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Candidates make sure debate isn’t a Buttigieg coronation

A solid night for several candidates, but Biden, again, does himself no favors

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participate in the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.Alex Wong/Getty Images

With his recent surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., was expected Wednesday to be taken down a peg or three by his fellow contenders in the fifth Democratic presidential debate. Instead, a funny thing happened in Atlanta on the way to the young politician’s premature coronation.

Save for a testy late-inning skirmish between Buttigieg and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the mayor was somewhat neutralized because most avoided the usual debate tactic of attacking the perceived front-runner.

Was this intentional? Perhaps. In the last debate, Buttigieg went after Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, which may have helped him, but he didn’t repeat that performance. As for Warren, she dominated discussions about the impeachment inquiry, her plan for a wealth tax, and the income gap fueling racial inequities.


Frankly, curbing Buttigieg’s spotlight was fine. His coded language is as grating as it is unmistakable when he says that the way to defeat President Trump is with someone “who actually comes from the kind of communities that [Trump’s] appealing to.” In his campaign, Buttigieg has often positioned himself as the conservative white people whisperer and, yes, folks of color have noticed. That’s one reason why his polling numbers among African-Americans and Latinx aren’t just abysmal, they’re nonexistent.

So far, Biden still commands most of the black vote, but Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker, whose campaigns are struggling, both made the necessary point that the party should not take for granted its most loyal constituency – African-Americans, especially women. Booker also chastised former Vice President Joe Biden’s recent throwback remark that marijuana could be “a gateway drug.” The New Jersey senator, who never misses an opportunity for a viral debate line, said, “I thought you might have been high when you said it."


Speaking of Biden, he sabotaged one of his better moments when, responding to a question about the #MeToo Movement, he touted his authorship of the original Violence Against Women Act. He should have stopped there. But then he added, “We just have to change the culture (of how women are treated), and keep punching at it, and punching at it, and punching at it." Unintentional phrasing, of course, but still cringeworthy. Such stumbles in debates continue to invite questions about whether Biden is up to the task.

It was a better night for Senator Amy Klobuchar who claimed more airtime than in previous debates, and made her moments count, including calling out the double standards faced by women candidates. Harris was also solid, but it’s too soon to tell whether it will help right a campaign plagued with problems.

Trimmed from the Oscar-bait length that made some of the earlier tilts so stultifying, the shorter time pushed candidates to be more concise in their responses, if still not quite answering the questions as asked. At the same time, major issues like immigration, DACA, and police violence were completely overlooked. Without former HUD secretary Julián Castro, who helped raise and shape these conversations, they were as out of sight as the candidate himself.

At one point when Booker said, the war on drugs has "been a war on black and brown people,” I couldn’t help but wonder what insights Castro would have offered this discussion, if the increasingly Byzantine rules for debate participation hadn’t kept him off stage.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.