In this special debate edition: A ranking of how the first-stage Democrats did in their debate, a look at the Homestead primary happening 40 minutes away, and the hot takes that mattered.
It took some doing, but I got through an entire debate write-up without using the phrase "trade jabs" — something heretofore thought impossible by science. This is The Trailer.
MIAMI — For once, the early speculation about what could happen at the Democrats' first debate was right. Donald Trump? Mentioned a mere 20 times over two hours. Joe Biden? Not mentioned at all. Candidates polling at 1 percent or lower? They went right after the candidates who'd been getting more buzz, often with results.
Other people have their winners and losers lists; this debate fit fairly nicely into an ordinal ranking of who did best and … least best.
1. Julián Castro. Coming into Wednesday night, no 2020 Democrat had been quite as unlucky as Castro. He rolled out the first comprehensive immigration plan in the race, on the day the president threatened to "close the border." Only one of them made news. He was set to introduce his anti-homelessness plan at a forum sponsored by the Poor People's Campaign. A flight delay kept him from getting there. Polling at or below 1 percent, he simply could not break through in the Democratic conversation.
That changed onstage in Miami, where Castro adroitly answered questions about immigration with none of the nervousness that Democratic voters have come to expect from their party. The moment that lingered came when former congressman Beto O'Rourke said he would "spare no expense to reunite the families" separated at the border, and Castro argued that his fellow Texan never came up with a policy to do that.
"You said recently that the reason you didn’t want to repeal Section 1325 was because you were concerned about human trafficking and drug trafficking," Castro said. "Let me tell you what: Section 18, Title 18 of the U.S. code, Title 21 and Title 22, already cover human trafficking. I think that you should do your homework on this issue."
Nothing epitomized how this primary differs from the Republicans' Trump-centric 2016 primary like an audience cheer for "homework." But Castro had been trying, and trying, and trying to get attention to his own preparation and ideas, and that attention finally arrived. He even lucked out on the conservative backlash, which focused on his comment that transgender people should also be able to access abortion coverage; it's the sort of issue that lands harder with the group he's talking about than conservatives who consider it ridiculous.
2. Elizabeth Warren. The quest for fairness in candidates' on-mic time probably hurt Warren the most. She threw up her hands when an immigration round never got to her; she never got a chance to spell out her long-held, dovish Afghanistan policy; she never got or seized a moment to talk about the 1 and 2 percent wealth tax that helped push her back into the primary's first tier. It was genuinely strange to see the highest-polling candidate on the stage get less debate time than two candidates (Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke) who'd been fading in early states. Warren simply chose not to interrupt and claim more time in the debate's second half.
But she dominated the first half and surprised some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders by shooting her hand up in the air when asked if any candidates would "abolish ... private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan." She had dodged the question before, and people around Sanders had been whispering that Warren, the "plans" candidate, was squirrelly on the left's defining cause. After Wednesday night, they could not say that.
Yes, Warren was a co-sponsor of the Senate's Medicare-for-all bill, which if enacted would eliminate private health insurance. Yes, the bill is not even halfway to getting the support it needs to pass. And yes, when told about this aspect of Medicare-for-all, voters tend to turn against it, something that would be a concern in both the primary and a general election. But the question was asked in a way that Warren's team liked, putting the "abolish private insurance" language in Lester Holt's mouth, then letting the senator tie it to her overarching critique of corporate profit.
"Look at the business model of an insurance company," Warren said. "It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care. That leaves families with rising premiums, rising co-pays, and fighting with insurance companies to try to get the health care that their doctors say that they and their children need. Medicare-for-all solves that problem."
Warren's worst moment came when asked how she'd deal with a Republican Senate; her answer, building a permanent grass-roots pressure movement, made sense on its own, but by accepting the premise, she let other candidates reject it, saying that they simply would win so big that the question would be moot.
3. Bill de Blasio. You get to defy low expectations only once, and nobody came to Miami carrying lower expectations than New York's mayor. There is an entire industry built around making fun of him, from his gym habits to his lateness to the time he may have killed a groundhog. But de Blasio was one of the only candidates who had thrived in a multi-Democrat debate before (his 2013 mayoral run), and he's having a palpably good time introducing himself to the voters and reporters in the 49 states where people are not primed to dismiss him. They are meeting a candidate who sounds very much like Sanders, without his organization.
