Who won the Democratic debate: July 30 winners and losers
The second set of Democratic debates kicked off on Tuesday night, and the opening round revolved around one big question: Should Democrats focus on big policies to dramatically change our economy and our country — or on narrow policies that are just enough to beat Donald Trump? Should they go all in for Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, or more narrowly seek a public option and some funding for clean energy?
There were candidates on the side of big change (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders) and those vocally urging caution (Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper), and those trying to straddle the two sides or rise above the fray (Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Marianne Williamson).
But by the end of the night, one candidate became the most notable advocate for ambition, and one had been selected, seemingly by the moderators, as the voice of moderation. Read on to see which candidates ended the night ahead, who fell behind, and where the primary discussion on everything from health care to climate change goes from here.
Winner: Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had a starkly different debate night performance than last month’s NBC debate, where she also landed on Vox’s winners list. Rather than staying above the fray, she dove right in, engaging in robust debates on health care and immigration policy with moderates like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney. Warren again cemented her status as the Big Plans candidate, most notably during a memorable exchange with Delaney that may well have been the sound bite of the night.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she grumbled.
Notably, one person she didn’t tussle with was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Warren and Sanders were placed next to each other at center stage, and acted seemingly in concert on Team Medicare-for-all, parrying the jabs from the moderates flanking them. If Sanders was the team’s bad cop for blasting moderates, Warren played the role of good cop well. She made a personal appeal for Medicare-for-all by bringing up the story of Ady Barkan, a progressive activist with Lou Gehrig’s disease who has had to rely on crowdsourcing to fund his medical care.
Warren wasn’t just teaming up with Sanders because she likes him; she played the moment to her advantage. While Medicare-for-all is first and foremost Sanders’s idea (he “wrote the damn bill,” after all), Warren’s arguments appeared to define the conversation in the health care debate. And beyond Medicare-for-all, she pressed her signature ideas, most notably a wealth tax on the top earners in America — which prompted more sparring with Delaney.
Warren’s impassioned argument for Medicare-for-all may help her make inroads with Sanders’s supporters, a key group she’s making a play for in the primaries. On Tuesday morning, Warren’s team rolled out a list of endorsements that included progressive Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a high-profile Sanders supporter in 2016. Her debate performance was yet another a powerful appeal to Sanders’s base.
Winner: John Delaney
This might be the only time that John Delaney finds himself on one of these lists, in either the winner or loser category, so he should savor it. He did not actually dominate the debate in terms of time spent talking, but it sure felt that way as the CNN moderators, especially Jake Tapper, kept turning to Delaney to explicitly make the case against Sanders’s and Warren’s ambitious plans to remake the way America provides health care, energy, education, and much more.
It was a role that someone was inevitably going to claim, and one that several other candidates, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, attempted to claim over the course of the night. But Delaney had, before the debate, been very direct in critiquing the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, so when it came time for moderators to prompt debates over those ideas, he got called on first, and got to have back-and-forths with both Warren and Sanders.
Did he come out ahead in those back-and-forths? Not especially: Warren’s denunciation of Delaney (that his campaign is about “what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for”) was effective and probably the most memorable moment of the night. And the main competitor for Delaney’s niche — the pragmatic, vaguely centrist candidate who can beat Trump and make American government boring again — wasn’t onstage Tuesday night. It’s Joe Biden, and he will have a near monopoly on the centrist lane Wednesday night.
But night one was, overall, more centrist-heavy, and Delaney’s ability to dominate that corner of the debate and take the argument to Warren and Sanders was notable. It’s not clear that there’s a lane for a non-Biden centrist, but there certainly isn’t a lane for six of them. Considering how little an impression his campaign has made to date, Delaney made a respectable case Tuesday night that he can own that lane.
Winner: the Republican Party
If you were Donald Trump or another Republican lawmaker running for reelection in 2020, you probably had a good time watching tonight’s debate. Several of the major issues were framed by the moderators in terms Republicans would love: Will you take private insurance from Americans to give them Medicare-for-all? Will you raise taxes on the middle class to do it? Will you decriminalize illegal border crossings and give unauthorized immigrants free health care? Are Democrats going too far to the left?
Some of the candidates took such questions in stride, successfully navigating what will certainly be Republican talking points come the general election. But some of them had a hard time — with Warren and Buttigieg, for example, getting bogged down in explaining how Americans will pay less on net under their Medicare-for-all plans as their health insurance premiums go down even if their taxes go up. It felt more like a dodge than a straight answer to a simple question.
Moreover, many of these ideas are simply unpopular. A recent survey by Marist found that replacing people’s private insurance with Medicare-for-all, giving health insurance to unauthorized immigrants, and decriminalizing illegal border crossings are all opposed by most Americans.
There is a case for using primary elections to shift the Overton window on some topics, from health care to guns. But it’s also true that this can be politically risky. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias argued, it may be better for Democrats to run on more popular progressive ideas — many of which, like a $15 minimum wage, a wealth tax, and a Green New Deal, would still transform America.
Tuesday night’s debate spent much time on unpopular Democratic proposals instead. Expect some of tonight’s moments to appear in GOP attack ads in the future.
Loser: the policy needs of black voters
The second Democratic debates are taking place in Detroit, a city that is roughly 80 percent black and has the fourth-largest black population in the United States. Yet as candidates gave their opening statements on Tuesday night, they had very little to say about the issues affecting the thousands of black voters living in the city — or the millions of black voters living in the Midwest.
It marked the beginning of a debate that did not truly begin a discussion of race until more than an hour and 40 minutes had passed, and only briefly touched on the candidates’ specific plans about how they would help black voters concerned about things like the economy, health care, policing, and education.
