The first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, in Miami on Wednesday, marked the informal end of the campaign “preseason” and beginning of the real primary battle. In the lead-up, some critics anticipated that a format with 10 candidates and five moderators squeezed into just two hours (including commercials) would not give us much insight into any single contender. But as things played out, we learned a lot.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s glitzy entrance into the race has worked against him, as many voters came to see him as a political lightweight with an outsize sense of entitlement. At times he sounded halting and appeared ill at ease; at one juncture he allowed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to talk over him. O’Rourke’s policy stances — avoiding endorsement of a 70 percent tax rate and supporting a public option — were reasonable, but as a messenger he struggled. He relaxed somewhat as the debate went on, standing his ground with former HUD secretary Julián Castro on immigration and giving a solid foreign policy answer on preventing genocide, a topic he expanded upon to talk about alliances. But because O’Rourke lacked the assurance and confidence of others on the stage, he did not have the breakout performance he might have been seeking.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), in the low single digits in polling, has been largely drowned out by flashier candidates. But she was one of the debate standouts, making the case calmly and persistently for a public option, cautioning against free college for rich kids and hammering at drug prices. When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee bragged that he was the only person onstage to pass a law ensuring abortion services are covered by insurance, Klobuchar shot back that there were three women on the stage who’d fought for women’s rights, garnering loud applause. On immigration, she made the affirmative case for immigration as an economic benefit. On Iran, she refused to raise her hand promising to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, instead arguing that we needed to negotiate improvements and work with allies. The Minnesota senator went into the night needing a kick-start, and she got it.
Running on a message of love and positive energy but without many concrete plans, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) hasn’t impressed many Democrats as a pugilist to go after President Trump. But he was perhaps the big surprise of the evening, emotionally relating his experience living in a low-income, inner-city residence. He vowed to go after Big Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis, laid out a multi-prong immigration plan and, like Klobuchar, spoke in favor of reentering but improving the Iran deal. He was able to tout his role in passing criminal justice reform. Like Klobuchar, he has to consider his night a success.
With the most to lose, the only top-tier candidate on the stage, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) had a goal coming in: Sell herself as a progressive, with bold and specific plans, who can beat Trump. She did that, but also reaffirmed her commitment to Medicare-for-all and abolishing private insurance, a position that met with strong and smart pushback from several candidates. The lesson: Medicare-for-all is divisive, even within the Democratic Party. Warren avoided answering directly whether the government should seize guns, but spoke with passion about many other measures that treat gun violence as a health emergency. She had no real gaffes, but the gap between her and Booker and Klobuchar seemed to narrow as those two had excellent outings. She did well; others did better.
Outside relatives and staff, few political watchers thought the unpopular de Blasio could get traction. He likely didn’t help his cause with an overly bellicose tone and his easily mocked declaration, “We have plenty of money, it’s just in the wrong hands.” Viva la revolution?
Castro is genial and has plenty of relevant experience, but until Wednesday night was a quiet presence in the race. He got in applause lines on support for passing the Equal Rights Amendment and legislation for equal pay. His big breakout was on immigration, as he wound up dominating an exchange with O’Rourke and putting others on the defense as he argued to end criminalization of illegal crossings. He got strong applause for insisting that abortion rights are a matter of “reproductive justice.” He should be quite pleased with his performance.
If asked before the debate about Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), most voters might have answered, “You mean Paul Ryan?” He had a few good moments, denouncing General Motors’ pulling jobs out of Ohio and opening a plant in Mexico. But he was not a major factor in the debate, and his insistence that theUnited States remain engaged in Afghanistan was not well received by the progressive crowd. He did not break through.
Although Inslee actually has a progressive record of accomplishment and plenty of expertise on climate change, to date he has not had a significant presence in the race. He had his chance to make his pitch as the most committed to climate change, gave a shoutout to unions and boasted that he’d take refugees Trump threatened to ship to Washington. He lacked a unifying theme or standout moment, but made no gaffes.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) has the weirdest profile of any Democrat in the race: portraying herself as a progressive, but infamous for flattering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and flip-flopping on gay rights and abortion. Candidly, she never had much of a chance. She insisted that the war in Afghanistan could end, winning the crowd but not fully explaining how we’d prevent terrorism from taking root. Her delivery was shaky, and at times she blatantly ignored the question posed.
Former congressman John Delaney (Md.), an aggressive moderate (not a contradiction), has publicly criticized progressive plans such as Medicare-for-all. He had a difficult time breaking through, his support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on avoiding impeachment was met with silence, and the moderate message was delivered more effectively by Booker and Klobuchar.
In one respect, all the participants face a similar predicament: The first debate’s news chatter and video clips likely will get cut off as soon as coverage of the second one kicks in sometime Thursday. With more top candidates participating in Thursday’s event, including former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), there’s a good chance that coverage of the first debate will get eclipsed in about 12 hours or so. For those who did well, that’s a shame; for those who did not, it may be a blessing.
Winners: NBC moderators (who covered a huge amount of ground and wasted no time on silly queries); Booker and Klobuchar. The Democratic Party as a whole, showing off many solid contenders with a command of the issues.
Losers: NBC technical staff (an audio problem interrupted the debate and forced a commercial break); de Blasio, Gabbard, Ryan and O’Rourke.