Beto O’Rourke needed a wing and a prayer. The second Democratic presidential debate was an opportunity for the 46-year old Texas congressman to shut down the naysayers and speculators who were doubting his candidacy after a less-than-optimal fundraising stretch and a 2.8 per cent ranking in the polls. The game-plan for the former boy wonder of the Democratic Party was to finally find his footing as a national political candidate.
O’Rourke and his campaign team will put a happy face on the effort Tuesday night, but he likely went back to his hotel room wondering if his performance was any better than the first. On that question, the answer is yes; you couldn’t get worse than O’Rourke’s appearance last month, when he looked like a deer caught in the headlights as fellow Texan Julian Castro slayed him on national television about immigration policy. This time, the three-term congressman and Senate candidate looked a little more comfortable as the spotlights were beaming down on his face. There was more discussion about policy specifics. But his incessant talk about stitching red counties and blue counties together and re-creating a harmonious America with unlimited potential is a stale talking point when most Democrats around the country want to kick Donald Trump’s teeth in. If O’Rourke’s numbers rise in the polls, it will only be by a few points.
Because there are so many Democrats who think they are presidential material, each one has to butt into the conversation as much as possible and say something that allows the candidate to stay in the news cycle for more than 24 hours. This was certainly former Maryland Congressman John Delaney’s debate strategy, who managed to tussle with most of the candidates about everything from health care reform and tax policy to climate change. The only problem for Delaney was that his ‘I have real solutions, not magical fairytale solutions’ pitch was grating to the others and not what Democratic primary voters want to hear. Once he gets tired of spending millions of dollars of his own money on a losing cause, the ex-politician will drop out of a race he shouldn’t have been involved with in the first place.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, fellow leftists with a break-the-banks message, were the indisputable winners of the night. Both of them received resounding applause after their spiels – Warren for pledging to fight and win against Trump just as she fought and won against Wall Street; Sanders for scorching the insurance companies on their greedy and immoral practice of bankrupting poor Americans. For all the talk about Warren and Sanders being rivals within the same progressive movement, there wasn’t much back-and-forth between the two outside of a few unintentional interruptions. When one of the moderators tried to instigate Warren into dissing Sanders as a more extreme version of herself, she demurred and changed the subject.
One person who wasn’t on stage during the first debate was Steve Bullock, the two-term governor of Montana. Declaring his candidacy late, Bullock didn’t have enough time to meet the donor and polling qualifications for the June talk-a-thon. But he was there last night and attempted to make the best of it, introducing himself to the American people as a Democratic officeholder who actually won in a state Donald Trump carried by double-digits. His message to voters: I’m someone who hates Washington, DC and the politicians in it as much as you do. He was folksy but charismatic, talking about why private insurance didn’t have to be abolished in order to ensure every single American had access to good health care. The governor was far more charismatic than fellow governor John Hickenlooper, a scientist by training who is about as exciting as watching paint dry. By the time the fall hits, he will probably also drop out of the race.
There were others as well. Pete Buttigieg gave a decent performance and will remain in the national conversation well into the fall due to the gobs of money he has raised. Tim Ryan, an Ohio congressman, sounded as if he was running for president of a union hall rather than president of the United States. Mariam Williamson was her weird self and will get back to writing self-help books in no time.
While it’s still anybody’s race to win, we are beginning to discover who the inevitable losers are.