The first Democratic debate wasn’t an easy place for a breakout moment, with 10 candidates onstage. But the contenders tried nonetheless, as they argued — mostly politely but sometimes cantankerously — about how far left to bring the party, how to confront economic inequality and how to treat immigrants.
Some things we learned about this large field of Democrats and how the race is taking shape:
Warren emerges strong. Elizabeth Warren was the only candidate onstage polling in the top five of the more than 20 Democratic candidates. The debate was an opportunity for some of Warren’s rivals to knock her off her game. They didn’t. The Massachusetts senator demonstrated a mastery of the policy details and a comfort with the format. As other candidates cross-talked and tried to get some notice, she was steady, strong and persuasive. “What’s been missing is courage,” Warren said. “Courage in Washington to take on the giants.”
Joe who? Not only was front-runner Joe Biden not onstage (Biden debates Thursday), he was barely an afterthought in this first debate. The candidates avoided calling him out or comparing themselves to him. Some tried to co-opt him, by framing themselves as centrists who will not get swept up in the progressive fervor for free college and other costly new government programs. Those promoting big new entitlements didn’t frame their vision in the context of Biden, but as a broader struggle for the future of the Democratic Party. “I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
‘Medicare for all’ is politically messy. The candidates all like to vow their support for it, but the debate laid bare how starkly different their approaches are. Only two of the candidates onstage, Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, said they want to end private insurance. They argued intensely over the merits of scrapping the entire insurance system, with the more moderate candidates warning such a move could destabilize the entire healthcare system. De Blasio was having none of it, declaring that the schism reveals the real progressives in the party. Warren said it is time for politicians to stop making excuses for the evils of the current medical system. “What they are really telling you is they just won’t fight for it,” Warren said. “Healthcare is a basic human right. And I will fight for human rights.”
Breaking from the pack is tough. Several of the candidates onstage were desperate for a viral moment. If they don’t get a lift from Wednesday’s debate, there will be few opportunities for them to get the fundraising traction they need to stay in the race into the fall. But with so many candidates and so little time, the night didn’t seem like it was going to be the big game changer for those who needed it to be.
Not for open borders, but … The Democrats took the debate stage as President Trump warns the party dangerously favors open borders. The candidates all say that is absurd. But the sparring made clear there is deep consternation over how far to go in easing immigration restrictions. When Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, called other candidates reluctant to support decriminalization of border crossings, Google searches for Castro increased. But some of Castro’s rivals, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas in particular, held their ground, warning that law enforcement needs the tools to detain drug dealers and other criminals.
Climate change creeps in. Unlike in the 2016 race, when climate change barely came up in the primary debates, this cycle it is taking center stage. Democratic voters see it as an existential issue and the candidates were eager to talk about it. But the moderators pivoted off the topic quickly, which is sure to frustrate activists who had been demanding a debate focused on climate only.
Ten is too many. It was hard to get to know any of these candidates very well in this format, and the desperation of some of them made for a chaotic night. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney kept interrupting and trying to talk over the moderators, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s sister took to Twitter to accuse NBC of fixing the debate for Warren.
Mic check. Tough night for the audio room at NBC. It was hard enough following the show with 10 candidates talking over one another. Then the mics went haywire and voices from the control room blasted through the auditorium. And, of course, Trump took note on Twitter: “@NBCNews and @MSNBC should be ashamed of themselves for having such a horrible technical breakdown in the middle of the debate. Truly unprofessional and only worth of a FAKE NEWS Organization, which they are!”