In this edition: Ranking the second batch of Miami Democrats, the ongoing battle over a climate debate, and the candidates' next moves.
In one word, describe the first newsletter you'd read when you became president. This is the Trailer.
MIAMI — There's no disputing the pivotal moment of the first Democratic debates — the five tense minutes when Sen. Kamala Harris attacked Joe Biden's work in the 1970s to restrict forced integration through busing. But the warning sign came early, when Rep. Eric Swalwell of California made a long-telegraphed attack on Biden, recalling a 1987 visit to Swalwell's state when Biden called for older politicians to pass the torch. Asked for a response, Biden started with a swipe at Swalwell.
"I’m still holding on to that torch," he said.
It was the first case of Biden, who had told audiences at his events that he would avoid attacking fellow Democrats, deciding to put an opponent in his place. The wisdom coming into Thursday night was that Biden, ahead but not unbeatable in early states, could target President Trump while other Democrats bickered. But Biden, who was one of his generation's most influential legislators and knows it, ended up mixing up the approach of his campaign so far (speedy rundowns of his policies) with intramural spats that sometimes went nowhere — and at least once ended badly.
1. Kamala Harris. Where was this candidate for the past five months? Well, she was waiting for a televised debate. Harris, who can be discursive and unspecific in a town-hall format, who had been forgettable at other high-profile party events in California and Iowa, delivered the best live performance of her career Thursday night.
Sometimes opportunity came to her, and sometimes she made it. Harris was not called on by moderators when the nine other candidates discussed race and policing; she asked for time "as the only black person on this stage," and used that time to lay into Biden. The back-and-forth about busing was most memorable for Harris's recollection of integrating Berkeley, Calif., schools, but it cut deeper, challenging Biden's premise that his experience helping to limit busing, which probably saved his career, was part of a real "civil rights" history.
An attack like that in a multi-candidate field is risky; it worked for Harris because she was clearer than ever and got lucky with questions. Her 100-day countdown on executive orders to limit gun sales is one of her most memorable stances, and it was teed up perfectly. She also benefited from her placement onstage, next to Biden and Bernie Sanders, emphasizing her relative youth (she turns 55 this year), which shaped up even her boilerplate answers.
But the power of the Biden face-off was that it let voters imagine how Harris, whom they've only recently gotten to know, could stand up in the pressure of a debate with the president. It's never certain, in a multi-candidate race, that going negative will help the attacker. But by midnight Thursday, every campaign acknowledged that Harris was the story.
2. Pete Buttigieg. He arrived in Miami after one of the worst weeks of his mayoral career — certainly, the worst week since he began running for president from the mayor's office in South Bend, Ind. His approach to that: apologize. "I couldn't get it done," Buttigieg said of the work to fix community and police relations. "Look, we have taken so many steps toward police accountability that, you know, the [Fraternal Order of Police] just denounced me for too much accountability. We're obviously not there yet, and I accept responsibility for that because I'm in charge."
For the rest of the night, Buttigieg stuck to what worked for him, with an easily understood criticism of tariffs, pointed references to his military service, and a riff on religion that no other candidate competed with.
"For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again," Buttigieg said.
Republicans were overjoyed by Harris's success, and even happier when Buttigieg, the other candidate they see as a "change" force who could complicate Trump's messaging, didn't tack to the center. Both of them joined nearly every Democrat in promising that undocumented immigrants could get government health plans; Harris recommitted to a single-payer health-care plan that would ban most private insurance. (Harris has said she thought the question was about her own insurance, but her conclusion — a single-payer system with supplemental insurance — is not substantially different than Sanders's.)
But both Harris and Buttigieg landed clear points in the debate. In the reality distortion field of 2019, where Democrats who renounce socialism are called "socialists" and Democrats who reluctantly back border security funds are accused of wanting "open borders," crisp communication might be as helpful in attracting primary voters as anything the candidates agree to.
3. Bernie Sanders. The challenge for the Vermont senator's second presidential campaign has not changed in the four months since he made it official. One, how do you convince millions of Democratic voters that they made the wrong choice in 2016? Two, how do you convince voters that the younger candidates who share or have adopted your platform aren't strong alternatives to a democratic socialist who will be 79 years old on Inauguration Day 2021?
"He has changed the game," said Nina Turner, a co-chair of the Sanders campaign and a frequent surrogate. "He won the debate last night, and he won the debate tonight, because we're having a conversation about his platform."
Sanders made no mistakes, relished in the usual criticism of his strategy (and spending), and, after a while, was mostly ignored by opponents. His description of how his biggest plans could become real had not changed since 2016: revolution or bust.
