Ten Democratic presidential contenders took the stage at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit for the first night of the second round of the 2020 primary debates — and churned out a memorable, marathon debate.
The contest had offered the prospect of a faceoff between progressive champions Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But instead of fighting, the two candidates with transformative plans for America stuck together, defending their bold agendas against the slings and arrows of can’t-do moderates, particularly former congressman John Delaney and ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The night featured another by-turns strange and transcendent performance from the New Age love warrior Marrianne Williamson. And it served as an introduction to Montana Governor Steve Bullock. The red-state Democrat had missed the cutoff for the first debate in Miami, but his drawl-filled debut in Detroit stole the thunder from many more familiar moderates including Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Hickenlooper, and Ohio congressman Tim Ryan.
The setting in Michigan — the once blue stronghold fumbled away by the Clinton campaign in 2016 — gave rise to spirited debate over America’s industrial future, the merits of union-negotiated healthcare contracts in a Medicare-For-All world, and the systemic racism that poisoned the water in Flint.
Below, we judge the winners and losers of the debate, as well as those candidates who just tread water. Voters will make their own determinations, of course. But we based our assessments on the contenders’ clarity of message, bold truth-telling, and standout moments — both those that could propel a candidacy, and those that were memorable for all the wrong reasons.
After an uncharacteristically subdued first debate, Warren was back to her fiery, fighting ways in Detroit. Early on, CNN’s moderators pitted Warren and her liberal ally Sanders against the Moderate Johns: Delaney and Hickenlooper. And Warren came ready.
She eviscerated Delaney for using “Republican talking points” in his critique of her health-care agenda. When Delaney took a swipe at her and Sanders by saying that “Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises,” Warren responded with the most memorable (and brutal) line of the night: “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. I don’t get it.”
At times, Warren’s campaign feels like a one-woman mission to rid Democrats of the last vestiges of Clintonism and to get the party to stop fearing the ghost of Reagan. She was blunt about the need for a wealth tax and the greed of the health insurance industry. She called out white supremacy “for what it is: domestic terrorism.” And she spoke powerfully about the threat of nuclear proliferation at home and abroad.
Warren understands that simply running on an anti-Trump platform isn’t enough. You have to give people something — someone — to vote for, to believe in. “I get it there is a lot at stake and people are scared,” she said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we are scared.” Tuesday’s debate was often slog, but if it’s remembered for anything, it will be for Warren’s ability to rise above the din and make her case as forcefully as anyone in the race.
Sanders isn’t going to surprise you from the debate stage. He’s going to rattle off statistics about the grotesque concentration of wealth and in America and denounce the “greed and corruption of the ruling class.” And he’s not going to suffer fools gladly. The open question for Sanders has been: Can the 77-year-old recapture the revolutionary spirit that fueled his 2016 run.
On Tuesday night Sanders was firing on all cylinders. He was cantankerous and clear as a bell, delivering clean blows to opponents of his signature policy of Medicare for All. When Ryan suggested that union members could be forced to accept less favorable healthcare coverage under the universal program than they were able to negotiate in their contracts, Sanders insisted Ryan was flat wrong.
“You don’t know that, Bernie,” Ryan pushed back.
“I do know it,” Sanders replied. “I wrote the damn bill!”
Go ahead, laugh. Mock Marianne Williamson’s talk of a “politics of love,” her self-help books, the healing crystals you imagine she has lining the walls of her pristine Brentwood home. Tweet your of Professor Trelawney jokes, laugh at her Pin-worthy inspirational quotes. …You done? Good, because if you actually listened to what Marianne Williamson had to say tonight, you might realize she made more sense than most of the candidates on stage.
Not the stuff about President Trump’s “dark psychic force,” so much as her replies to race-related questions. Reparations? That is “payment of a debt that is owed. That is what reparations is…. We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with. That great injustice has had to do with the fact that there was 250 years of slavery followed by another hundred years of domestic terrorism.” The Flint water crisis? “Flint is just the tip of the iceberg…I assure you, I lived in [the affluent Detroit-adjacent community of] Grosse Pointe — what happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight.”
She railed against an “amoral economic system has turned short-term profits for huge multinational corporations into a false god” and argued “conventional” politics won’t solve our problems “because conventional politics is part of the problem.” Answers like that made Williamson the most Googled candidate of her debate night — again. So laugh all you want, but remember that this time four years ago, everyone was laughing at Donald Trump too.
Tuesday night’s debate was billed as the battle between the progressives and the moderates. The progressives both won by closing ranks — and at times by shutting down the centrist antagonists in brutal fashion. But an unexpected winner emerged from the pack of moderates. Bullock, the governor who won reelection in Montana on the same night Trump took the state in a landslide, projected a confident folksy optimism even as he underscored his opposition to what he called Warren and Sanders’ “wish list economics.”
Bullock also adeptly pivoted to his signature issue — one that has resonance with the party’s progressives — of limiting the influence of dark money. “That’s been the fight of my career,” he said. “Kicking the Koch brothers out of Montana, taking the first case after Citizens United up to the Supreme Court, making it so that elections are about people.” Bullock spoke slowly even against the pressure of the clock, giving his ideas room to breathe. The governor wasn’t perfect. He lost his puff as the debate slogged to its conclusion, and his answer on preserving the first strike option in “nu-cu-lar” conflict sparked unwelcome flashbacks to George W. Bush. But Bullock proved he belonged on the big stage, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see him graduate to the more exclusive DNC debates in September.
