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Week In Politics: Takeaways From The 1st Debates Of The 2020 Presidential Race


We're going to stay with last night's presidential debate to kick off our weekly politics chat. We're joined by E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome back, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And Hugo Gurdon of the Washington Examiner. Welcome back as well.


CORNISH: So Joe Biden is talking about this because of Senator Kamala Harris. Can we talk a little bit about just how he's handling this particular kind of needling of his long Senate record? Hugo, do you want to start?

GURDON: Yeah, sure. Look. Joe Biden can't run away from his record. His record is far too long. So, I mean, he would be in an extraordinary and appalling position if he were apologizing for it because it's about 35 years of apologies if, you know, in order to catch up with where things are. He had a terrible performance in the debate last night.

And frankly, he lived down to the characterization that President Trump, who has a kind of bully's eye for picking out the weakness in opponents, who calls him sleepy Joe. He stumbled, and he bumbled. And he eventually came to the - he actually cut himself off once and said, my time's up. And by that stage, it seemed to me like almost an epitaph for his career, it so bad. So he really had to scramble.

CORNISH: I saw you smirking there, E.J., about that long record of apologies. Is that how you see it?

DIONNE: Right. Well, I agree with the idea that he can't apologize for everything. Although I do think in some cases, he'd be better off. For example, very few people were for gay marriage as recently as, oh, 2012 like Barack Obama. So a lot of people have changed their views on a lot of questions. I think he - I agree with what Karen Finney told Tamara, that he would have been better to give a speech like today's speech early, so it doesn't look reactive because he did pretty well in that speech today.

But this is a real challenge for him on two levels. One is that African Americans are at the heart of his support right now, partly because they admire him for his work with Barack Obama. There was a Monmouth poll - 46% of African Americans were supporting Joe Biden. So he cannot lose a big chunk of that and stay where he is. But then the other is what Hugo said, which is he did not - to be very charitable - look crisp in reply to Kamala Harris. So that raises other issues with other parts of the party.

CORNISH: Can I jump in here? I want to talk about the crisp thing because age was another issue on the debate stage last night. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden were the prime targets there. And it kicked off with Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who said this...


ERIC SWALWELL: Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago. He's still right today.

CORNISH: And then Biden says this...


JOSE DIAZ-BALART: Vice president, would you like to sing a torch song?

JOE BIDEN: I would.


BIDEN: I'm still holding on to that torch.

CORNISH: And then after the debate, Bernie Sanders - the oldest candidate in the field - is asked about this argument.


BERNIE SANDERS: I think that's kind of ageism, to tell you the truth. And I think what we are trying to do, what all of us are trying to do is to end discrimination in this country against women, against minorities, against the LGBT community, and I think on ageism as well.

CORNISH: Is this an issue that Democrats are taking seriously and was that revealed in this debate? Who wants to jump in?

GURDON: Well, I think that it was certainly revealed in this debate. I don't know how seriously the Democrats are taking it. But it was very noticeable to me that - the debate seemed to me to have a strong generational divide. Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Hickenlooper - Governor Hickenlooper - all looked kind of stumbling and elderly. And they were outshone by the younger people in the - younger candidates.

I thought that Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the most sort of persuasive and reasonable. Kamala Harris looked good. And even the line from Eric Swalwell, who I do not take particularly seriously as a candidate, about passing the torch was extremely effective.

CORNISH: E.J., can you jump in here? And I'm not - I don't want anyone writing us about ageism here (laughter).

DIONNE: Just to show my age, I actually covered the 1987 Biden presidential campaign and wrote a piece somewhere back there on generational politics that he was talking about. So I had been waiting for somebody to do what Swalwell did. There's some great Joe Biden quotes, when he's 44 years old, talking about generational politics. But I think that for voters to ask any question about - particularly among Democrats this year, who is most likely to beat Trump? Almost everything falls into that analysis, and it's legitimate.

I'm not surprised Bernie talked about ageism. And just by the way, if you look at the two debates together, let's not forget the first. I very much agree - Mayor Pete had a great night. I also thought Michael Bennet made his presence felt - the senator from Colorado.

CORNISH: The senator from Colorado.

DIONNE: The night before, Elizabeth Warren was clearly the dominant figure even though she lost some news room with the Kamala Harris thing. I thought Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker also...

CORNISH: That's shoutouts for everyone, E.J. (laughter).

DIONNE: It's one candidate. It's a small percentage.

CORNISH: Hugo, jump in here.

GURDON: I think the mention of Elizabeth Warren raises a really interesting point. She's 69. And if Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden were not in the race, everyone would be talking about Elizabeth Warren's age. She really benefits from having those two guys who are six or seven or eight years older than she is. She looked great in the debate. She could easily pass for 10 years younger. And she's very energetic. So she sort of escapes the age question partly because there are people who are much older than her.

CORNISH: OK, this took a very strange turn. One more - OK, this is what happened on the first night, when we heard all the candidates on stage trying to speak Spanish.


JULIAN CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

PETE BUTTIGIEG: (Speaking Spanish).

CORY BOOKER: (Speaking Spanish).

BETO O'ROURKE: (Speaking Spanish).

CORNISH: All right. So Julian Castro, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Beto O'Rourke. In a minute we're about to say adios - I know, I had to do it. So you guys, pandering or important sign of progress?

DIONNE: Both. I had a Latino friend who sent out a tweet that said (speaking Spanish)...

CORNISH: Rough. OK. (Laughter) Yeah.

DIONNE: ...And that there was something completely contrived about it. On the other hand, Telemundo was one of the channels on that show. And Latinos are a big part of our population. We've had ethnic politics here from the beginning.

GURDON: Yeah. I would say, yes it was pandering. And I think that the immediate polling suggests that more people disapproved of it than approved of it. It was very interesting to see Cory Booker glaring at Beto O'Rourke when Beto O'Rourke stole his thunder. Beto O'Rourke was the first to speak Spanish, and clearly Booker had prepared and was going to speak Spanish. And so to have that, you know, the rug pulled out from him I thought was - it was very interesting that they really wanted to do it.

DIONNE: And speaking of Beto, I think that one of the remarkable subtexts was really Julian Castro against Beto. Beto really did not have a good night on that first debate. I think that was very damaging. And Castro really put it to him. And I think somebody who's a very interesting guy, actually, given his background, finally lifted himself up. And he pushed Beto aside, his fellow Texan.

CORNISH: All right. We're going to leave it there, but we know lots more to come over the next couple of months. Hugo Gurdon of the Washington Examiner. Thank you.

GURDON: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: And you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.