The Subtext of the Democratic Debate

The mood of the country was very different during the 2000 election when a lot of attention was paid to the question about which presidential candidate you’d rather have a beer with. But then came 9/11, and seven years later, the Great Recession. By 2008, people were more interested in hope and change. The election of 2016 was a backlash to that change for the people who felt threatened not only by the first African-American president but also the country’s rapidly changing demographics.

It can be helpful to think about the first Democratic debate through the lens of attempting to understand the “mood” of Democrats in 2020. There has been an attempt to understand Biden’s lead in polls through the lens of the electability question and assume that is because, as a white male, he is the safe choice. I suspect there is a lot of truth to that assumption. But lurking behind that is the constant rage and chaos spurred by the presidency of Donald Trump. It is also very possible that Democrats are looking for the candidate that can bring back some good old-fashioned stability.

It is through that lens that I think Josh Marshall is on to something with his analysis of Thursday night’s debate. He notes that political analysis is too often focused on text and misses the subtext.

The big winner tonight was Kamala Harris. She was consistently strong in her answers…Somewhat like Booker last night but much more so, she took possession of the room and turned it to her advantage. She repeatedly kept talking until she was done talking and did it without sounding rude or grating. She could do that because she embodied command. She made the moderators sound annoying. She continually showed through actions rather than words that she’s powerful, that she commands the room, that she shapes the moment rather than being shaped by it. This sort of demonstration of command is always important. It’s especially important when the ultimate opponent is Donald Trump.

Taking command of a room is something that is almost impossible to quantify. But it stems from the kind of self-confidence that allows someone to put ego gratification aside and speak in the moment thoughtfully, rather than defensively. It is particularly profound when combined with a high level of intelligence—both intellectual and emotional. In other words, it is the exact opposite of Donald Trump. Instead of joining the president in the gutter, the candidate who embodies that kind of self-confidence will command the room, making him look small and weak.

Marshall is right that Kamala Harris took command of the room on Thursday night and that Booker demonstrated the same thing, although not as powerfully, on Wednesday night. But I would add Julian Castro to the group —which is precisely why he surprised so many people and garnered a lot of attention.

On the other end of the spectrum, Biden came off a bit rattled and confused, which is why his performance was confounding to those who have seen him be able to take command of a room. While some pundits are giving Kirsten Gillibrand points for what she accomplished in the debate, it is worth noting that they are almost always focused on the text of what she said rather than this kind of subtext. On the latter, she came off as a bit desperate and defensive. Finally, the text of what Sanders had to say was nothing new, which is why he gets points for consistency. But where his rageful yelling captured the moment for a lot of people in 2016, voters are in a very different place right now. The specter of the next president being someone who waves their arms, shouts, and talks about the need for a revolution is not going to play well with Democrats this time around because it signals more chaos.

There is still a lot that will impact this race, although voting doesn’t even begin for another six months. So the result of this debate will not necessarily be determinative. But we’ll see an increase in support for Harris, Booker, and Castro based on their performance. Polling at FiveThirtyEight following Wednesday night’s debate is pointing in that direction: both Castro and Booker got the biggest bump in their overall favorability numbers compared to where they stood prior to the debate.

While the candidates all had a lot of important things to say, the three who took command of the room are the ones who did the best job of tapping into the subtext of the 2020 election for Democrats.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.