Trying to put our finger on what irks us about the millionaire former congressman, we hit upon the answer: “Delaney is Morning Joe in human form.” The centrist former congressman got the airtime he’s desperately wanted in this debate, but he used it to establish himself as an out-of-touch-rich-guy foil for Sanders and Warren. Delaney positions himself as the defender of all that is reasonable and just about the status quo, which just needs a few tweaks to get America humming again. In his closing statement he decried the “disease of divisiveness” as our nation’s biggest problem.
But as a Democrat in 2019, Delaney seems like a category error. He fights against the ambition and passion of the party’s progressive wing, cautioning that “impossible promises” like universal healthcare and a Green New Deal “will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected.” In addition to the naysaying Republican-lite rhetoric that got him dunked on by Warren, Delaney also made himself a target with his self regard: “I’m the only one on this stage who actually has experience in the health care business,” he bragged, “And with all due respect, I don’t think my colleagues understand the business.” Sanders, who has shaped the party’s new mantra that healthcare is a human right, then pounced, barking at the befuddled millionaire: “It’s not a business!”
Hickenlooper may have turned in the least compelling performance of the moderates onstage Tuesday, which, let us tell you, was no small feat. Attempting to stake out ground as the adult-in-the-room realist, the former Colorado governor spent most of his time on camera sneering about the impracticality of plans proposed by progressives like Sanders and Warren. He’s going to have to pick up his anemic polling numbers if he wants a chance to make his case after the field is cut down ahead of the third set of debates in September. That’s not likely to happen based on his performance on Tuesday. At least he had a good time, though. “What a night; I loved it!” he said at the top of his closing statement.
It’s just not working for Beto. Needing a big night after a borderline disastrous performance in June, the Texas congressman-turned-Vanity Fair coverboy wasn’t able to deliver any memorable moments on Tuesday. In a debate CNN fashioned around a battle between progressives and moderates, O’Rourke was caught in the middle, proposing a number of half measures like offering free two-year, but not four-year, public college, and promising to pull troops out of Afghanistan in his first term, but not his first year. He deserves plaudits for highlighting how Trump’s trade practices are hurting America’s heartland workers, but on the whole O’Rourke seemed out of his element, awkwardly attempting to apply his herky jerk cadence from the stump, which can work wonders in an extended speech, to 15 second soundbites. At one point he mentioned how Texas is now a swing state with 38 electoral votes up for grabs. Maybe he’d be better served by angling for a vice presidential nod, or heading back to the Lone Star state to try his hand at winning Republican John Cornyn’s Senate sat.
Klobuchar had a tough night. Part of it was strategy: relying on your appeal to centrists and even some Republicans is a tough sell in a Democratic primary — especially one in which the most progressive candidates (Warren, Sanders) are so persuasive defending their sweeping visions for the country’s future. But it wasn’t just Klobuchar’s message that was off, it was her delivery. She didn’t connect, and her efforts at soliloquy were frequently sunk by CNN’s tight time limits, with moderators talking over her at crucial moments. This is a candidate who (reportedly) knows how to animate regular old office supplies, eat a salad with panache (again, reportedly)! Our advice? Let’s see some of that big energy on the stage next time around.
The South Bend, Indiana mayor’s night was not encapsulated by one moment, but it is worth spotlighting it because while Buttigieg can outpace his fellow candidates in fundraising all he likes, he isn’t sniffing the Democratic nomination without the support of black voters. He has to know that.
Detroit, a black Midwestern urban center, should have been an ideal setting for him to make a thorough introduction. But when moderator Don Lemon asked him directly how he can convince black voters that he should be the nominee, Buttigieg fumbled. Starting with a cringeworthy sentence — ”As an urban mayor serving a diverse community, the racial divide lives within me” — the mayor waded unprovoked and unnecessarily through his recent and complicated history with the police shooting of Eric Logan before mentioning the recently released Douglass Plan, his densely packed set of proposals to promote black uplift.
Even then, he waxed broadly about systemic racism and not about the specifics of his plan. It would have been good if he were trying to signify his relative virtue to audiences, but he just put 18 pages of a plan less than three weeks ago! Tell folks what’s in it before Don Lemon starts interrupting you!
Still, Buttigieg had moments where he displayed his considerable political gifts. His opening statement highlighting the climate crisis was sobering, and spotlighting his “Medicare for All Who Want It” proposal was a rather savvy way to signal approval of Warren and Sanders on health care without actually agreeing with their plans. And in one surprise rapid-fire response, the mayor proposed a series of structural reforms popular with progressives, including D.C. statehood and killing the Electoral College.
All of this will be forgotten if African Americans, the party’s most loyal constituency, can’t see clear to trusting Buttigieg. Now two debates in, it is doubtful whether they’ve even had the chance to get to know him all that well.
Ryan landed with a thud in his first turn on the debate stage last month. He came across as nervous, and found himself on the receiving end of a viral foreign policy takedown by Tulsi Gabbard. The congressman from Ohio didn’t exactly set the world on fire Tuesday either, re-upping his bewildered frat boy energy while getting posterized in by Sanders’ “wrote the damn bill” line.
So not great.
But Ryan somehow managed to muster a little moxie while discussing energy solutions, stressing the need for America to “invent its way out of” its reliance on fossil fuels and promising to appoint a Chief Manufacturing Officer to run point on the reinvention of American industry. He also rightly noted the nexus of climate and agriculture, an important yet rarely discussed point.
He dialed up the gusto in his closing statement, as well, saying that he hoped that instead of capturing the progressive or moderate lane of the debate, he captured viewers’ imagination. Not quite, Tim, but at least you improved on last month’s performance.