"American citizens have been told that immigrants somehow created their misery and their pain and their challenges," de Blasio said. "For all the American citizens out there who feel you're falling behind or feel the American Dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn't do that to you. The big corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you."
De Blasio, who entered the race relatively late, has a bare-bones political organization and only barely climbed onto the stage (thanks to polls, not donors). In an interview afterward, he cited his own former life as a campaign staffer to say that he could win as voters tuned in, which is what every low-polling candidate says. But de Blasio found his place in the left-wing Democratic chorus; shaping the party's debate is his stated reason for running, and he succeeded at that.
4. Tulsi Gabbard. Speaking of expectations! No candidate faced as many potential land mines as Gabbard, who has voted to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the United States, praised Russia for bombing Syria, and bristled when asked about her membership in a religion that's been called a cult. But none of that came up; the toughest question, on Gabbard's old anti-LGBT views, had been dealt with months ago. The abiding memory viewers will have from Wednesday night is of Gabbard tossing around Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan after Ryan suggested that the Taliban would engage in "bigger, bolder terrorist attacks" if America left Afghanistan.
"The Taliban didn't attack us on 9/11; al-Qaeda did," she said. "Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11. That’s why I and so many other people joined the military, to go after al-Qaeda, not the Taliban."
Gabbard could hardly have asked for a better introduction to voters who don't know her. Future debates might not give it to her, and it was hard to suss out her stances on anything but "regime-change wars," but she left a stronger impression than was expected by skeptical Democrats (and there are many, when it comes to Gabbard).
5. Cory Booker. In some ways, Booker performed as strongly as Castro, deftly bringing some key questions (on guns, especially) back to his life in Newark that reminds Democrats why they liked him in the first place. (He is the only Democratic candidate who recommends that people watch a documentary about him, "Street Fight," which went inside his unsuccessful 2002 mayoral run.)
"I hear gunshots in my neighborhood," he said. "I think I'm the only one, I hope I'm the only one on this panel here, that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week."
But Castro generally got questions in his wheelhouse; Booker was pushed on his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, something a Democratic base that badly misses Barack Obama, and is rattled by the scrapping of his nuclear agreement, cannot get excited about.
6. Amy Klobuchar. Lucky for Warren, who was dead center in Klobuchar's criticism of Medicare-for-all, one of the Minnesotan's most memorable lines was a rebuttal to "mansplaining." She shot a look at Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for arguing that he'd scored real wins on abortion, then gave it to him: "I just want to say there are three women up here who fought very hard for a woman's right to choose.” Her second was the kind of swipe at Trump, minimizing him, that thrills Democrats: "I don't think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 in the morning, which is what he does."
Nothing else she said was so memorable; Klobuchar remained the candidate of the "do no harm" Democrats, putting together an agenda similar to Hillary Clinton's on the (credible) theory that a few more points in the Midwest are gettable simply because of how the 2020 electorate (exhausted by Trump) will behave. "If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans" was the sort of line that epitomized the pre-2016 Democratic approach: populism without sharp teeth or anything transformative.
7. John Delaney. He had waited months to attack the party's Medicare-for-all supporters and intended to make Warren a stand-in for Bernie Sanders, whom he considers more glibly left-wing than the Massachusetts senator. He went ahead and did so, saying that union health plans would be torn apart by single-payer health care (a reason many unions do not support the idea) and warning that real universal Medicare would devastate the health-care delivery system.
"If you go to every hospital in this country and you ask them one question, which is 'How would it have been for you last year if every one of your bills were paid at the Medicare rate?'" Delaney asked, "every single hospital administrator said they would close."
This is why Delaney is running; after the debate, he was practically overjoyed to make fun of the Democrats who signed on to Medicare-for-all but couldn't defend the full bill. "Either they didn't read it, or they were following the leader," he said. There is no clear path to the nomination as the "get real" candidate, but it has some power in a debate.
