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Winners and Losers of the First Night of Democratic Debates

Julián Castro was the big winner Wednesday night. Tim Ryan…not so much

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gestures towards New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, in MiamiElection 2020 Debate, Miami, USA - 26 Jun 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gestures towards Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, in Miami.

Wilfredo Lee/AP/Shutterstock

The 2020 Democratic primary debate season is officially underway. The first batch of 10 candidates hashed it out onstage in Miami Wednesday night, and though the back-and-forths may not have been as contentious as those from some of the similarly large Republican primary debates in 2016, the night still provided plenty of opportunities for candidates to prove their mettle. Here’s our take on who won, who lost, and who treaded water during the first of many debates to come in this marathon election season.

WINNERS

Julián Castro

The former housing secretary strode on stage with a steely-eyed confidence and sharp elbows, demonstrating with every answer both an emotional depth and an impressive fluency with a broad range of policy. The deaths of Oscar Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, were “heartbreaking — and it should piss us all off,” Castro said, before setting out a clear and detailed vision for addressing the border crisis. He urged the passage of the long-delayed Equal Rights Amendment, spoke genuinely of his commitment not just to reproductive freedom but “reproductive justice.” While Amy Klobuchar responded to a civil rights question by talking about STEM jobs, Castro invoked the names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Pamela Turner, and Antonio Arce — the victims of police violence. And he landed an especially devastating body blow to Beto O’Rourke, pointing out that the former El Paso congressman supports Section 1325, the basis of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy criminalizing border crossings.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren didn’t need to do much in her first turn on the debate stage. Unlike most of the candidates who drew the opening night in Miami, Warren is a lock to be in this race for the long haul, and wisely opted not to involve herself in any of skirmishes between those polling well below her. She was characteristically sharp, smart and persuasive as she laid out her stances on health care and the economy. Though there were prolonged stretches where she didn’t have a lot to say — especially during the immigration portion — it didn’t matter. She threw down a hammer to end the night, delivering an emotional closing statement about how a $50-a-week commuter college gave her “a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl.”

“I am in this fight because I believe that we can make our government, we can make our economy, we can make our country work not just for those at the top,” she added. “We can make it work for everyone,” she added. “And I promise you this: I will fight for you as hard as I fight for my own family.”

Bill de Blasio

De Blasio has been treated as more of a punchline than actual candidate since joining the race last month. Few understood why he was running, especially New Yorkers, 76 percent of whom opposed their mayor’s White House ambitions. Outside of a few awkward social media posts, he hasn’t moved the needle much since declaring his candidacy, either. But you know what? All things considered, de Blasio did a pretty fine job from his position on the outskirts of the stage Wednesday. He wasn’t afraid to say Democrats should support a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy; he was the only candidate to join Warren in saying that the private health insurance industry should be eliminated; and he was one of two candidates (the other, again, being Warren) not to mention President Trump. Despite talking for the second-least amount of time (next to Inslee), de Blasio was very loud. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but he did provide the night’s first contentious moment when he interrupted Beto O’Rouke’s defense of the private insurance industry. We’re not saying de Blasio is a contender. We’re not even saying his campaign isn’t still a joke. We’re only saying it’s slightly less of a joke than it seemed like it was before the debate started.

LOSERS

Beto O’Rourke

Whether it was jealousy over the fawning press coverage he’s received or the memory of his anemic debate performances against Ted Cruz, it was obvious Beto had a bullseye on his back from the moment he walked on stage. He’d barely opened his mouth in response to a healthcare question when Bill De Blasio attacked him for supporting a broken system; Julian Castro accused him of of not doing “his homework” on immigration. He seemed nervous throughout the evening, and it didn’t help that, when asked whether he would support a marginal tax rate of 70 percent on the highest earners, O’Rourke responding by breaking into Spanish. Yes, the debate was being aired on Telemundo, but it felt like an attempt to run out the clock — especially when, asked a second time, O’Rourke refused to answer the question.

Amy Klobuchar

The Minnesota senator’s one liners (“If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans”; the president’s tax plan is ”all foam, no beer”; etc.) fell flat and her incrementalist approaches to college debt and health care paled in comparison to the bolder progressive agendas touted by the other candidates onstage. Even Klobuchar’s one solid dig of the evening — reminding Jay Inslee that “there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose” — was blunted by the fact that Inslee’s specific claim (that he was the only one onstage who had passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive rights in health insurance) was factually accurate.

Tim Ryan

Blinking, sputtering, and licking his lips, Ryan struggled to defend his position of sustained “engagement” in Afghanistan from Tulsi Gabbard, who served in Iraq. When Ryan, backed against a wall, declared of the Taliban, “When we weren’t in there, they started flyin’ planes into our buildings,” Gabbard had to remind him it wasn’t the Taliban who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, but Al Qaeda. Yikes.

John Delaney

Unlike O’Rourke, Klobuchar, and Ryan, Delaney actually seemed relatively comfortable onstage. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have a very appealing personality, or policy platform. His center-left prescriptions for health care and economy didn’t seem to resonate (he was one of the least search-for candidates online during the debate), and was often on the receiving end of “Congressman, thank you” calls from the moderators, another way of saying, “Congressman, please stop talking.” We do, however, commend him for tamping down Rachel Maddow’s fervor over the Russia investigation and trying to direct the conversation back to policy.

TREADING WATER

Cory Booker

Booker received more air time than any other candidate on stage Wednesday night, speaking with conviction as he turned in strong responses on criminal justice reform, calling private prisons “repugnant,” and gun violence, stressing that “for millions of Americans, this is not a policy issue, this is an urgency.” His attempts to speak Spanish felt a little forced, as did the multiple invocations of the “low-income community” where he resides in Newark. Regardless, Booker delivered a strong performance, just not stronger than what we expected from a candidate encroaching on the top five of our Democratic primary power rankings.

Tulsi Gabbard

Gabbard’s big moment on Wednesday came while discussing her bread-and-butter issue: foreign policy. When Tim Ryan tried to argue that the U.S. needs to stay engaged in Afghanistan, Gabbard cited her time in the military to explain that it’s time to pull troops out of the region. “Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan? Well, we just have to be engaged?” Gabbard said. “As a soldier, I will tell you, that answer is unacceptable.”

It wasn’t the only time Gabbard leaned on her military service in her responses, bringing it up as she discussed equal pay, as well as when she tried to defend her questionable stance toward LBGTQ rights. The Hawaii native didn’t have a bad night, but we don’t really know that much more about her than we did prior to the debate.

Jay Inslee

As a candidate who hasn’t received a ton of national press, Wednesday night was a big moment for Inslee. Even voters who knew about his climate change bonafides probably hadn’t heard him speak at length, and thus didn’t have any real sense of Inslee, the potential president. Though he seemed a little over-anxious, he was still able to make a pretty strong impression despite receiving the least amount of air time of any candidate onstage, scoring points by defending unions and emphasizing that “we are the last [generation] that can do something” about climate change. Strangely, he was one of the only presidential hopeful not to mention the climate crisis when asked what he believed to be America’s biggest geopolitical threat. But his alternate response was a no-brainer: “Donald Trump.”

 

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