The debates in the Democratic presidential primary have a rhythm this campaign cycle.
They usually start with a big, broad opening on some enormous issue, like the economy or health care. There is usually an uncomfortable question one or more of the candidates have to answer assertively. Usually, two of the candidates end up fighting like cats and dogs — and any of these scenarios are capable of leading into an awkward, tense moment and the moderators lose control.
The big issues in Tuesday’s debate, of course, were impeachment and Medicare for All. The hard question was for Bernie Sanders, who addressed the matter of his health. The smoke was between former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have been engaged in a fight over O’Rourke’s mandatory gun buyback idea.
While those variables can change, the candidate who plays the role of the mediator is — usually — the same: Cory Booker.
Booker has consistently and clearly spoken to the nexus between the exasperation Democrats feel over the Donald Trump presidency and the need for civility in the primary. It’s arguable that he has won or been near the top of every debate — with Tuesday night’s debate in Ohio being another strong performance.
In Westerville, Booker used his self-appointed role as the uniter in the room to draw a contrast with his opponents and Trump, saying he was “having déjà vu all over again” after early questions in the debate about Trump’s attacks on Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s work in Ukraine.
“I saw this play in 2016’s election. We are literally using Donald Trump’s lies. And the second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman. That was so offensive. He should not have to defend ourselves. And the only person sitting at home that was enjoying that was Donald Trump seeing that we're distracting from his malfeasance and selling out of his office.”
And he used his time to walk through his own priorities, from addressing childhood poverty to gun licensing.
From here, Booker’s campaign will walk off slapping five. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, Booker’ll do live spots on cable news into Wednesday morning. The fundraising email will go out declaring him again victorious in yet another debate. And some money will flow in, too.
But what hasn’t changed and isn’t likely to suddenly now is the most important: his standing in the polls.
Cory Booker the politician was practically made for this sort of debate performance. He’s huge and bald with big green eyes that pop in high-def and sharp, clean lines. He is eternally optimistic, with energy that cuts through hours of debates. So even while you may not be able to show objectively that Booker has been one of the top debaters this primary, he certainly hasn’t been the seventh-best. And that is where he currently sits in polls, at 2% nationally, just weeks removed from hitting a fundraising target that, if he had missed, he said would have ended his campaign.
A Booker aide characterized the debates to BuzzFeed News via text message early Wednesday as settings where everything essentially breaks even: The debates are nice exposure, but the campaign doesn’t believe that they’ll ultimately make a huge difference. They’re a prime-time setting that you can’t miss, but they don’t usurp what is more important for them to win: emphasizing the underdog narrative arc, organizing Iowa, and standing out as a unifier in 2019’s political fracas.
Excelling in debates used to be a real political currency to take on the campaign trail. Barack Obama had plenty of hiccups in his early debates as a candidate in 2008 and struggled in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, sending his campaign into a panic. But by then, Obama had grown into a brand that rendered a more classical debate approach irrelevant. Trump, who entered the presidential race as a world-famous brand, did the same thing in 2016.
But still Booker's campaign persists. His campaign manager and main cheerleader, Addisu Demissie, said in a statement Tuesday night that Booker “won the night by standing out as a leader, a unifier, and the adult in the room” who had “refocused the conversation on the issues that matter most.” He said Booker was a “breath of fresh air” on the stage, “particularly by coming to Vice President Biden’s defense against Trump’s lies and highlighting issues that aren’t getting enough attention in this presidential campaign, like women’s reproductive health care, strengthening unions, and ending child poverty.”
“For yet another debate, Cory showed a national audience that he can unite our country and make real change for Americans who face injustice and seek opportunity,” he said.
He'll get another chance to debate and try and change the story of his campaign in Atlanta next month.