In Last Democratic Debate before Iowa, Klobuchar’s Failure to Catch Fire Is Good News for Biden

Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the Democratic primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

As the Minnesota senator struggled and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren continued to feud, the former vice president emerged unscathed.

The most important development from Tuesday night’s rather boring Democratic debate may have been Amy Klobuchar’s failure to launch.

Heading into the debate, it wasn’t crazy to think the Minnesota senator had a realistic chance of taking off: She’s polling at 7 percent, right where previous Iowa caucus winners Rick Santorum (2012) and Dick Gephardt (1988) were at about this point in their respective races. But to break into the top tier, she needed a defining moment last night, perhaps combined with a Joe Biden–Pete Buttigieg demolition derby. And neither of those things happened.

Klobuchar spent too much of the debate reciting canned lines from her stump speech. She came incredibly close to having an “oops” moment when she almost forgot the name of the Kansas governor she was “very proud” to know:

It’s impossible to predict how things will play out over the next three weeks, but it seems quite likely that on caucus day Klobuchar will fail to hit the 15 percent threshold in many precincts, and in those precincts her backers will then go to their favorite of the candidates who do clear the 15 percent threshold.

Whom does that benefit the most? J. Ann Selzer, who runs the highly regarded Des Moines Register poll, tells me that the poll didn’t break down the second choices of Klobuchar backers because the sample size was too small, but it seems quite likely that her voters are more inclined to break for Biden or Buttigieg than for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. The whole concept of “lanes” might be a bit simplistic, but there is truth to it in this case: The Klobuchar backers I talked with in Iowa last week are much more concerned with electability than with bold progressive change.

All of which is to say that Biden may have gained the most from Tuesday night’s debate. He had no impressive moments but also no major gaffes. The same was true of Buttigieg, but the South Bend, Ind., mayor is on a bit of a downward trajectory in Iowa, where he has dropped five points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls over the last month. Biden is not.

Biden certainly provided his opponents with opportunities to attack him, but they didn’t seize those chances. For example, he repeated his claim that he opposed the Iraq War from the outset, implying that he voted to authorize the use of military force only to help get weapons inspectors into the country. “They said they were just going to get inspectors in. The world, in fact, voted to send inspectors in, and they still went to war. From that point on, I was in the position of making the case that it was a big, big mistake and from that point on, I moved to bring those troops home,” Biden said. Both of those claims are false, but none of his Democratic opponents took him to task for them.

Partly, that was because of the simmering Warren–Sanders feud. Warren seemed more interested in driving home the point that she thinks Sanders is sexist than in hitting Biden. Her claim that Sanders privately told her “a woman can’t win” the presidency was deftly destroyed by the Vermont senator when he pointed out that he had recruited her to run for president in 2015. “In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Senator Warren. There was a movement to draft Senator Warren to run for president, and you know what? I stayed back. Senator Warren decided not to run, and I did run afterwards,” he said. Yet the spat continued to the end of the night, when Warren refused to shake Sanders’s hand.

All in all, Sanders had a pretty good night. Not only did he successfully rebut Warren’s charge of sexism, but Warren appeared to be in full retreat on Medicare for All. Warren has come quite a long way from the June Democratic debate, when she declared: “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All.” At Tuesday’s debate, she didn’t even utter the words “Medicare for All”; she merely promised to “defend the Affordable Care Act.”

“My approach to this is we’ve got to get as much help to as many people as quickly as possible. I have worked out a plan where we can do that without raising taxes on middle-class families by one thin dime,” Warren said. “What I can do are the things that I can do as president on the first day. We can cut the cost of prescription drugs. I’ll use the power that’s already given to the president to reduce the cost of insulin and EpiPens and HIV/AIDS drugs — let’s get some relief to those families. And I will defend the Affordable Care Act.”

Warren’s retreat on Medicare for All provides Sanders an excellent opportunity to consolidate the support of the progressive base as the last man standing in Iowa who is all in on single-payer health care. But when you combine the Warren–Sanders war with the lackluster performances of Klobuchar and Buttigieg, it seems Biden gained the most from the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.

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