Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.): People underestimate Harris as a politician, still to this day. And she seized the moment in her first presidential debate, charting a bold course. When the candidates talked over one another repeatedly, she raised her arms and silenced them: “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” It worked. Then she spurred the signature exchange of the night — a planned effort, clearly, but an effective one — by going after former vice president Joe Biden on his record on race. “I do not believe you are a racist,” she began, before calling it “hurtful” that Biden played up his working relationships with segregationist senators. Then she worked in Biden’s past opposition to federal busing, talking about a little girl who was “bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.” Others tried to engage Biden, but Harris actually got it done. And she made it personal, speaking about the issue as nobody else onstage could.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg: This was a minefield for Buttigieg, and talking about his stewardship of South Bend, Ind., after police shot and killed a black man was inevitable. Then Buttigieg did something novel: Admit some fault. Asked why he had so few black police officers in a diverse city, Buttigieg responded, “Because I couldn’t get it done.” Humility is okay. And when talking about other issues like free college and health care, he managed to offer bold ideas but emphasize realism. If he can get past the problems in his hometown, his performance suggested future debates could be more fruitful.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.): Yes, he disappeared for a large portion of the debate as others squabbled. But he stayed on his message and did nothing to alienate his supporters. He also avoided the kind of attacks Biden got. If Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was unspectacular but successful on Wednesday, Sanders seemed to emulate that, even as there was considerably more fighting going on around him.
President Trump: We expected this debate to be largely about Trump, with Biden, Harris and others previewing a strategy focused on the president. But in the end, they spent the vast majority of the time fighting among themselves and trying to get to one another’s left — including on Trump’s favorite issue of immigration. They had tough words for Trump, including most notably on the separation of children at the border, but it wasn’t nearly the Trump-focused debate it could have been.
Former vice president Joe Biden: We knew the former vice president was going to be attacked in this debate, given that he leads in the polls. We also knew his opponents had plenty to work with and that he would face tough questions about his lengthy period in public life. The combined result wasn’t great. His exchange with Harris was particularly brutal, but he also seemed to argue against the Obama administration’s record on deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. He offered a confusing answer on health coverage for undocumented immigrants. He at one point said of gun control, “Our enemy is the gun manufacturers, not the NRA” — which almost definitely isn’t what Democratic voters want to hear and can’t possibly have been a planned talking point. And Harris eventually got him to take what was essentially a federalist position on busing. “I did not oppose busing,” he said. “I opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education.” In the end, Biden had almost no chance to pursue his preferred campaign message: talking about Trump.
The old Democratic Party on immigration: The way the Democrats talked about immigration was basically irreconcilable with how the party talked about this issue 10 or even five years ago. All 10 candidates said they favored health-care coverage for undocumented immigrants, which California only recently became the first state to experiment with. All but one — Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) — raised their hands when asked whether crossing the border without documentation should be a civil rather than criminal offense. And many said they supported not deporting undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed serious crimes. Among these candidates was, apparently, Biden, who said such people “should not be the focus of deportation.” The Obama administration he served in deported millions of people, including lots who never committed serious crimes.
Barack Obama: Not only did Biden seek distance from Obama’s record on deportations, but Harris played up her own state’s fight against the last administration on the same issue when she was California attorney general. “I disagreed with my president, because the policy was to allow deportation of people who by ICE’s own definition were noncriminals,” she said. Later in the debate, Bennet said Obama’s deal with Republicans to extend most of the Bush tax cuts but raise taxes on the wealthy was a bad deal. “We lost that economic argument,” Bennet told Biden, drawing a stunned look from the vice president. Somewhere, Obama may have been offering a similar reaction.
Marianne Williamson: I never thought I’d see a candidate in a debate come out against having detailed policy proposals, but that’s basically what Williamson did Thursday. After getting her first question, she suggested her foes were too focused on policy rather than good slogans such as Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” “If you think we’re going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you’ve got another thing coming, because he didn’t win by saying he had a plan,” she said. Later in the debate, when asked about what she would do if she could accomplish only one thing as president, she said it would be calling the leader of New Zealand to talk about making America great for children again — or something along those lines. It wasn’t entirely clear what she meant. Bizarre.
Interrupting/the audience: I get it. Sometimes candidates need to cut in to offer an actual point of debate over a policy issue or if you aren’t getting enough time. But on Thursday night, the candidates interrupted over and over again, literally from the first question. They did so before they got a chance to even be neglected. They did so even though they weren’t necessarily disagreeing. It was grating. And it killed the debate early on. The moderators got better about cutting people off after the first 30 or 40 minutes, but it might honestly be time to talk about cutting people’s microphones off if they are abusing the format.