Helping & Hurting

How to Think About the First Democratic Debates
The first official Democratic 2020 presidential primary debate took place in Miami. (CNS photo/Mike Segar, Reuters)

Don’t listen to the pundits who tell you this or that presidential candidate “won” Wednesday and Thursday’s Democratic primary debates in Miami. That’s the wrong way to think about what happened—a short-term perspective on what will be a long campaign.

Twenty candidates qualified for this week’s contests, the first of twelve that have been scheduled, forcing the Democratic National Committee to split the debate in two—ten candidates under the bright lights each night. That meant each received only sixty seconds to answer questions, and thirty seconds to respond to criticisms or offer follow-up explanations. The result was often a jumbled mess—punctuated here or there by a compelling, succinct statement or notable exchange, but mostly marked by candidates talking over one another, jostling for a chance to speak, or cutting each other off. A candidate who offered a forceful, applause-drawing response to one prompt might disappear for the next twenty or thirty minutes, barely heard from, making it almost impossible to build momentum. Some of the most pressing problems we face, from the climate crisis to voting rights, received only passing attention or weren’t even raised at all.

What—and who—emerged from this unsatisfying spectacle? Rather than “winning” or “losing,” I prefer the language of either “helping” or “hurting” a candidacy. Individual performances can justify why a candidate deserves to keep going, giving voters a reason to consider them a viable prospect or even to donate to them during these unsettled first months of the campaign. That is, alas, the most these debates’ format allows for. So, who helped or hurt themselves?

Perhaps the most important fact about these debates was how much Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders set their terms. On healthcare and student-debt cancellation, as well as economic issues more generally, their ambitious plans often determined how questions were framed. Both debates began with Warren and Sanders, standing at the center of the stage, being asked to defend their proposals. Often their critics had to justify why they wanted to pursue more moderate policies—their answers were pitched as alternatives to Medicare for All, for example. On both nights, the whole field was asked if they would do away with private health insurance; that such a question was posed at all shows how much has changed from just the last presidential race.

Warren and Sanders delivered strong, if not always dominant, performances. They will remain in the top tier of candidates for now. Warren, for her part, drew the first night’s debate—viewers didn’t get to compare her directly to Sanders, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, or Pete Buttigieg, the other leading candidates who all shared the stage the second night—though it’s possible this allowed her to stand out even more than she would have otherwise. The format’s requirement of short answers didn’t exactly showcase all of her strengths: her brilliant command of policy is hard to show off in just thirty or sixty seconds. Still, the way she movingly connected government policy to her personal story—she launched her career in higher education by going to community college for $50 a semester—was exceptional. She’s polished, but doesn’t exactly sound like a politician. More importantly, she gives a damn: urgency pervades how she talks about what government can do to help those who are struggling, all while excoriating the corruption, greed, and concentrated power that decimates the livelihoods of working people at the expense of the wealthy. It’s a message that hits just the right note of populist anger. She doesn’t hesitate to name villains, like the Sackler Family (the owners of Purdue Pharma), who have reaped profits from the very opioid crisis they helped cause. But it also seemed like she barely spoke during the last forty-five minutes of the debate. In future contests, when the field winnows, Warren will be able to talk at length about her many plans for the country, and it’s hard to imagine this not helping her cause.

These are serious times. Let’s hope the next debates reflect that better than these first ones did.

Sanders was not as sharp as Warren during the second debate on Thursday, but aside from some early sniping from also-ran candidates like Colorado’s Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, he ably delivered his usual message of standing up to the health-insurance companies, fossil-fuel industry, and military-industrial complex. He continued to rail against declining wages for workers, Wall Street greed, and the grotesque wealth of the richest Americans. His closing statement was as convincing as any candidate’s, even if it felt less fresh than the last time around. More importantly, though, he offered viewers a distinctive foreign-policy vision that is perhaps more radical than any other part of his platform. In contrast to Biden’s rambling defense of his vote to authorize the Iraq war, Sanders succinctly reminded viewers that he voted against it—and then underscored his leadership in the charge to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen, even mentioning the War Powers Act. Sanders is clearly the candidate for those who want to unwind our Forever Wars, and this is the issue that can set him apart in future debates.

