Opinion

The Democratic Debates: Say hello to some newcomers

10 of the 20 eligible Democratic primary candidates took the stage for the first debate of the 2020 election season. 

Image By: Kavitha Babu

Well, folks, we did it. We survived the first round of the Democratic primary debates. Yes, that’s debates, plural. 

Although President Trump was tweeting about his ostensible boredom (concrete policy ideas seem to rattle the President) and MSNBC’s technical difficulties, 10 of the 24 presidential candidates for 2020 battled it out on stage last night. Striving to have a memorable moment, few candidates triumphed. Others did not. Awkward silences wreaked havoc at times when candidates were hoping to strike a chord with voters. There simply was not enough time for each candidate to cohesively unveil their plans without them getting muddled in the rest of their messages and other candidates’ ideas. 

Before I share my take on the candidates and their individual successes, first understand that:

  1. Dynamics could change as well as candidates and their policies. 
  2. There are many more debates to come. 
  3. Only 10 candidates debated in the first round. They include New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former San Antonio Mayor and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The debate moderators rapidly probed the candidates about topics ranging from a single-payer health care system to immigration reform and gun violence to climate change. Some, like Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard were using their best efforts to simply gain any visibility they could. Others like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker seemed to employ different strategies. Eager to win the hearts and minds of voters as their poll numbers lag behind other frontrunners, they each tried to gain more traction as they trail behind up-and-comer Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. 

Key Takeaways: 

Front and center, demanding attention with her energy and extensive ideas, Elizabeth Warren needed no introduction. Her campaign has recently gained momentum in the media as she has released plan after plan, travels to meet with individuals and surprise-calls supporters who donated even a minimum $1 to her campaign. She dominated the first half of the debate. MSNBC practically handed her a silver platter with their first question, giving her a platform to immediately set the stage for the debate. Warren emphasized the need for structural change and income inequality. Rather than focusing on the man in office now, she attempted to focus on the need for large-scale reform. Her quick-witted mind and detailed policy proposals are emblematic of her preparedness for the role as POTUS. She has faced intense pressure as she gains more support, but she delivered her messages confidently and effectively. Clearly, the debate skills she developed in her youth serve her well.

Warren’s support for Medicare for All may haunt her later as she works to woo moderates who may be more attracted to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar’s centrist-driven campaigns. She was never as outspoken in her commitment to Medicare for All as Sen. Bernie Sanders, but she did not resist raising her hand in support for government-run health care during the debate. Though this may paint and alienate her as too leftist, there is widespread support for single-payer health care. According to a Reuters poll asking Democrats and Republicans if they support or oppose Medicare for All, over 75% of Democrats and at least 50% of Republicans support it.

While some may surmise Warren is peaking, her policies and “I have a plan for that” motto will continue to serve as a framework for upcoming debates and expectations. She reminds us that policies and smarts matter. She is setting a precedent for future campaigns to focus on action points. 

Beto O’Rourke answered his first question in Spanish. Was he pandering to Hispanic voters? Possibly. But he certainly became a sensational meme across the Internet. He also took aim at Trump’s immigration policy, or rather lack thereof, by denouncing the separation of families at the border and alluding to the aluminum blankets and concrete floors children are sleeping on tonight. While his rhetoric was morally sound, he appeared feeble and pale. His inability to answer the question regarding New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70% tax rate was particularly alarming. Perhaps he is still reconciling what policies he truly believes in (he changed his position on impeaching Trump, which he now favors), but he was not impressive. Though O’Rourke animated Texans and Democrats by nearly defeating incumbent Ted Cruz for a Senate seat earlier in 2018, he has been failing to deliver that same electrifying portrait of himself. Frankly, he should run for Senate; it’s what Texans want. 

Rather, former San Antonio Mayor and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro emerged as a strong contender. Google searches for Castro climbed to over 2000%. He excited the crowd after endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment and perhaps in the most thrilling part of the debate, lambasted O’Rourke’s opposition to the repeal of Section 1325. The Section, part of Title 8 of the U.S. Code, criminalizes undocumented immigrants coming across the border. While O’Rourke discussed the difficulties migrants are facing, Castro effectively portrayed himself as authentic through his impassioned plea not to “criminalize desperation.” Meanwhile, Castro’s hope to change the code to be a civil offense rather than a criminal one may be bold, but no other candidate has truly opened up the canister for talk around immigration, as most fear messing with Trump territory. In this audacious manner, Castro has distinguished himself in a positive light. Though Warren wasn’t given an opportunity to participate in the immigration discussion, likely because she was asked several questions in the first half of the debate, Castro’s positive potential in the primary is manifested by his knowledge regarding the migration crisis. He spoke with clarity and purpose, and his background as the only Latino candidate boosted his credibility.  

Cory Booker, repeatedly referencing his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, also fared relatively well. He highlighted important issues often overlooked, including the tribulations of transgender people and people of color. Speaking to gun violence and its ripple effects in his hometown, he revealed his empathetic side.