To be fair, candidates did call for things like a new Voting Rights Act, spoke of the impact of police violence on communities of color, and had a brief discussion about reparations and white nationalism. They also spoke of President Trump’s recent attack on Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore, forcefully calling the attacks racist.
But the candidates’ debate over the needs of black voters and other voters of color were hardly given as much time as other topics discussed Tuesday night. (For instance, health care got almost 30 minutes of time, but candidates failed to discuss issues like maternal and infant mortality and how it disproportionately affects black women and their babies.) And the fact that these issues weren’t covered until they were raised in a short, separate discussion gave the impression that the needs of black voters are separate from the needs of Midwestern voters. It’s an odd distinction given how many black voters live in the Midwest, many of them in rural areas.
At roughly one-fifth of the Democratic electorate, black voters are a group that candidates will need to win the nomination, and they want politicians to have a serious debate about the issues affecting their lives and communities. The candidates — and the debate moderators — would do well to remember that.
Everything the host network did tonight baffled me. Much of the debate, moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Dana Bash, seemed like it was designed to confront Democrats with Republican arguments and create a spectacle at the expense of substantive debate.
For starters, CNN spent the first 10 minutes on a patriotic display and then cut to commercial. Bam, 10 minutes gone.
After one-minute opening statements by all the candidates, Tapper pivoted to health care — but repeatedly interrupted the candidates to enforce an absurdly short time limit, making it impossible for candidates to give full and interesting answers on some difficult policy questions.
And the line of questioning Tapper pursued was notable for its GOP-friendly framing. He focused on trying to get Democrats to admit that they would increase taxes on the middle class to pay for their health care plans and to stoke a conflict over whether the party had gone too far left.
This wasn’t just a Tapper problem. Bash and Lemon asked candidates to respond to shallow Republican arguments — Bash’s repeated questions about whether expanding America’s welfare state would “incentivize” unauthorized immigration was a particular lowlight — and aggressively enforced the time limits.
It wasn’t all bad. Things got a bit better after the second commercial break — the conversation about climate change, in particular, was more substantive than the meager offerings we’ve had on this issue previously. But only a bit.
And throughout the night, the moderators dedicated an inexplicable amount of time to John Delaney and Steve Bullock — two candidates who are polling at a single percentage point combined — in order to try to instigate a series of fights between them and the more progressive frontrunners. Per a New York Times count, these two also-rans both spoke for more time than Amy Klobuchar, a better-polling moderate candidate, and Beto O’Rourke, who has nearly three times as many supporters in the poll averages as Bullock and Delaney combined.
This debate could have been much better — more illuminating, less chaotic, and more representative of what’s actually going on the race. It’s intrinsically hard to successfully produce a debate with 10 candidates onstage; it’s even harder when the network pushes for more heat than light.
Loser: Beto O’Rourke
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) already had a bad first debate back in June, between his awkward Spanish and several moments where he just looked outclassed on immigration, an issue he was supposed to really stand out on. Tuesday’s debate was his chance to make up for that lackluster performance.
In the end, he just didn’t. He had no breakout moments. He was never at the center of the conversation, as Sanders, Warren, and even Delaney were. At times, it was easy to forget that O’Rourke was even onstage.
It did not have to be this way. O’Rourke’s rising star moment came when he ran against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and came surprisingly close to winning in a fairly red state. He was tremendously charismatic, drawing big crowds and potentially lifting up Democrats in other races across the state. And toward the beginning of the year, O’Rourke polled at third place in the presidential race, behind Joe Biden and Sanders.
Since then, O’Rourke has collapsed in the polls — now standing in sixth place. First, his campaign launch was bogged down by several controversies, including a statement in which O’Rourke suggested he was destined to become president and a joke in which he indicated that he puts all the work of raising his children on his wife. He seemingly tried to relaunch his campaign, but then he had a bad first debate.
O’Rourke needed a big moment to change all that tonight. He didn’t get it.
Loser: foreign policy
That’s understandable — health care is an important issue! It’s an issue that voters care a lot about, and one where sparring among candidates has been more explicit and heated. But the monomaniacal focus on health care left little time for something crucial: the rest of the world.
Foreign policy is, arguably, the single most important issue voters should care about in evaluating these candidates. It’s one of the few domains of policy where Congress has very little role and the presidency has nearly untrammeled authority. The president can use military force without Congress; she can damage or reconfigure alliances without Congress; she can condemn or sanction adversaries without Congress. All that is a far cry from presidential authority on, say, health care, where the president can do almost nothing to make Medicare-for-all a reality without Congress.
Moreover, foreign policy is a rare issue where Democrats have deep internal divisions. The party contains a dovish anti-authoritarian division, well represented in the Warren and Sanders policy staffs, that is skeptical of America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, supportive of Palestinian self-determination, and eager to remake international economic institutions along more egalitarian lines.
It also contains advisers representative of what the Obama administration liked to deride as “the Blob,” sympathetic to the Gulf states and Israel and more eager to use force. The party contains Joe Biden, who wanted to invade and partition Iraq, and Bernie Sanders, who voted against the invasion.
So did these issues come up in the debate at all? Barely. No time was spent on Saudi Arabia, none on China’s rising military influence, and almost none on Iran. North Korea got a minute at most, and discussion of war and peace was limited to a few comments on withdrawing from Afghanistan and adopting a policy against nuclear first use (the latter debate was, bizarrely, limited to Elizabeth Warren and Steve Bullock). No debate was had on the use of drones to kill abroad. Pete Buttigieg’s promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in his first year was the only major policy news on foreign affairs all night.
It was a huge wasted opportunity, one that left the foreign policy cleavages in the party unexplored and unexplained for viewers.