After the two night, six hour marathon of the Democratic 2020 primary debates in Detroit, the dust has settled. Here, Rolling Stone presents our consolidated letter grades for the performance of all 20 candidates, over both nights, assessing the contenders’ effectiveness of message, their clarity of purpose, the sting of their attacks, and their success in avoiding gaffes, self-owns, and face-plants.
Elizabeth Warren: A
Warren delivered another commanding debate performance. She made the case for Democrats to stir the passions of their base by choosing a candidate and a platform worth fighting for. Taking an implicit dig at Biden and the caution that girds his case, Warren said: “We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we are scared.” Under constant attack from can’t-do moderates who claimed her plans were “impossible” Warren shot back, targeting John Delaney in particular: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said. “I don’t get it.”
Bernie Sanders: A-
On the first night in Detroit, Sanders stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Warren, fending off centrist attacks and fear-mongering about his signature legislation, Medicare For All. Dismissing these critics as lacking heart and being wrong on the particulars, Bernie barked “I wrote the damn bill!” Standing next to the young Pete Buttigeig (the millennial who flexed that he’d only be in his 40s come 2030) Bernie appeared sharp and nimble, helping put to rest questions about the 77-year-old’s staying power. Like Warren, Sanders benefited from a favorable draw, as both progressives got to tee off on centrist candidates who are languishing at the back of the pack.
Cory Booker: A-
Booker made a case for joining the top tier of candidates, preaching unity and optimism, but still stripping the bark off Biden for the former vice president’s role in creating America’s tragedy of mass incarceration. “Sir, you are trying to shift the view from what you created,” Booker told Biden, directly. “There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.”
Jay Inslee: A-
Inslee created a moment on his signature issue by confronting Biden on climate change, insisting that true realism in responding to the crisis is accepting the life-and-death stakes the world is now presented with: “Survival is the plan we need,” he said. Wearing Clark Kent specs, Inslee also broadened his message to voters, playing up his many progressive wins as governor of Washington state that he’d like to bring to Washington D.C.
Marianne Williamson: B+
As a high priestess of New Age spirituality, Williamson is running a different kind of campaign. And we’ll be damned if sometimes it’s not incredibly effective — and affecting. Williamson is at her best when she pulls back the lens and frames America’s darkest, most primal struggles, as she did when describing the crisis of poisoned water in nearby Flint, Michigan. “I lived Grosse Pointe — what happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe,” she said referring to the wealthy Detroit-adjacent enclave. “This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry.” She suggested that the in-the-weeds policy debates going down on the stage were insufficient to confronting America’s true issues. “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
Kirsten Gillibrand: B+
Gillibrand, needing a breakout debate, finally delivered. She had the joke of the night: “The first thing that I’m going to do when I’m going to do when I’m president,” she said, “I’m going to Clorox the Oval Office.” And she spoke powerfully to the duty that white Americans have to confront white privilege. Her attack on Joe Biden for a sexist-seeming op ed from 1981 fell flat, however, as Biden cut back that her criticism of his record appeared to be driven by little more than her presidential ambition.
Andrew Yang: B
Yang delivered the national introduction he failed to make in the first debate in Miami, highlighting his plan to give every American a $1,000-a-month “freedom dividend” to soften the blows of an economy that’s shifting to automation and devaluing workers. Yang even connected the dots between the quiet story of robots stealing jobs and Trump’s loud demagoguery of immigrants: “If you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall-to-wall immigrants; you will find wall-to-wall robots and machines,” Yang said. “Immigrants are being scapegoated for issues they have nothing to do with in our economy.” Yang succeeded in getting his message out, but he also revealed himself to be a bit of a one-trick pony. He offered up the freedom dividend as the answer to every problem — including during a particularly painful answer on climate change.
Steve Bullock: B
The Montana governor, who’d missed the cut off for the first debate, made an affable introduction to a national audience. He came across as a Democratic George W. Bush — for good and for ill. He presented himself as a sunny, red-state populist with views less divisive than the purity wing of his party, pooh poohing their big plans while pivoting to his righteous crusade against dark money. Yet Bullock also pronounced nuclear, “nu-cul-ar,” as he vowed America should retain a first strike option with atomic weapons.
Pete Buttigieg: B
Largely staying out of the crossfire between the progressives and the centrists, Buttigieg called B.S. on the “triangulation” of moderates seeking to avoid being tagged with a “socialist” label, noting that the GOP is going to blast the Democratic nominee as radical regardless. “Let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it,” he insisted. “That’s the policy I’m putting forward.” Buttigieg also delivered a powerful, straight-to-camera rebuke of GOP officials who are following Trump down his dark path. “Of all the good and bad things you did in your life, the thing you will be remembered for is whether, in this moment, with this president, you found the courage to stand up to him or you continued to put party over country,” he said.
Julian Castro: B
The former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio mayor invoked the nickname “Moscow Mitch” and made the most forceful case for impeaching President Trump of any of the candidates on stage. But Castro lacked the assertiveness throughout the night that he showed against fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke in the first debate, speaking for the third-fewest minutes of any of the candidates. (Some of that can be attributed to the moderation, which was abysmal.) Castro’s intellect and preparation continue to carry him through debates where lesser candidates would otherwise fade. It was striking to see him display more acute knowledge of Eric Garner’s homicide at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo five years ago (and passion about it) than even the city’s mayor. But while he is likely to qualify for the next round of debates, this is a candidacy that desperately needs a spark and a signature moment.
