On a range of issues, including immigration, climate change, health care, the economy and more, the Democratic candidates were unabashed in their enthusiasm for more government activism, signaling not only differences with President Trump but also with a more cautious approach by Democratic politicians of the past two decades.
Whether the Democrats put their best face forward was another question, however. The debate was often marred by squabbling, interruptions, and candidates talking over one another and ignoring time limits. The often fractious tone highlighted the stakes for many of those on the stage who have struggled for attention during the first months of the campaign.
Wednesday’s encounter, hosted by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo and featuring five moderators, was the first of two Democratic debates this week. The second will be on Thursday and will feature more of the candidates in the top tier, including former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who have ranked first and second in most recent polls.
Wednesday’s debate was not a warm-up for Thursday’s session. Nor was it an undercard event in advance of the main attraction, as the Republicans staged during the 2016 campaign. Among the 10 politicians on the stage, there were plenty of strong résumés and experienced politicians.
Instead, Wednesday’s debate served to open a new and important phase in the campaign for the Democratic nomination, after six months of town halls (televised and otherwise), house parties, church visits, constituency group meetings and occasional skirmishing. In that sense, it provided viewers with their best opportunity to date to evaluate not just the candidates seeking the party’s nomination but also the party’s overall shifts in recent years.
The economy described by the candidates bore little resemblance to the economy the president speaks about on an almost daily basis. At a time when unemployment is at a half-century low and the stock market continues to rise, the Democrats spoke of the imbalance between giant corporations and wealthy individuals and working families who candidates said are being taken advantage of.
“When you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who is one of the leading voices pushing the party to the left. “We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on.”
Warren was far from the only candidate who offered that diagnosis of the economy. The Democrats might have differed on some of the specifics of how to attack the problem — such as the potential breakup of big tech companies — but there was widespread agreement that Democrats in the White House would seek to redistribute power and the fruits of the economy.
“At the end of the day, we have too much of a problem with corporate power growing,” Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) said. “We see that with everything, from Citizens United and the way they’re trying to influence Washington. It’s about time that we have a president that fights for the people in this country.”
On health care, Democrats differed over whether the path to universal coverage should mean Medicare-for-all and an end to private insurance or be accomplished on a more piecemeal basis. But all signaled a new aggressiveness on the part of their party to move beyond the Affordable Care Act that was one of the prime successes of the administration of former president Barack Obama.
Immigration produced some of the sharpest exchanges, as former housing secretary Julián Castro challenged others, most specifically fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman, to join him in changing the offense for crossing the border illegally from a criminal to a civil penalty. But overall, the Democrats’ indictment of the Trump administration was consistent and strong.
With the image fresh in people’s minds of the father and his young daughter who drowned trying to enter the country illegally, the Democrats denounced Trump’s policies of separating families.
“We’re not being honest about the division that’s been fomented in this country,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “The way that American citizens have been told that immigrants somehow created their misery and their pain and their challenge.”
There were strong moments for many of the candidates. Warren, who was the lone candidate from the top tier in Wednesday’s debate, was the focus of questions in the opening segments and made the most of her opportunities. She projected herself as the fighter for average Americans and the scourge of big banks, big oil, big pharmaceutical companies and others with immense power over the economy.
Booker, seeking to break out and join others in the top tier, was passionate when he spoke, diverting from a campaign message that has talked about love and unity in favor of more aggressive rhetoric.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), whose policies are more moderate than those of some of her rivals, got off several of the best lines of the evening, including a rejoinder to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who claimed he was the only candidate “who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health in health insurance.”
To that, Klobuchar responded to applause from the audience: “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”
Others sought to make their voices heard and their candidacies viable, which caused the debate at times to veer off track, as much as the moderators tried to keep things running smoothly. A technical glitch at the start of the second hour caused another minor disruption. But on the whole, the questions were pointed and the candidates came with a focus and clear goals.
Thursday could produce a different dynamic, with Biden likely to be a focus of attention and the opportunity for challenges to the swing to the left among many in the party.
A second set of debates will come in just a month. Then, after a break in August, the third set will take place in early September. At that point, the rules for qualifying for debates will become more stringent and there will be casualties.
By September and October, some candidates will be starved for both oxygen and the dollars needed to run a serious campaign. They will begin to fall to the sidelines, perhaps many of them. But that could still leave Democrats with the largest field of candidates since 1976 heading into the election year.
To the degree that there is some stratification in the field of candidates into three tiers, it is also the case that many, if not most, Democratic voters are still shopping and will be for months. Democratic activists in the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — have been seeing the candidates regularly. Voters elsewhere have seen them on television from time to time.
At no time, however, have the candidates been together on a stage in a format that calls for questions from journalists and allows voters to begin to make real comparisons. Which is why the debates that began Wednesday night could be significant.
Debates don’t always change things dramatically, but they sometimes do. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign hit rough waters during a debate in which she seemed to muff a question about whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to have drivers’ licenses.
Barack Obama’s tart comeback to Clinton — “You’re likable enough, Hillary” — on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, a comment that helped Clinton score a surprise upset that forced that nomination battle to go all the way to June.
Rarely do such consequential events happen in the first debates, however, and Wednesday’s encounter showed why. With 10 candidates, five moderators and answers limited to one minute, the opportunity for doing much beyond offering introductions was limited, while attacking someone else carried clear risks.
But the evening did offer an opportunity for voters who have paid only minimal attention to begin to weigh the choices and changes that Democrats collectively will be offering as a contrast to Trump.