8. Jay Inslee. Nothing went wrong for him, apart from setting up Klobuchar's sharp comeback. But the way he got her there was telling; he swerved from a round of questions on Medicare-for-all to say that "it should not be an option in the United States of America for any insurance company to deny a woman coverage for their exercise of their right of choice." He had two goals: raise the profile of his Washington state reforms and emphasize climate. He got to do so, barely. Inslee also had the sharpest, stickiest attacks on the president, calling him the biggest threat to American security and deploying a stump speech line at just the right moment.
"He says wind turbines cause cancer," Inslee said of Trump. (There is zero evidence for that.) "We know they cause jobs."
Inslee entered the night as the "climate candidate" whom Democratic voters didn't know much else about; he exited as the climate candidate whom voters didn't know that much more about.
9. Tim Ryan. It is not the Ohio congressman's fault that his resting face makes him look perpetually nervous. But the central premise of his campaign, that a congressman from "Trump country" can rebuild the old Democratic coalition, suffered from his delivery. His answer to the party's problems was a tautology: When Democrats find the way to win again, they will win again.
"We have got to change the center of gravity of the Democratic Party from being coastal and elitist and Ivy League, which is the perception to somebody from the forgotten communities that have been left behind for the last 30 years, to get those workers back on our side so we can say we're going to build electric vehicles, we're going to build solar panels," Ryan said.
That does not sound any different than the jobs pitch Clinton had for the Midwest, and, in that tangle with Gabbard, Ryan got so lost that he spent his post-debate time trying to explain why Gabbard had no credibility.
"I personally don’t need to be lectured by somebody who’s dining with a dictator who gassed kids," he told reporters, referring to her meeting with Syria's Bashar al-Assad. "I know what I’m talking about. I’m right, and we can’t let these areas be wide open."
Has anyone ever done well in a debate if, afterward, he assured people that he knew what he was talking about? No, they haven't.
10. Beto O'Rourke. Nothing the Texan did onstage differed from what he was doing on the campaign trail, where he has lapped the field in numbers of town halls and small-town visits. But what can come off as thoughtful in a meeting with voters can sound evasive in a debate. This happened from the start, when O'Rourke used a question about a hypothetical 70 percent top tax rate (something supported by no 2020 Democrat) to talk through his tax policy.
"I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone," O'Rourke said. "Tax capital at the same rate that you tax ordinary income. Take that corporate tax rate up to 28 percent."
This is not materially different from what most Democrats support. Contrasted in 2018 with what his election opponent Sen. Ted Cruz supported, it was compelling; contrasted with every Democrat on a debate stage, it prompted questions about why, exactly, O'Rourke needed to run for president.
11. Donald Trump. Remember when the president was going to live-tweet the debate? Thousands of miles and several time zones away, it never made sense that he would, but Trump's contribution to the discourse — one tweet pronouncing the debate "boring" and one making fun of a technical difficulty — was so rote that Democrats could safely ignore them.
"Democratic divides take center stage at first debate," by Toluse Olorunnipa and Michael Scherer
The definitive real-time wrap of what happened.
What's a debate like when candidates aren't fighting about hand size? We found out!
John Delaney paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen.
"The landmine that just got laid for Elizabeth Warren," by Jeff Greenfield
The clearest of the many takes on whether Warren's endorsement of a single-payer future would be general election poison.
"Supreme Court says federal courts don’t have a role in deciding partisan gerrymandering claims," by Robert Barnes
The end of one long bipartisan campaign to end gerrymandering, and the beginning of another
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — On Tuesday night, in a crowded Florida International University gym with a sound system that buzzed like a horde of flies, a Miramar, Fla., woman named Laurie Woodward pleaded with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to visit the immigration detention city 40 minutes away.
"So, I'm going to Homestead," Warren said. "Come with me."
Warren did not know it, but Woodward was a member of MoveOn, which had been trying to get candidates to raise the profile of the detention center where thousands of undocumented immigrants, mostly children, were being held. Woodward didn't know it, but before she went onstage, Warren had met with immigrant rights activists, who convinced her that she had to see Homestead for herself.
