O’Rourke was staggered, though. The most heated exchange came when his fellow Texan, former housing and urban development secretary Castro, snapped that O’Rourke “should do your homework” on the intricacies of immigration policy. O’Rourke seemed flustered. He clearly had a plan coming into the debate — early on, in the middle of his first answer, he surprised everyone by breaking into Spanish — but direct confrontation seemed to take him out of his comfort zone.
O’Rourke’s spectacular near-miss campaign last year against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) burdened the former congressman with the greatest of expectations. His poll numbers have been sliding all year, and he needs something to turn things around. A boffo debate performance would have been a good start, but what we saw Wednesday was less than dazzling.
Castro, meanwhile, reminded viewers why he was chosen to give the keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He was sharp, specific and passionate, especially on immigration. He has languished in single digits in the polls, but his performance made him stand out from the crowd and may persuade Democrats to give him a closer look.
Warren had the luxury of pretending the other candidates weren’t even there. As the only upper-tier candidate on stage, she got to be the first to answer a question and the last to give a closing statement. The others made no real effort to take her down — even those who oppose her call for eliminating private health insurance did not attack her sharply — so she was able to remain above the fray. At center stage, she had the air of command.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was intense and at times eloquent. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, with negligible support in the polls, made an impression by interrupting everyone and displaying a measure of thick-skinned pugnacity. When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee boasted about his pro-choice record, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota drew cheers when she noted that there were “three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” But Inslee got the biggest roar of the night when he said “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump.”
I was stunned that the candidates on stage Wednesday made so little mention of Trump. I know that the eventual nominee has to run on an affirmative platform that promises policies to deal with the concrete issues in voters’ lives. But this debate sounded as if it were a given that the post-Trump era will begin in January 2021. It’s fine to be confident that you can beat Trump. But it’s ridiculous to assume that victory is already won.
Except for Inslee’s applause line, the candidates almost tiptoed around the central issue in this campaign: An unfit, unstable, racist, sexist, corrupt, incompetent, dangerous man is president of the United States and must be denied a second term. All the well-thought-out progressive plans in the world are worthless if Trump is reelected. The campaign for the Democratic nomination can’t be all about Trump, but it also can’t assume the president will somehow defeat himself.
Few candidates told us much about how they would beat Trump. None told us enough about why Trump must be defeated. Here’s hoping that Thursday’s debate, featuring the other 10 candidates, will be different.