As for the contenders (they are why we tune in, after all), several lesser-known candidates with little chance to win any delegates in 2020 — Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and former representative John Delaney (D-Md.) — went into the night needing to break out in a big way. Of those, Delaney clearly had the best moments of the campaign by going toe-to-toe with advocates of Medicare-for-all. With an assist from several other contenders, he made a compelling case that you can have universal coverage and preserve choice for Americans. He added that “we don’t have to go around and be the party of subtraction, and telling half the country, who has private health insurance, that their health insurance is illegal.” He also had a strong moment defending President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership and skewering Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) just-released trade plan. (Williamson may have had the best line of the night, however: “What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe,” pointing out that environmental hazards hit the poor the hardest.)
More plausible contenders such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former congressman Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock had one last chance to make a big enough splash to bolster their chances to make the September debate. O’Rourke seems to recede with every outing, and one wonders how long he’ll remain in the race. Klobuchar and Hickenlooper had good outings as the voices of moderation but lacked memorable, breakout moments.
As for Bullock, early in the debate he took on “wishlist economics” and argued Americans “can’t wait for a revolution.” On immigration he effectively rebutted the idea of decriminalizing illegal border crossings. “The biggest problem right now that we have with immigration, it’s Donald Trump.” he said. “He’s using immigration to not only rip apart families but to rip apart this country.” Later in the debate, he used an NRA question to pivot to a pet topic, special interest money. He also boasted that Montana was able with Citizens United in effect to require disclosure of campaign donations. He faltered badly late in the debate with a weak argument for a first-strike nuclear policy
Among the remaining three top tier contenders — South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Warren — only Warren entered the night with momentum. Nothing occurred to slow her down.
Buttigieg smartly stepped away from the idea of removing sanctions for illegal border crossing. His cool and thoughtful demeanor was a welcome contrast to Sanders’s yelling. He also had a solid moment late in the evening, attacking Republicans for enabling Trump.
As for Warren and Sanders, they took turns denouncing inquiries about the size of middle-class tax hikes that would be needed to pay for Medicare-for-all. Warren responded to the notion that Medicare-for-all would take away existing insurance with a gibe rather than an acknowledgment: “Let’s be clear about this, we are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.” They both stuck with the position that we should decriminalize illegal border crossings.
The difference between the two is one of temperament. Sanders shouts, attacks the moderators and eschews personal stories. Warren’s ability to seize big moments and also weave in her personal story sets her apart from the crowd. Warren is feisty but cheery. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said in response to Delaney’s plea for ideas that can work. She’s essentially won the lane for “progressives with big ideas they will fight for.”
Foreign policy got short shrift in the debate. Afghanistan, North Korea and other critical issues got perfunctory attention late in the night. Klobuchar had her best moment in excoriating Trump for joking about defending our election in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Asked about leaving Afghanistan, Sanders ranted about the military budget and vowed, along with O’Rourke, to immediately pull out all troops. Warren gave a strong answer on limiting nuclear proliferation and on refusing to use the military for nonmilitary purposes.
Democrats cannot thin the herd fast enough. With implausible and unserious contenders crowding the stage, valuable time is lost that could be spent querying real competitors and the process of contrasting all the top tier candidates on a single stage is delayed. The super-short time period allotted for answers makes for a choppy, sometimes incoherent conversation. To be blunt, virtually no one cares what candidates drawing less than 1 percent have to say. As for Wednesday, it will be essential to see Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) on the same stage with other top-tier candidates defend her health-care plan from attacks from the right and left.
Winners: Delaney, Bullock (except for foreign policy), other moderates, Warren
Losers: CNN, Medicare-for-all, O’Rourke (for virtually disappearing for stretches of the debate)