"We'll do it the way real change has always taken place, whether it was the labor movement, the civil rights movement or the women's movement," he said. “We will have Medicare-for-all when tens of millions of people are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that health care is a human right, not something to make huge profits off of." Sanders still has the most audacious theory of change, and the debates didn't change that, or much else, for him.
4. Kirsten Gillibrand. The highest-profile Democrat who risks being cut from the autumn debates — anything less than 130,000 donors and 2 percent in polling, and they're out — Gillibrand approached Thursday as a sudden-death round. She did well early, offering perhaps the strongest description of "Medicare-for-all" as a Democratic president and Congress would fight for it and telling voters (as she says on the trail) that she has already won the argument about the issue in New York.
"The quickest way you get there is you create competition with the insurers," she said. "God bless the insurers, if they want to compete, they can certainly try, but they've never put people over their profits, and I doubt they ever will."
Gillibrand faded in other parts of the debate, describing a fight for campaign funding of elections that is different from the one most Democrats favor but not different enough to stand out.
5. Joe Biden. The argument made for nominating Biden, who just a few years ago seemed to be finished with politics, is twofold. One: He has an unmatched record and genuine affection from Democrats. Two: He is the Democrat with the best, or only, chance to win. Biden's opponents went after both of his strengths, goading him into defenses of that record that did not always make sense ("I was responsible for getting 150,000 combat troops out of Iraq," he said, though the absence of ground troops was a factor that led to the brief reign of the Islamic State), and testing whether age had sapped any of his skills.
Indeed, Biden made some small mistakes that opponents will want to emphasize. His answer to a largely useless question about his year one priority was to challenge the premise that Barack Obama had not achieved much after his first year and to say, "The first thing I would do is make sure that we defeat Donald Trump," which made no sense. He was better when spelling out the specific policies he had told audiences that he would talk more about at the debates; 500,000 new electric-vehicle charging stations, returning to the Paris climate accords and so on. But there was no way around it: Biden, who last appeared in a debate at age 69, had lost some of the speed on his fastball at age 76.
6. Michael Bennet. The last senator to enter the race had the most Senate-centric agenda. He talked less about what he had passed than what he had tried to pass and couldn't.
"I say this as somebody who wrote the immigration bill in 2013 that created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people in this country," he said, "that had the most progressive Dream Act that's ever been conceived, much less passed, and got 68 votes in the Senate — that had $46 billion of border security in it that was sophisticated, 21st-century border security, not a medieval wall."
Bennet also had the most revealing exchange with Biden — almost. After Biden cited the 2012 deal on the "fiscal cliff" as an example of his dealmaking acumen, Bennet began to point out that the deal gave Republicans more than they could have gotten had the clock run out on the 2011 budget deal. It was Bennet’s bad luck that the subject was immediately dropped, with Gillibrand pushing in to make a tangential argument about campaign finance.
7. John Hickenlooper. He set out to attack "socialism" and did so. He wanted to do that without lurching into a fight with Sanders; he did that, too. He made no other significant impression, beyond repeating the line he has begun to use on the stump: that everything people have talked about onstage, he’s done already.
8. Marianne Williamson. Williamson's time onstage was the most consistently memorable, even if it did nothing to get her elected president. What other presidential candidate has promised to begin her term by asking New Zealanders why their children are so happy?
Williamson did worse when she explained that everyone else was doing this wrong. "If you think we're going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you've got another thing coming," she said. "Because he didn't win by saying he had a plan. He won by simply saying, 'Make America great again.'" That's out of step with how Democrats prefer to handle the president, but it was honest.
9. Eric Swalwell. The California congressman only made the stage on the strength of public polls, not fundraising; he has already said he'd probably quit the race if he missed the cut for a future debate. His colleagues do not take him seriously, something they demonstrated when he made several unsuccessful attempts to break into someone else's answer. His most memorable moments, apart from the Biden tiff, came with the sort of "dad jokes" that candidates usually make to warm up crowds.
"When I'm not changing diapers, I'm changing Washington," he said in what could be his only closing remarks on a presidential debate stage. "Most of the time, the diapers smell better."
Swalwell did communicate his two issues: youth and a crusade against guns. He avoided the hotheaded clunkers he sometimes makes on Twitter, where he was briefly notorious for telling a right-wing journalist that the government would defeat any armed insurgency because it "has nukes." He effectively described his plan for an assault-weapons buyback, as an idea from "a generation who sends our children to school where we look at what they're wearing so we can remember it in case we have to identify them later." But none of his opponents ruled out that big idea, raising the question of why Swalwell really needed to be onstage.
10. Andrew Yang. Leading into Thursday night, no Democrat seemed to be having as much fun running for president as Yang, a "serial entrepreneur" who thinks the entire nominating process is surreal. (Prove him wrong.) He came in with two jokey but realistic goals: to get people Googling the "Asian man next to Joe Biden" and to maximize, with math, the time he got to speak.
