Twenty Democratic candidates for president have now had a chance to say their piece on a debate stage. On Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro turned in impressive performances from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, while Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and John Delaney didn’t seem to resonate the way they may have hoped. The second half of the field of qualifiers — headlined by frontrunner Joe Biden and the progressive Bernie Sanders — had their chance on Thursday. Here’s who our take on who won and lost the second night of action.
It sounded so natural the way she said it. “I will ensure that this microphone,” Kamala Harris said midway through the night two of the first Democratic presidential debate, “that the president holds in her hand…” The crowd erupted before Harris could finish the sentence.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 28, 2019
It was that kind of night for Harris. Of the 10 candidates onstage Thursday night, her performance was far and away the strongest. She spoke to the disconnect between President Trump’s bragging about a soaring stock market and the millions of Americans scraping by (“In our America no one should have to work more than one job to have a roof over their head and food on their table”), with just as much aplomb as she vowed swift action to protect undocumented residents brought here when they were young, to defer deportations of undocumented veterans, and to “release children from cages” at the border.
But it was Harris’ frontal assault on former vice president Joe Biden, who leads in nearly every poll of primary voters, that will most be remembered. About halfway through the debate, Harris, the only black person onstage, injected herself into a heated discussion about race. She began by saying that she didn’t know a black man who was’t subjected to racial profiling, and told a personal story about a neighbor’s parents discriminating against Harris and her sister because they were black. Then she turned her attention to Biden.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris told him. She said she agreed with him about the importance of finding common ground. But Biden’s recent comments waxing elegiac about his old colleagues in the U.S. Senate who were rabid segregationists like James Eastland were “personal” and “hurtful,” Harris went on, as were his decades-old comments expressing opposition to the federal government mandating school busing as a way to desegregate public schools.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school, and she was bused to school everyday,” Harris went on. “And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”
It was the mic drop Harris supporters had long been waiting for. Her performance wasn’t without its flaws — she raised her hand when a moderator asked which candidates would get rid of private health insurance, reversing yet again on the question in a span of mere months. But she got the second-most airtime of any candidate after Biden (who needed minutes to respond to Harris), and delivered one of the most assured performances of any candidate onstage. It comes as no surprise that she was Google’s top trending search topic as the debate was coming to a close.
This was Harris’ night. What will she do with the momentum?
The former vice president has, until now, managed to remain at the top of the polls in part by staying out of the public eye and letting happy memories of the Obama administration carry him through the campaign’s early months. On Thursday, though, it became immediately clear why Biden’s staff has been keeping his schedule so light: Uncle Joe is, frankly, not at the top of his game. During questions that required a show of hands, he could barely lift his arm, leaving the moderator to wonder where exactly he stood on providing health care for undocumented immigrants. Instead of having to be cut off for talking too much, he twice abdicated his allotted time after appearing to lose his train of thought. And, when asked what his first agenda item would be upon being sworn into office, the former VP replied: “The first thing I would do is make sure that we defeat Donald Trump.” Hmm.
Biden would have self-immolated on his own, but his rivals were only too happy to splash a little extra kerosene in the dumpster. It started early, with Eric Swalwell recalling an encounter with Biden on a presidential campaign trail 32 years ago, when Swalwell, age six, listened to the Delaware senator declare that it was time to pass the torch to a new generation. (The message was clear: “Joe Biden retire bitch.”) Michael Bennett later refused to let him brag about forcing Mitch McConnell to raise taxes, by reminding everyone that the deal Biden was highlighting was the same one that made the Bush Tax Cuts permanent. The coup de grâce, though, came from Kamala Harris, who took emotional objection to Biden’s misty memories of working with segregationists to try and block bussing and the racial integration of public schools. Harris was part of the second class to integrate her own school.
Yang entered the debates as one of the most intriguing candidates in the field. He was able to develop a groundswell of grassroots support behind his plan to institute a “Freedom Dividend” that would give every American $1,000 per month, but his surprising ascension remained a mystery to most Americans, if they had ever even heard of him. He didn’t do much to win them over on Thursday. Yang was notably absent for the majority of the night’s proceedings, and abstained from inserting himself into most of the heated back-and-forths about health care, immigration, race, and other key issues. When he did speak, he wasn’t particularly charismatic, and he may have lost some people while unpacking value-added tax as he defended his universal basic income proposal. His base isn’t leaving his side anytime soon, but he’s going to need more than the #YangGang if he wants to contend with the frontrunners.
Honestly, We Have No Idea
Where to begin? The author and self-help guru was easily the most unorthodox candidate in the field before the debate began, recently questioning whether vaccines should be mandatory and releasing a Trump-like statement claiming that “millions” of her followers were not being accounted for by the media. On Thursday, Williamson’s campaign ventured even further into orbit. She said her first act as president would be to call the prime minister of New Zealand. She made a bizarre analogy to John Kennedy’s plan to put a man on the moon and a time when “politics included the people.” On policy, she essentially scoffed at discussion of health care and other issues, calling them “superficial” fixes to what’s wrong with America. Williamson’s solution? Love. “Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me, please,” she said in her closing statement. “You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out.”
When asked about the first issue they'd tackle if elected president, Marianne Williamson said she'd call New Zealand's prime minister to say "the United States of America is going to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up" https://t.co/THE0z1clIy #DemDebate2 pic.twitter.com/0oFVTC4ddb
— CNN (@CNN) June 28, 2019
Entertaining as Williamson’s performance may have been, it did away with any illusion that she is a serious candidate, and the fact that she was able to make it onto the debate stage in the first place should probably cause the Democratic National Committee to reexamine how it vets candidates.
Then again, the media has been wrong about out-there candidates before…