Joe Biden: B-
So close. For much of the night, Biden mounted a reasonable defense of his record as the rest of the candidates took turns painting him as right of a newly progressive Democratic party. It wasn’t always pretty, but he held up far better than he did during his disastrous debate performance in June. By tying himself to Barack Obama at every turn, Joe weathered the attacks… right up until a closing statement in which he confused his campaign website with his phone number. It was a gaffe that went straight at his critics’ other main complaint: that his sharpest days are behind him and that, against Trump, the boxer would turn into a punching bag.
Kamala Harris: B-
The undisputed returning champ of the first set of debates lost the belt this time, in part because she was now the focus. The evening began with a debate of the California senator’s health care plan that attempts to offer a more moderate path to Medicare for All. The discussion put Harris on the defensive, and she also found herself on the hot seat discussing her criminal justice career, the defense and advocacy of which is at the heart of her argument for the presidency. The former California attorney general was forceful in argument that America needs a prosecutor for the “predator” in the White House—but when challenged by Biden and Gabbard on her record, she only muddled through. If she’s going to make an affirmative case for her prosecutorial background as a positive for the presidency, Harris must first be a better defense attorney for herself. Harris faces a real dilemma now. Her first debate splash failed to make a durable dent in Biden’s lead as front runner, so despite a strong closing argument, there is little chance that the senator gets much juice out of this.
Amy Klobuchar: C
Klobuchar struggled in Tuesday night’s tug-of-war between the field’s high-polling progressives and a string of longshot moderates. The Minnesota senator is banking on a firm grasp of policy and a record of Senate efficacy to appeal to her party, but she couldn’t make a memorable mark on an evening whose shining moments belonged to candidates at both ends of the political spectrum.
Beto O’Rourke: C+
Needing a breakout performance after a lackluster effort in June, O’Rourke couldn’t deliver on Tuesday night. He managed to avoid getting dunked on, as he did in the first debate when Julian Castro took him to task over immigration. But he also did do much to help his cause, largely floundering in the middle of a night dominated by those to his left politically. O’Rourke, who can deliver a hell of a stump speech, has trouble adapting to the rapid-fire, sound-bite driven dynamics of a crowded debate stage. He is one of a handful of candidates to have already qualified for the next debates in September, and perhaps he can stand out when the crowd thins. But he’s starting to run out of time to assert himself.
Tim Ryan: C
Ryan recovered from his poor showing in Miami to stage a middling debate performance in Detroit. He found his groove, surprisingly, on a clean economy, insisting that Detroit should become the center of electric car technology, vowing he’d appoint a Chief Manufacturing Officer in the White House to run point on industrial policy, and highlighting the role of agriculture in carbon sequestration. Oddly though, Ryan joined the gang of moderates in blasing Medicare for All, when it turns out he’d long cosponsored the bill.
Bill De Blasio: C
The mayor of New York City presented himself as a stand-in for progressives Sanders and Warren on night two of the debate stage. “If we’re going to beat Donald Trump, this has to be a party that stands for something,” he said. “This has to be the party of labor unions. This has to be the party of universal healthcare. This has to be the party that’s not afraid to say out loud we’re going to tax the hell out of the wealthy.” He came out of the gates strong, but as the night wore on, his pestering of Joe Biden wore thin, and his record in New York — particularly leaving the officer who killed Eric Garner with a choke hold on the beat — came under withering attack.
Gabbard, a military veteran who served in Iraq, has a compelling presence and popular, pacifist vision of an end wars of regime change. But there’s something off. Gabbard claimed without evidence of Trump that “our president is supporting Al Qaida,” and called alerts to seek shelter in case of a nuclear attack “the warmonger’s hoax. There is no shelter. It’s all a lie.” Gabbard took the fight to Kamala Harris Wednesday night, attempting to draw out the problematic parts of her record as California’s attorney general. Harris hit back, after the debate in the spin room, calling Gabbard an “apologist” for the brutal Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, whom Gabbard visited in person and still refuses to call out as an adversary or a war criminal.
John Delaney: D
Delaney, the multimillionaire former congressman from Maryland who has spent years and extravagant sums on an ego-driven run for the White House, finally got some air time in Detroit. He used it to present himself as a wet blanket to the passions of the party’s progressive base, inveighing against the path pursued by Sanders and Warren, which he described as “bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected.” He proved most effective as an out-of-touch rich guy foil for the two progressives to dunk on repeatedly. When he insisted “I’m the only one on this stage who actually has experience in the health care business,” Sanders pounced, painting him as a sickness profiteer: “maybe you… made money off of healthcare,” the Vermont senator said, “but our job is to run a nonprofit healthcare system!”
John Hickenlooper: D-
Hickenlooper continued his campaign of leading with fear, warning that a progressive agenda of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal “a disaster at the ballot box, you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.” Hickenlooper’s brand of centrism relies on tweaking the status quo. He framed his view of progress as “an evolution, not a revolution.”
Michael Bennet: F
Bennet offered Hickenlooper’s platform with less pizzazz. The Colorado senator scare-mongered about Medicare for All, lying that the full $30 trillion pricetag of the program would be paid for by taxes on the middle class (M4A backers, in fact, target the rich with new taxes to defray much of that cost to ensure middle-class Americans come out ahead on health care costs.) Bennet also got his ass handed to him by Julian Castro in the debate over impeachment, becoming the debate’s biggest loser in the technical sense. He literally reversed his opinion and granted that Castro was correct to seek impeachment in the House and blame “Moscow” Mitch McConnel if the Senate minority leader lets Trump off the hook.
Ryan Bort, Jamil Smith and Patrick Reis contributed.