The moment that has attracted the most headlines from either night, though, is Harris confronting Biden over his nostalgic invocation of working with segregationists in the U.S. Senate and his record on school busing and desegregation. It was remarkable, if not exactly surprising, that Biden did not have an effective answer prepared for that. Harris seized the moment, relentlessly grilling him on the matter, her years as a prosecutor clearly on display. If Biden tanks, this will be remembered as the moment his collapse began, though this will depend in no small measure on whether or not African American voters, a major source of his current support, stick by him. It’s true that his overall performance could have been worse: he doesn’t hesitate to invoke his years as Barack Obama’s vice president, and his message of restoring dignity and civility will appeal to Democratic moderates skeptical of big promises. But too often his answers were rambling and unfocused, and he seemed less the wise elder statesman than a politician stuck in the past.

Harris’s sterling performance will likely garner her an immediate boost in the polls and decisively move her into the top tier of candidates. She was superb, talking about issues in ways that humanized them, from her own experience of attending newly desegregated schools to the way our immigration policies could make a rape victim afraid to contact the police. She often commanded the stage, coming across as both warm and forceful. But the crowded field and quick answers meant Harris could pick her spots, focusing on just a few issues—and because she didn’t enter the debate as a frontrunner, she wasn’t asked tough questions, nor did she have to really defend her sometimes troubling record as a prosecutor. That points to the most significant bind she faces going forward: to the extent she draws on her experiences and record as a prosecutor (and later as California’s attorney general), she leaves herself open to attack. That is, her principal strength—her courtroom demeanor and pitch to prosecute Donald Trump—is entangled with her vulnerabilities, especially in a party increasingly concerned with criminal-justice reform. Still, she did what she needed to do in this first debate.

The other candidate hovering at the bottom of the first tier, Pete Buttigieg, had a mixed night. He eloquently eviscerated the hypocrisy and ghoulishness of the religious right for their backing of the distinctly un-Christian policies of Trump—no one else, in either debate, spoke about religious faith with such fluency, a fact made all the more powerful by his being a married gay man—but was dogged by his handling of a white police officer’s fatal shooting of a black man in South Bend, Indiana. He was asked a direct question about the matter during the debate—not the best introduction to a national audience. It’s probably true, though, that as a young candidate with no political experience beyond being the mayor of a college town, simply holding his own in primetime was a step forward. He’s clearly informed and intelligent, even if that didn’t translate into a distinctive policy vision. His delivery often is flat, and his brainy persona seems unlikely to appeal beyond well-educated, affluent white voters. It was notable that he, more than any other candidate, mentioned the issue that undergirds all the rest: the need to strengthen the democratic foundations of our political system. Pushing that issue could be one way to distinguish himself in future debates.

What about (some of) the other fifteen candidates? Julián Castro also gave a strong performance during the first night’s debate; it was his detailed grasp of immigration policy, coupled with his personal story of being the grandson of Mexican immigrants, that dominated discussion of the issue. Expect him to get a second look from many voters—and from leading candidates pondering who might be their vice president. Beto O’Rourke, on the receiving end of pointed immigration questions from Castro, didn’t help his cause—he will likely fade, as he should. Cory Booker gave compelling answers on gun control and talked effectively about the struggles of black and brown Americans, but too often his vague, inspirational rhetoric just didn’t land. Amy Klobuchar also performed well; she cited an ability to make inroads in Red America as proof of her electability, while also positioning herself as a responsible moderate. She’s an able debater with a reassuring stage presence; her references to beer and deer hunting offer something different, at least rhetorically, in a party increasingly enamored of policy wonks. Jay Inslee brought his focus on our climate crisis to the debates. And Kirsten Gillibrand emphasized that she’s fought for women her entire career, a message that comes at a time when MeToo revelations and state-level abortion bans are in the news.

The strangest presence at the debates was certainly Marianne Williamson, the author and self-help guru who talked about Trump reaching into our psyches and her vision of love winning out over fear. She is unlikely (to say the least) to become a major contender. But that she was on the stage at all was a reminder of the weird and unpredictable times we’re living through. Williamson articulated, however oddly, the way Trump looms over all these debates.

If talking of “winners” and “losers” is generally a mistake—if it is better to think about how the candidates positioned themselves for future debates, who gave voters a reason to sit up a little straighter and take note of what they offer—it is still worth mentioning one set of “losers” in particular. In this case, that would be Democratic voters, who had to watch two nights of poorly moderated, often superficial debates. The times demand more. Trump is stockpiling cash for the general election, while a right-wing Supreme Court gives a free hand to Republicans to gerrymander congressional districts. Things are bad. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee makes Warren share a stage with the cartoonish John Delaney out of a perverse sense of “fairness,” and plans that candidates have spent years honing are reduced to “lightning round” soundbites. These are serious times. Let’s hope the next debates reflect that better than these first ones did.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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