Seeking a chance to touch on his gubernatorial policies, Gov. Jay Inslee mentioned eliminating the filibuster (an idea endorsed earlier by Warren as well) to expedite the legislative process and ensure his ideas are formalized. As much as I support that idea, he missed out on other opportunities to speak about what newscasters typecast him as the single-issue candidate on climate change. Given the severity of the climate crisis, it’s a shame that Inslee didn’t have more time to focus on the issue, although he pointed out that he was the only candidate who has made it their central issue with his “golden plan.” Dedicating about seven minutes to what research indicates is an existential crisis is foolish on the Democratic National Committee’s part, but that’s an argument for another time. While he was effective in conveying his gubernatorial record including the 100 Percent Clean Energy Bill, he didn’t really achieve a shining moment. Notwithstanding Trump’s rollback in climate initiatives, instead of answering “Donald Trump” when asked what the greatest geopolitical threat we face is, Inslee could have said the climate crisis before his opponents did.  

I honestly forgot a few times that Rep. Tim Ryan was a candidate. But his warning that the far left will give South Carolina, Ohio and Kentucky back to Trump was important. Democrats appear divided by who they wish to see become President and candidates’ electability in areas Trump won. Tulsi Gabbard didn’t exactly have a standout moment, either. The only memorable interaction with her was about her recognition of gay rights today. 

Rep. John Delaney received big applause after insisting we “keep what’s working and fix what’s broken." However, he spoiled his chances every time he irritably talked over moderators and still failed to get much of a word in. He was aggressive, but not in an appealing way. Delaney likely appealed to moderate Democrats in his repeated jab at candidates like Warren, “We need real solutions, not promises.” But once again, Warren is a fighter. When asked by Chuck Todd if she has a plan to ensure her ideas become reality, even if McConnell remains her adversary in the Senate, she replied, “I do,” followed by a round of applause. Warren's resonance with people suggests evidence-based solutions carry weight, too; while I am a proud Warren supporter, I frankly admit that there will be great difficulty enacting her ambitious plans with the mercenary crux of Republican inaction himself. 

Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio — despite having the lowest poll numbers of any of the candidates — fought well and jumped in at times, navigating his way into the conversation. His candidacy has been scoffed at and he has been criticized for failing to serve his city of over 8 million residents as he travels the country campaigning. However, de Blasio proved last night he was in the game to win. Mentioning his success in spearheading the $15 minimum wage and free pre-K, he was also clever to highlight his personal life raising a black son when illuminating the relationship between police and local communities. Until last night he was not taken seriously. Though his poll numbers remain low, his high approval rating by black voters is promising and his performance at the debate exceeded expectations.

Surprisingly, none of the other candidates attempted to jab Warren or her policies other than when only she and de Blasio backed up a single-payer health care system. Perhaps it is because of the changing dynamic of female representation and the attention brought to the eminent sexism pervasive in the 2016 election. In this era of #MeToo and women increasingly changing the political landscape, other contenders are recognizing their importance as well. It's also possible they would take a risk by challenging her plans, which are far more elaborate than others. Ignoring the fact that the debates were shaken up by three of the six women running would be naive in analyzing the debate; their perspectives added nuance.

This presence of female candidates was especially elucidated when Klobuchar grabbed the spotlight from Inslee. Insisting that he was the “only candidate” on the first night of the debates that had actually passed legislation protecting reproductive rights, Klobuchar seized the moment to interject: “I just want to say there's three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose, I'll start with that.” He walked into that trap and should have known better.  

Final Thoughts

The election is still 494 days away. We have time to dig into policy, to reflect on candidates’ moral tenure and political rhetoric and to contrast contenders. 

So, is there really any winner when we are trying to get to know 10 candidates in a televised two-hour debate? Probably not. But it became clear that there remains a great deal of work for candidates to meaningfully connect with voters if they have any chance of making their way to the nomination. Warren was the expected winner of Night One and prevailed, but Castro stood out too. 

It’s fun to pinpoint the winners and losers, but at the end of the day, Americans want to know who will serve them best. Speeches are pleasant to the ear, but policy matters just as much.

The first Democratic debate of the 2020 election was light, yet energizing. It may not have been extraordinarily dramatic, but maybe that means we’re inching closer to restoring our faith in common, grounded dialogue about the issues. In contrast to the 2016 presidential election, I’d like to believe we don’t have to viciously interrupt one another or intentionally lie and stoke anger. It was refreshing to hear coherent narratives with some cautious optimism that one of these candidates could oust the 45th President.

Elizabeth Warren, I have a plan for UW-Madison students, too. We must stay informed, politically active and vote. We may still be trying to sort out our preferences for a Democratic candidate, but one thing is certain: any one of them is far better for this country than the presidential incumbent.

Now, onto Night Two we go!

Gaby is a sophomore studying political science and strategic communications. What are your thoughts on night one of the Democratic debate? Who do you think stood out of these first ten candidates? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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