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The 2020 Democrats Debated the Future of Their Party

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To Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, Democrats should also stand for a more forgiving immigration policy. Castro called on his fellow candidates to join him in supporting the decriminalization of border crossings. If crossing the border is a crime, Castro said, it leads to parents being incarcerated and separated from their children. Explaining his stance to reporters after the debate, Castro kept repeating the line: “I do my homework.”

During the debate, when Castro invoked the viral photo of an El Salvadorian father and daughter who recently drowned in a river trying to cross the southern border, Trump jumped in. “BORING!” he tweeted, a comment Perez told me was “Exhibit 48,000 in the absence of a soul of this president.” But like the other candidates who largely avoided bringing up Trump, Castro wasn’t interested in taking that swing. “I’m not paying attention to him,” Castro told me, adding only that “this president has already shown himself to be a failure.”

When I asked Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey what he thought voters were supposed to glean about the Democratic Party, he told me that these nights in Miami are “the beginning of a conversation.” Booker moved through the spin room surrounded by the biggest clusters of reporters that I’ve ever seen around him. “I think that the debate stage will whittle down over time,” he added.

He’s right. The race will likely stay hot and crowded through the summer, and through the next debates, in Detroit, at the end of July. But right now, most candidates are just fighting for their spot in the third debate in September, which will be harder to qualify for. By then, the money, for many of them, may start running out; few people believe a full two-dozen candidates will survive long past Labor Day.

But any changes to the field won’t make a significant difference if the race doesn’t start to shift away from Biden. His name didn’t come up once on the debate stage last night, implicitly or explicitly, despite all the expectations among pundits—and among those on Biden’s campaign—that he was going to be the punching bag. The candidates seemed determined not to let his top position in the polls shape the conversations they wanted to have.

“This is about the American people,” Booker told me, as he made his way out of the spin room. I’d asked him why he didn’t bring up Biden, a candidate with whom he had recently exchanged words, after Biden wistfully recalled his days working on legislation with segregationists. “This isn’t about one individual candidate,” he told me.

That is what every candidate who isn’t the Democratic frontrunner wants to keep repeating, praying that it might turn out to be true. But it’s also easier to say when Biden’s not onstage (not to mention Trump). Tonight, Biden will be at the center, surrounded by nine other candidates—who’ll all be trying to get the audience to look right past him.

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