A Wild Night on MSNBC: Why the Latest Presidential Debate Has Donald Trump Shook—and 4 More Observations

Illustration for article titled A Wild Night on MSNBC: Why the Latest Presidential Debate Has Donald Trump Shook—and 4 More Observations
Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

Thursday’s debate was Donald Trump’s biggest nightmare: A loud, creative, diverse and television-ready slugfest that lasted for two hours, went off the rails a few times and left the audience wanting more.


While policy matters, Trump knows that his biggest weapon against any Democratic challenger is making enough of a circus that issues, facts, and values don’t matter. The only way to beat that is to come up with a bigger, louder show where facts do matter, policy can seem cool, and you still have a car wreck factor. That and more happened in Thursday night’s Democratic debate, a contest that will totally throw a wrench in our 2020 Black Power Rankings next week. For now, here are the top four takeaways from the second Democratic debate.

Kamala Harris has evolved to Super Saiyan levels: For months, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was a boring establishment Democrat’s dream come true. Ethnic without being scary, tough on crime (actually, a little too tough), just racially ambiguous enough to fit a lot of boxes. Harris was, as one friend told me, “What would happen if you mixed Meghan Markle and Hillary Clinton in a Nutribullet.” Yet somehow, since the South Carolina Democratic convention last week, she’s turned into some dynamic game-changing, fire-spitting, shade-throwing superwoman no one could have predicted.

Kamala Harris reminded the world that she’s not running for vice president by going after former Vice President Joe Biden. Hard. On a question about policing, she hit a bank shot off of Obama’s criminal justice reforms, over Biden’s Crime bill and through the legs of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s lack of response to a police shooting in South Bend. It was masterful. Then, she went after the former Vice President on his resistance to integration via busing in the 1970s in one of the most powerful exchanges of the night.

Team Biden didn’t know what hit them. More importantly, everyone in America who thought that Harris didn’t have enough “fight” in her was put on notice.

Mayor Pete survives: Mayor Pete Buttigieg was having the worst week ever. His ever problematic police force was responsible for the shooting death of Eric Logan, in South Bend, Ind.; he got called out by protesters and community activists alike and he basically avoided national press for days as he attempted damage control. Of the four “frontrunner” Democrats for debate night two, he was the wounded gazelle who could’ve been culled from the herd. However, nobody really came for him. He was lucky that Harris was aiming for bigger game, and that Mayor Julian Castro, slayer of white male media favorites and wielder of the only comprehensive police reform policy, was relegated to Wednesday. Rachel Maddow asked Mayor Pete directly about the police controversies in South Bend and he answered honestly and humbly.


But he didn’t explain how he would do better or how his presidency would solve any of the problems that he can’t handle in South Bend. Mind you, this shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering he didn’t have any policies on his campaign website for weeks. Either way, his answer will certainly stop the bleeding and he made the most of the time he had on air.


Do better, Joe Biden, do better: Former Vice President Biden is the frontrunner in the polls but not by enough to get lazy. In June of 2007, Hillary Clinton was leading Barack Obama by 11 points in the polls, and she never got to sniff the Oval Office. Heading into this debate, Biden was leading the pack of Democrats by six percent. But then he took repeated up, up, down, left, right combo hits to his personality, policy, and position in history from Kamala Harris. You know how we know this debate hurt Team Biden? It wasn’t just because his spokesperson, Symone Sanders, couldn’t come up with an explanation for Biden’s stumbles on the busing question.


No, the clearest sign that Biden knew he got the Sonic Rings knocked out of him by Harris is his campaign’s reversal on the “Spin Room.” The Spin Room is where candidates and surrogates talk to reporters after the debate to either gloat or clean up what just happened on stage. Prior to the debate, Team Biden had been telling reporters that the candidate didn’t plan on coming through and speaking to reporters, likely because he thought he wouldn’t need to. Yet, surprise —he showed up. Joe Biden is the front runner, but he knows he didn’t perform like one.

Nobody should be hanging their head in shame: Nobody, not even Michael Bennett (D-CO) who barely got a word in during the debate, should be doing the sad Charlie Brown walk afterward. While author Marianne Williamson and Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO) probably didn’t gain any new supporters, they also didn’t make any huge mistakes or get caught flat-footed. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) didn’t have as much of a coming out party as say New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio or former HUD Secretary Julian Castro had on the first debate night, but he performed well as the resident agitator. Even Bernie did okay enough. You know when an established rapper gets murdered on their own track? That was MC Bernie and Kristen Thee Gillibrand (D-NY) last night. Not only did the junior New York Senator fight through Sander’s mansplaining and interruptions, but she adopted Bernie’s Healthcare for All plan and explained it more convincingly than he did.


It goes without saying that despite the memes, the tweets and the endless post-Super Bowl-type analysis from the debates that nothing substantially changed after these two nights. Not one frontrunner fell, but some middle-tier candidates have likely punched a ticket to the second debate. Joe Biden is still a weak frontrunner; Kamala Harris will still have to work hard to win over older black voters and men; and Bernie Sanders (D-VT), along with Pete Buttigieg, will still struggle to reach double digits with black voters.

What they did show Thursday night, however, is that more candidates are in this 2020 campaign to win it than most voters thought. Perhaps, more importantly, the Democratic bench is much more interesting and compelling than the 20 nameless faces that caused eye rolls and late night jokes just 72 hours ago. This is going to be a long competitive campaign, which is the last thing that Donald Trump wants, and likely the best thing for the American voter.



The following is irrespective of whether or not you or I agree with the politics or policies of a particular candidate.

I know this is damning with faint praise, but one thing that the debates highlighted is that (with probably one exception), this lineup of Democratic candidates is profoundly different in kind from the lineups of Republican candidates of the last three Presidential election cycles.

This lineup is serious. Several candidates have enormous amounts of experience in public office (e.g. Biden). Others have at least some experience (e.g. Buttigieg). Unless I missed a detail, all but one have experience in elective office.

All have some level of preparation, and preparedness, for these debates. None made me think that I would be terrified if he or she were to become President, as far as basic competence is concerned.

The Republican lineups were clown cars. For every Republican candidate who was serious and well qualified, several others were clearly way in over their heads. What’s worse is that they seemed not to understand or accept just how profoundly unqualified and unsuited they were, and still are. What’s even worse is how successful several of them were, at least in the short term. What’s even worse is how poorly they have fared since those debates. I still can’t get over the fact that Rick Perry had no idea what his portfolio was when he was nominated to be Secretary of Energy! What’s even worse is that he won confirmation from a supine Republican Senate! And he’s just one example of many. 

What’s devastatingly awful is that the worst one of all, the lazy corrupt racist orange santorum-covered enemy of the people, not only won the primary, but the Electoral College, and is President today.