Were Democratic Presidential Candidates Effective At Attacking Trump?
NOEL KING, HOST:
All right, the candidates were also asked lots of policy questions during last night's debate. Do they support health coverage for undocumented immigrants? All 10 of them raised their hands, yes. When asked whether they supported abolishing private insurance as part of a "Medicare for All" plan, just two of them - Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris - endorsed that. And Harris tried - has since tried to walk that back. Also, when given the chance to attack President Trump, most of them did not hold back.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE MONTAGE)
KAMALA HARRIS: What is the greatest national security threat to the United States? It's Donald Trump.
BERNIE SANDERS: ...Trump is a phony, that Trump is a pathological liar and a racist.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: We have no idea which of our most important allies he will have pissed off worse between now and then.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: He's torn apart the moral fabric of who we are.
KING: That was Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand. OK, Republican strategist Mike Murphy is with us now. He's been an adviser to Jeb Bush and John McCain, among others. He now hosts a podcast called "Hacks On Tap" with the Democratic strategist David Axelrod.
Good morning, Mike.
MIKE MURPHY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
KING: I want to start by asking what you made of that exchange between Biden and Harris. You know, a lot of people are saying she had the breakout moment last night, and he stuck to this position on busing that is just not aging well. Were you surprised by this exchange?
MURPHY: I was. I thought she had the moment that every kind of mid-tier candidate wants, where she's commanding, it's dramatic and she does really well, while simultaneously, Joe Biden had the moment that every front-runner never wants. It's interesting to me; he was not prepared for something that was clearly going to come. And he wasn't disciplined in his response. So she did well, and then he did worse. You never want to retreat to states' rights as your defense.
So it was a real front-runner-shaking thing. The pressure is on Joe Biden now, not only to perform in the short-term, but to be back in command in the next debate. And if he can't do that, he's going to be in some serious trouble.
KING: Let's talk about one of the big policy issues, health care. Candidates last night were asked about Medicare for All. Sanders, Harris, Gillibrand all committed to a single-payer system. Now, this is an issue - we know that it isn't popular with voters when they learn that it might mean the end of their private insurance. Are Republicans going to seize on this issue, on those people who raised their hands and said I'm for it?
MURPHY: Oh, completely. This was a debate totally about the short-term incentives of the Democratic primary. But that is not how you take states away from Donald Trump. So on the general-election plane, that was a tremendous piece of baggage. Health care is big and complicated. And people are afraid of huge change. So you don't try to do that in the middle of the election year. So I think the Republicans were very, very happy to see those hands go up. And that will be something that could come back to haunt one of those candidates.
KING: Let's stay with health care for a minute because...
KING: President Trump only tweeted once during the debate. And it was interesting. It was when the candidates were asked, would you support health care coverage for undocumented immigrants? Every single one of them raised their hands. And the president responded by tweeting in part, quote, "that's the end of the race." What do you make of that?
MURPHY: Well (laughter), you know, the president, when he hears the word undocumented immigrant, even if he's asleep, I think he wakes up. That is an issue that resonates a bit more with him than necessarily the voters. It's something that could be a factor in the general election. But I think the health care issue was much, much bigger.
The Democrats did well in the midterm on the smaller issues of no preexisting conditions, that sort of thing. And now it's pivoted, where the Republicans could have the initiative on health care. But from the president's point of view, he is always ready to try to talk immigration politics. But I think there's more limits on that.
KING: All right, Joe Biden really struggled against Senator Harris last night. He did return - Biden did - to this theme that he's been centering his campaign on, the lack of decency that he says the president possesses. Let's listen to some of Biden.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: I'm ready to lead this country because I think it's important we restore the soul of this nation. This president has ripped it out. It's the only president in our history who has equated racists and white supremacists with ordinary, decent people.
KING: I mean, is that argument still working for Biden? Or does he need to move on and find something...
KING: ...Different, more nuanced?
MURPHY: It's a good argument in the Democratic primary, but they're all making it.
MURPHY: You know, it's not peculiar to him. His problem is he's got - it's a forward-looking race, and he has kind of a backward-looking record that he has to defend and defend and defend. Even though, to be fair to Biden, he's been on the liberal side of the civil rights issue for a long, long time. But they found the one thing. He didn't handle it well. He's looking old. And he's looking not like the safe bet now. That's kryptonite for him. He's got to fix that, or he's going to have more trouble, both from her and others.
KING: Last 20 seconds - aside from Harris, who stood out?
MURPHY: Buttigieg did a good job of engaging and taking responsibility on the problem he had in South Bend. He's a very good communicator. I thought he did well. And Michael Bennet, one of the dark horses, had a few good moments.
KING: Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
Mike, thanks so much.
MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.