All of this began a scramble by 2020 candidates for the Democratic nomination to make the short commute to a place designed not to draw attention, located at the very end of south Florida's suburban sprawl. By the end of the week, most of the serious contenders will have visited the center. Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar went Wednesday. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard went on Thursday; so did former congressman Beto O'Rourke, who was the first to announce a trip, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who announced it after his wife, Jane, made a short Wednesday visit. (Jane Sanders, so far, was the only Democratic visitor to talk her way into the camp.) By Friday, they would be joined by former HUD secretary Julián Castro, author Marianne Williamson and, unless interrupted by the Senate's schedule, Sen. Kamala Harris.
When they arrived, each candidate saw the same dramatic sight, guided by activists who were hungry for the attention. A stepladder stood at a vantage point where candidates could join other "witnesses" and peer over the gate (marked by signs reading "property of the USA" and "no photography or video") where children were playing in brutal heat. A few steps away, the candidates could visit the small camp set up months ago by activists.
"They're shining a light," said Josh Rubin, 67, a Brooklyn-based activist who began the Homestead protest. "Let's just hope it's not a flash. Let's hope it's a spotlight that shines until this place disintegrates."
Showing solidarity with activists on the ground has been a constant story of the primary; the Homestead journey has been the most dramatic example. O'Rourke looked silently over at the camp then raised a papier-mache heart that an activist had put in his hands. De Blasio pushed back on any comparison between the camp and Nazi concentration camps. "I represent a lot of Holocaust survivors," he said.
If any candidate was annoyed by the rush to Homestead, they did not show it, including Castro, who had finally gotten some credit for beating the field to a comprehensive immigration plan.
"I hope as many candidates get down to the detention center in Homestead as possible," Castro said. Asked why there was not the same Democratic push to end the private prison system when Barack Obama was president, and Castro was in his Cabinet, the Texan said that the "horrendous treatment we'd seen from the Trump administration is adding urgency to that push."
New York. Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender, will be the district attorney for all of Queens County, N.Y. — the biggest victory yet for the movement to break apart the “carceral state” by electing DAs (and sheriffs) who will not pursue charges against people who have committed petty or consensual crimes, including sex work.
Fewer than 90,000 people showed up for the election in a borough of 2.4 million people; Cabán won with 33,814 votes, pending some absentee ballots that are not expected to change the outcome. That mattered in two ways.
First, it was the latest case of low turnout helping the new left. The coalition that elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (just 27,658 votes were cast in her 2018 primary) mobilized in Queens again, from Democratic Socialists of America to the Working Families Party. Cabán won landslides in the more gentrified and more Latino parts of the county, as “AOC” had one year earlier.
Second, it was the latest humiliation for the Queens Democratic machine, whose new leader, Rep. Gregory Meeks, lambasted Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for endorsing Cabán while most black Democratic leaders endorsed Melinda Katz (who is white). All of the party’s effort brought it 32,724 votes, and the borough went to someone already viewed skeptically by its leaders – especially on sex work.
“I disagree with her on that,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said after Wednesday night’s debate. “I haven't learned everything I need to, but I’m most focused on the Nordic model, which is to decriminalize for women and people in prostitution, but not the folks who do the selling.
The Indivisible text poll. It's not scientific. No straw poll is. But Indivisible, the grassroots liberal group started after the 2016 elections, conducted a quickie text survey, getting responses from 6,497 people about who they were most impressed by in Wednesday's debate. The results:
Elizabeth Warren: 56%
Julián Castro: 15%
Cory Booker: 10%
Amy Klobuchar: 6%
Bill de Blasio: 3%
Tulsi Gabbard: 3%
Jay Inslee: 3%
Beto O’Rourke: 2%
Tim Ryan: 1%
John Delaney: 0%
Keep in mind: Indivisible, like MoveOn or Daily Kos, does not have a far-left membership. Its supporters really should be Warren supporters: liberal, skewing female, less interested in revolution than in using constitutional tools and voter turnout to undo the Trump presidency. This was more evidence that Warren hit her marks and probably has more room to grow with party activists.