Some Key Takeaways From The First Democratic Debates


On Thursday and Friday (NZT) last week, the United States hosted its first wave of Democratic debates for the 2020 election, covering issues from child-separation and immigration, to the Iran deal, healthcare and climate change. Twenty candidates qualified for the debates (measured by polling and fundraising) and were split into two randomly-selected groups. For the sake of your sanity and mine, I’m only going to speak about the top seven polling candidates.

Night one was Elizabeth Warren’s to lose because she was the clear front-runner sharing a stage with nine much lower-polling candidates who were all looking to make an impact and have “a moment”. Warren has been steadily rising in the polls, almost in direct proportion to how much Bernie has been slipping, which suggests that for Bernie supporters who want a progressive America, they may feel Warren is a better opponent to go toe-to-toe with Trump. But lose she did not. Warren seemed gleeful about being on that stage. If you had told me it was her wedding night I would have believed you. She was asked the first question of the night and it was right up her alley, How could she justify the risk that her many plans might disrupt an economy that is doing well by several indicators? She answered it with a question that is central to her candidacy: “Who is this economy really working for?” Ms. Warren said, “It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top.” Her most memorable moment came when host Chuck Todd asked if she had a plan to get her agenda passed if there’s a Republic congress with Mitch McConnell at the helm, she answered with a sly smile: “I do”.

Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke also stood to lose or gain a lot on night one but ultimately didn’t deliver. Both have been breakout stars in American politics over the years but have yet to crack into the top-tier of candidates. Beto went bilingual straight out of the gate, answering a question on whether he would support a tax rate of 70 percent on the country’s wealthiest earners in both Spanish and English. So then Booker was all UM BRAH, I can speak Spanish too! And also delivered his answers in two languages. Was it necessary? Probably not. Both Beto and Booker are known for their eloquence and story-telling, but on night one the length of their answers only obscured the points they were trying to make.

Okay!! Night two! This was the real doozy.

The second debate, featuring front-runners Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, was filled with tension, conflict and one potent TV moment. Harris was the standout of the night, making arguments that not only damaged her opponents (more on that later) but had audience members audibly gasping. It was like she had a handbag full of mics and was just dropping them one after the other. If the television was in black and white, Kamala was in full colour. If Biden seemed a little sleepy, Kamala looked as though she could murder Trump in a debate while sprinting on a treadmill. Candidates on stage agreed, fundamentally, on a lot of things like providing healthcare for undocumented immigrants, universal background checks for those purchasing guns, and repairing relationships with key American allies. But the details of those plans is where tension arose. At one point, during a discussion about healthcare, when all ten candidates were yelling over each other, Kamala shut the place down by saying, “Hey guys, America does not want to witness a food fight – they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” OH SH*T.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the only candidate on stage with military experience as a veteran of the Afghanistan war, and therefore brought a unique perspective to the issue of gun control: “Of course it influences my perspective, because we trained with some of these weapons. If more guns made us safer, we’d be the safest country on Earth. And as someone who has trained on weapons of war, I can tell you that they have absolutely no place in American cities or neighbourhoods in peacetime.” Pete had one of the toughest weeks of his campaign leading into the debate, when a black resident of his town was shot and killed by a white police officer. When asked about the racial tensions in his community, and specifically why his police force is only 6% black when the community is 26% black, he was both candid and refreshing: “Because I couldn’t get it done. My community is hurting right now, and there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist attack at a time.” He continued to say that he was “determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle feels the same thing when they see a police car approaching. Not of fear, but of safety.” It was a topic that could have alienated a lot of voters, but instead his ability to own his shortcomings was seen as powerful and earnest.

Bernie was Bernie, and escaped the debate relatively unscathed. The only point I’ll make is that with Bernie’s love of yelling, the idea of watching a Trump/Sanders debate makes a lot of voters want to jump out the window.

But the most dramatic moment of the night came when Harris directly addressed Biden over his controversial comments two weeks ago in which he celebrated the careers of two senators who had built their reputations on the segregation of black and white citizens in America. The exchange was clearly one Harris had prepared and planned for (Biden on the other hand looked stunned), and she came across as intelligent and gutsy. She offered a deeply personal and articulate explanation of what she, as a black former prosecutor, felt about Biden’s comments, as well as his decision in the 1970s to oppose school busing. Harris asked Biden directly if he believed that his decision thirty years ago to oppose busing was wrong, but Biden refused to answer, instead going immediately on the defence. To me, it felt like the correct response would have been, “Yes, I was wrong Kamala – times have changed and my views have evolved.” Instead, his answer revealed a complete lack of self-reflection and exposed his weakness as a candidate.

Biden, who has been leading the polls ever since he announced his candidacy, is an incrementalist, reminiscent of the Clinton and Obama eras. He believes in changing only what is broken and keeping everything else the same. He has resisted the impulses of the activist left and instead built a “do no harm” campaign designed to attract voters exhausted by Trump’s erratic behaviour. This stands in direct contrast to Bernie and Warren’s “blow up the system” approach. Interestingly, by the end of the second debated, I started to wonder if ultimately America will elect a Democratic nominee who can bring together voters from both sides of the resistance, the incrementalists and the socialists – someone like Harris or Buttigieg.

As the two debates came to a close, voters were discussing who had “won” – with everyone from Elizabeth Warren to Julian Castro being celebrated – which only further proves just how unpredictable this race is going to be. Don’t forget that at this exact moment in 2007, Barack Obama’s campaign was flailing.

In a pool of candidates this largest, a lot of pundits have likened these debates to speed-dating. And now that the first date is over, the American public will have to decide who they want to see again. The second scheduled debate will take place on July 30 and 31 in Detroit (Michigan is a battle state that Trump narrowly won in 2016) – and qualifications for the debate are the same as the first.

See you there.

Header image via Google