reminiscent of the 2016 Republican primaries, when then–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, already on the way down, took the chance in New Hampshire to go after Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star. In both cases, the more veteran lawmaker made good use of their confidence and experience to draw attention to the relative immaturity of their rival.
If Klobuchar does get a bounce from the debate, the moderate Democratic camp will continue to be divided among three plausible rivals, making it easier for Bernie Sanders to continue to consolidate a winning plurality.