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.