Yang did not get to stand next to Biden, and he spoke the least of all 20 Democrats who took the stage in Miami — less than three minutes. That time was not spent in a way that helped him. Despite the simplicity of Yang's "freedom dividend," a $1,000-per-month basic income for all Americans, his description of it meandered: "If we had a value-added tax at even half the European level, it would generate over $800 billion in new revenue, which combined with the money in our hands, it would be the trickle-up economy, from our people, families and communities up." There is no unified "European level" of VAT (value-added tax), but the lowest one on the continent is Luxembourg's 17 percent tax on all retail. And this is already more confusing than Yang needed to be.
The Internet phenom also suffered from haphazard questions; after being asked about his big idea, he was asked about combating China, his priority in the first year of a presidential term (the freedom dividend, obviously), and if he had any closing remarks. When the debate was over, Yang was blunt: He expected "more airtime when the field shrinks," because he didn't get or take chances to fully explain himself. Honesty was a better strategy than pretending he nailed it.
Miss the rundown of the first night? Get it here.
"Democratic rivals attack Biden, with Harris leading the way on race issues," by Michael Scherer, Toluse Olorunnipa and Chelsea Janes
In case you missed it.
"A quiet Joe Biden debate moment that deserved more attention," by Matthew Yglesias
The fight about the "fiscal cliff," explained.
"Kamala Harris steps out of her comfort zone — and it works," by Karen Tumulty
A few days before her breakout in Miami, Harris retooled her stump speech, and a sharp-eyed Washington Post columnist identified what had started to work.
"The weirdest three minutes of the second Democratic debate," by Ashley Feinberg
"In one word" questions are never good ideas, but people sure enjoy asking them.
Kamala Harris. She joined a mini-caravan of Democrats going to the Homestead immigrant detention center Friday morning; on Saturday, she will appear at Pride events in California. (A fundraiser will be squeezed in between all of this unless Senate votes get in the way.)
Julián Castro. He's making a "road trip" around Texas after his own Friday morning Homestead visit, starting tonight in Austin and continuing through Monday in Fort Worth.
Beto O'Rourke. He'll be back in Texas exactly when Castro arrives; a concert event will take place at the same time as Castro's event less than one mile away.
Bernie Sanders. He's in New Hampshire on Saturday, taking 48 hours off the trail, then starting a three-day swing through Iowa around the Fourth of July holiday.
Marianne Williamson. Starting on Saturday, she's holding seven events in Iowa, where she now lives.
Steve Bullock. The governor of Montana appeared on "The Late Show" after the debate and said in a statement that he intended to be there the next time Democrats met. "It was clear that these debates were missing an important voice," he said.
MIAMI — On Tuesday, as Democrats began traveling to Florida for their first, two-day debate, activists with the Sunrise Movement began camping out the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The building, not far from the Capitol, does not have much of a lobby; what it does have is blocked by a security desk. So the young activists, who drove the Green New Deal into the political conversation, stayed outside, in the heat, accepting occasional gifts from presidential candidates, advancing their demand: a Democratic primary debate focused on climate change.
The campaign for that single-issue debate, which had been endorsed by candidates from Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden, picked up again Thursday night. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who had complained that climate got just eight minutes' discussion at Wednesday's debate, said after Thursday's that the DNC really needed to revisit the issue.
"Tonight we had another debate that deprioritized the existential crisis of our time, sidelining it as a single issue among many, rather than an umbrella issue that touches everything we care about," he said in a statement. He had some company from liberal pundits.
"I think I've changed my mind on the need for a climate debate," tweeted MSNBC's Chris Hayes, who was part of network debate coverage but was not a moderator. "I see the DNC's point that it opens up a set of asks for other specifically themed debates. BUT there is just nothing like the climate crisis and no way to wrestle with its scope in the context of a general debate."
The DNC's position remains that a climate debate, by itself, is not needed and would risk unfairly helping Inslee, who had centered climate in his own campaign.
"We had more discussion of climate tonight, okay, than in the entire 2016 debate cycle," DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in a short interview after the first half of the debate. "That's not nearly enough for what we need to do in 2020. But as I said to people repeatedly, climate change is going to come up early, often, and with great vigor and depth."
That's not nearly enough for Sunrise, which is continuing to protest the DNC itself and still plans to host a forum for Democrats near the July 30 and 31 debate in Detroit, reserved for discussion of climate, by candidates who will join the call to shame the DNC.
... two days until the end of the fundraising quarter
... 32 days until the next Democratic debates
... 41 days until the start of the Iowa State Fair