The 2020 Democratic race for president tipped off in earnest Wednesday night as the first slate of 10 candidates gathered to debate in Miami. The two-hour contest was feisty.
While the evening’s headliner, Elizabeth Warren, held center stage with a heady mix of policy and passion, the contenders to her right and left earned air time by going after each other — often on policies that haven’t gotten much oxygen so far in the 2020 conversation. On more than one occasion (looking at you Tim Ryan) the candidate playing defense got posterized.
Below we recap seven memorable dunks from the first night of the Democratic presidential debates:
1) When Julián Castro dunked on Beto O’Rourke for not doing his “homework”
Julián Castro had a breakout performance in Miami, flashing the political chops that put him in the mix to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016. When the debate pivoted to immigration, Castro dominated the conversation, holding up his platform to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings by repealing of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. “And here’s why it’s important,” he said. “We see all of this horrendous family separation.They use … Section 1325, to justify under the law separating little children from their families.”
Castro then crossed up rival Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from the Texas border city of El Paso, who also speaks fluent Spanish and has, at times, put immigration policy at the fore of his messaging. “Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not,” Castro said.
When Beto shot back insisting he’d worked to make sure asylum seekers weren’t treated as criminals, Castro made clear that he sees the issue much more broadly, applying also to undocumented immigrants without asylum claims. Castro added that the objections that O’Rourke has raised — that decriminalizing border crossing could worsen human and drug trafficking — were bogus, because separate statutes in the federal code would continue to treat those acts as crimes. “I just think it’s a mistake, Beto,” Castro said before throwing down a thunderous jam: “I think that you should do your homework on this issue. If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section.”
2) When Tulsi Gabbard dunked on Tim Ryan over endless war
A function of these early debates is to sort out who has the mettle to be commander-in-chief. An interaction between congress members Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan left little doubt about which candidate served in uniform.
Gabbard had a strong debate, making a forceful case against the “insanity” of a foreign policy that has taken us “from one regime change war to the next,” before denouncing the recklessness with which Trump’s “chickenhawk Cabinet have led us to the brink of war with Iran.”
When Ryan was asked about the never-ending war in Afghanistan, the Ohio congressman was unexpectedly hawkish, advocating for continuing the conflict to contain the Taliban: “We’ve got to be completely engaged,” he said.
Gabbard drove hard to the lane and elevated: “Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan?” she asked. “Well, ‘We just have to be engaged?’ As a soldier, I will tell you, that answer is unacceptable.”
When Ryan tried to recover, suggesting, “When we weren’t in there, they started flying planes into our buildings,” Gabbard dunked on him again: “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11,” she said. “Al-Qaeda did.”
3) When Amy Klobuchar dunked on Jay Inslee over who fights hardest for women
On the subject of health care, governor Jay Inslee touted his record in expanding insurance coverage in the state of Washington. But he got a bit over-excited in describing himself as a peerless champion for women, and Amy Klobuchar, who otherwise had a forgettable debate night, let him know it.
“It should not be an option in the United States of America for any insurance company to deny a woman coverage for their exercise of their right of choice,” Inslee said. “And I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health in health insurance, and I’m the only candidate who has passed a public option. And I respect everybody’s goals and plans here, but we do have one candidate that’s actually advanced the ball.”
When the moderators turned to the Minnesota senator, she wasn’t “Minnesota nice.” Klobuchar rose up and dunked in the governor’s face: “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said, “I’ll start with that.”
4) When the debate moderators dunked on John Delaney
John Delaney, the millionaire former congressman from Maryland, had a sour night. He’s pursuing a lonely, center-left path through a primary field stocked with progressives, and not getting much love for a platform he describes as “real solutions, not impossible promises.”
As the debate moderators tried to steer the questions toward more viable candidates, Delaney didn’t succeed in picking any memorable fights, and his efforts to force his way into the conversation were foiled repeatedly. During the immigration portion of the debate, NBC anchor Lester Holt refused to let Delaney deter him from changing the subject to Iran, dunking over Delaney’s best effort to talk about his grandfather’s toils as an immigrant.
HOLT: We’re going to switch to another topic now. We’ve got a lot to get to. Let’s —
DELANEY: My grandfather was actually separated from his family when he came to this country.
HOLT: We’re going to — we’re going to talk about Iran right now, because we’re working against the clock.
5) When Bill de Blasio dunked on Beto on health insurance
The mayor of New York City has gotten little respect in the 2020 field, but marshaled a respectable debate performance, including a ringing defense of bold, progressive ideas: “This is supposed to be the party of working people,” he said. “Yes, we’re supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy. Yes, we’re supposed to be for… free public college, for our young people. We are supposed to break up big corporations when they’re not serving our democracy.”
When erstwhile progressive darling O’Rourke’s started talking up half-measures on universal health insurance, de Blasio went up for an easy jam:
HOLT: Just to be very clear — I’ll give you 10 seconds — would you replace private insurance?
O’ROURKE: No. I think the choice is fundamental to our ability to get everybody cared for —
DE BLASIO: Wait, wait, wait. Congressman O’Rourke, Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the co-pays, the deductibles, the premiums, the out of pocket expenses. It’s not working. How can you defend a system that’s not working?
O’ROURKE: That’s right. So for those for whom it’s not working, they can choose Medicare. For the —
DE BLASIO: Congressman you’ve got to start by acknowledging the system is not working for people. Why are you defending private insurance to begin with?
6) When Castro dunked on moderator Chuck Todd’s dumb question
Meet the Press host Chuck Todd starred as the most annoying moderator of the evening. When he wasn’t tripping over his own questions (“What is our — what is the biggest threat — what is — who is the geopolitical threat to the United States?”) he would ask NRA-style, straw-man questions about Democrats confiscating Americans’ guns.
After a typically tangled question about climate change, Castro finally had enough, politely dunking on Todd, before highlighting the plight of hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico.
TODD: Thirty seconds, Secretary Castro, does — who pays for the mitigation to — to climate, whether it’s building sea walls, for people that are perhaps living in places that they shouldn’t be living? Is this a federal government issue that needs to do that? Do they have to move these people? What do you do about that, where maybe they’re building a place someplace that isn’t safe? Who pays to build that house? And how much should the government be bailing them out?
CASTRO: Well, I don’t think that that represents the vast majority of the issue. In fact, you know, my first visit after I announced my candidacy wasn’t to Iowa or New Hampshire. It was to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Because people should know that if I’m elected president, everybody will count.
7) When Inslee dunked on He Who Shall Not Be Named
When Todd finally straightened out his question about the greatest geopolitical threat faced by the United States, Inslee — the candidate for whom climate change is issue number one, two, three, and four — unexpectedly mixed it up, soaring in for one of the most pleasing dunks of the night.
“The biggest threat to the security of the United States,” he said, “is Donald Trump. And there’s no question about it.”
And the crowd roared.