Booker and Castro Thrive, Warren Coasts, and Beto Crashes

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro (left) and Sen. Cory Booker at the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Fla., June 26, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The short version: Elizabeth Warren treaded water, Cory Booker and Julian Castro found their grooves, Bill de Blasio vented his anger and may have created some buzz, Beto O’Rourke had a terrible night, and everybody else on the bottom stayed on the bottom.

Everyone expected Elizabeth Warren to be the big target of the evening, but it appears the rest of the candidates on the stage chickened out. MSNBC certainly gave her way more questions than other candidates early on, but she faded into the background as the night wore on. She’s gaining in the polls and Joe Biden is going to face some tough tests starting tomorrow night. She can play low-risk, ball-control offense until she’s up on stage with Biden.

Wow, does former congressman Beto O’Rourke look like the Lucent stock of the Trump-era Democratic party. He’s no longer in the top five, but several other candidates seemed to relish going after him tonight, particularly Bill de Blasio and Julian Castro. It’s time to call it – he’s thoroughly underwhelming as a debater and wildly overrated as a public speaker. Answering the first question in Spanish, unprompted, looked like a pandering gimmick. He had some better moments as the night progressed, but he was hit so many times by so many other candidates he must have felt like . . . a piñata.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker looked prepared. Maybe it’s those tough initial campaigns for mayor of Newark, or the never-quite-as-close-as-Republicans-hoped Senate races, but Booker knows how to hit the right notes in a two-minute window. I like to ridicule candidates who dodge tough questions by emoting for two minutes, but Booker does this maneuver well.

New York City Bill de Blasio took a shot at O’Rourke, jumped into conversations uninvited, tried to yell over the moderators as they cut to commercial, and overall just vented the spleen of an angry progressive. He even took a subtle shot at Pete Buttigieg over the police shooting in South Bend, and Buttigieg wasn’t even on the stage. Maybe his stock is a little undervalued . . . then again, that’s easy to do when you’re near zero.

Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro has to be hoping that people kept watching through the first half-hour, because he was barely visible for the first thirty minutes. But then he became invigorated when discussing immigration and the border and boy, did he go for O’Rourke’s throat tonight, at one point pointing out that the former congressman was talking about a separate provision of immigration law, and jabbed, “if you had done your homework, Beto.” He got more confident as the night wore on. Maybe the rest of the field has been sleeping on him.

After a surprisingly detailed and common sense answer on health care, it looked like Maryland congressman John Delaney would be the surprise of the night. I said he came across as the guy who actually knows the details of how to nail Capone on tax evasion. Then MSNBC decided they would stop asking him questions. By the end of the night, he was desperate to get a word in edgewise.

Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard didn’t do herself any harm but she didn’t do herself that much good, either. Simply by being the youngest candidate, an attractive woman, a veteran, and “the surfing congresswoman,” she stands out in this crowd. But her rhetoric didn’t stand out, other than an exchange with Tim Ryan about Afghanistan – where she declared the Taliban would be in (or running) Afghanistan after our forces left that country.

Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar was thoroughly underwhelming, and perhaps nervous at first. The style of “Minnesota nice” really comes across as soft-spoken on television. She was asked about what she had done for African-American and Latinos in her state, and this moment called for that touching personal tale. Instead Klobuchar pivoted to talking about economic opportunity and then talked about the First Step Act.

Washington governor Jay Inslee was so little-noticed before tonight, he may get a little bump out of them. He came across as impassioned and as angry as the average progressive activist, which should help him some. But he declared he would “take away the filibuster” which is not a presidential power and will not occur without a Democratic-controlled Senate. He’s continuing to run a more-or-less one-issue campaign. Winning candidates in American history do not run one-issue campaigns.

Ohio congressman Tim Ryan didn’t get much attention from the moderators, and he came across as nervous at first and improved to cookie-cutter. In the exchange with Tulsi Gabbard about Afghanistan, I prefer his position on policy but she mopped the floor with him, drawing a hard distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Ryan could have and should have challenged her by asking why the Taliban, having hosted terror groups that committed mass murder against Americans in the past, why they wouldn’t host terror groups that committed mass murder against Americans again in the future. Foreign policy was a car wreck for Ryan, as he contended the Iranians shot down a U.S. surveillance drone because “Trump was distracted,” that the drone was too expensive, and that life in Youngstown was suboptimal because we’re spending too much money on drones.

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