Debate Digest: Breaking Down the Second Round

With great pomp and circumstance that included weeks of lead-up, drawn-out stage introductions, a few cliff-hanging commercial breaks, and one randomized game with giant Jenga blocks, CNN was more than ready to host the second round of Democratic Presidential debates this past Tuesday and Wednesday night, July 30 and 31. 

Held in the historic Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, the debates ushered in what will be the first of many turning points in a marathon election cycle. New rules from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will dramatically shrink the eligible debaters come September. Under the bright lights and microscope of CNN, it was make-it-or-break-it time for fringe candidates populating the wings of the debate stage. The pressure was on: Have a big moment, draw some traffic to the website you awkwardly pitched in your closing statement, or go back home to your native district to fight for legislation, or against the dark psychic forces that be.

To break down the two nights of action, writers Jesse Horowitz, Talya Phelps, Mack Liederman, Jessica Moss, and Jonas Trostle of The Brewer’s Table are here to offer their main takeaways.

Night One

Jesse: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the big winners of the first debate. Warren proved to still-skeptical progressives that she is equally capable of leading the Democratic left as Bernie is, while Bernie proved that despite a difficult month, he is still a formidable candidate for the presidency. This was not, however, a particularly good night for moderates: John Delaney, despite having more time, consistently failed to stick the landing in his attacks on Warren and Sanders. Meanwhile, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper and Tim Ryan all gave fairly mediocre performances that are simply not going to help them make it to the September debate stage. Steve Bullock gave a comparatively strong performance, and I would not be surprised if it’s enough to carry him forward, especially if Biden’s numbers continue to fall. Pete Buttigieg did a decent job that won’t cost him his high standing in the polls, but he didn’t do anything this week that would advance him to the top three. Williamson gave a comparatively grounded performance (despite her Seinfeld reference and talk of dark psychic energy), which made her resemble a functioning human being. But that on its own isn’t going to catapult her to the White House.

Talya: By the third (!!!) hour of the debate, my brain was too hazy with fatigue and white wine (debate drinking games are a game-changer) to fully process the candidates’ stances on foreign policy, but I do recall enough to agree with the general consensus on the evening: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren shone onstage, taking on the Whack-a-Mole game of stomping out moderate white boys (John Delaney was the leader of the pack) with grace, aplomb and plenty of quotable lines. They were a perfect team, with Warren bringing the policy specifics and Sanders bringing the “hey-kids-get-off-my-lawn” energy. In terms of ascending to the White House, Bernie missed his moment in 2016, but the extent to which CNN framed this week’s debate around his policies speaks to his remarkable—and continuing—influence on the slant of the Democratic Party. At this point, his job is not to get nominated but to keep nudging competitors toward the left, and on Tuesday night, he filled that role to a tee. In fact, Bernie’s stage presence was so powerful that it inspired Tim Ryan to pick up a new campaign slogan, “You Don’t Have to Yell: Tim Ryan 2020.” Well, Mr. Ryan, you don’t have to be here. Please, go back to your day job of looking like Lenny from “Shark Tale.” Speaking of moderates, Amy Klobuchar’s performance is perfectly summed up by Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who gives Amy a 5/10 score and proclaims, “She was there!”—the political-commentary equivalent of Dwight Schrute’s “It is your birthday.” Trevor Noah also got in an excellent (and topical!) zing when he noted the similarity between Klobuchar’s and Warren’s outfits. Marianne Williamson, always to be counted on to bring the crazy-cat-lady energy, was surprisingly not a waste of space this time. In comparison to the June debates, in which she just made me angry by taking time away from candidates who actually had something useful to say, she made a well-articulated case for reparations, suggesting a useful function for her in the race: She’ll never be a viable candidate, but she can effectively prod her competitors into addressing issues they usually shy away from. On the whole, Night One painted a picture of a Democratic Party divided, raising a couple of salient questions: When will the Dems split into two parties so the moderates can stop holding the progressives back with all those ~REPUBLICAN TALKING POINTS~, and why can’t they combine Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock and John Delaney into one guy?

P.S. I forgot to mention Pete Buttigieg because, except for his big “yikes” moment on race, he was just not all that memorable on Tuesday. What a shame. I really want to love you, Mayor Pete, but sometimes you make it so hard.

Mack: Let’s be honest: televised debates, with their careful curation and contrived conflicts, are a pacified gladiator battle. On Tuesday night, the name of the game was to put up some fighting words, lay out a passionate vision, and compile a few quotable zingers at opponents. Early on in the race, these three ingredients seem to be the winning mix to stay relevant in the news cycle—and therefore relevant to donors—in the coming weeks. Given this framing, one with which CNN was more than happy to play along, it was not surprising that debaters rolled up their sleeves and came out swinging. Elizabeth Warren and her best bud Bernie Sanders did a nice job swatting away low-polling moderates trying to land a big moment against their progressive agendas. In fact, Warren and Sanders left the debate with the biggest moments secured all for themselves. Personal favorites include Bernie’s rebuttal that he “wrote the damn bill” (a line I’ve been trying to desperately force into everyday conversation) and Warren’s utter annihilation of John Delaney. While Bernie continues to rub two sticks together to re-spark the energy he garnered from his 2016 revolutionary message, Warren is slowly but surely pulling ahead as the most trustworthy progressive option. On stage, she proved herself to be a tip-top political athlete, responding to questions with quick wit and clear explanations that her opponents often do not have the breath and poise to muster. Yet, while Warren has been tight on policy, she has been less clear about her unifying message. CNN’s sensationalist, quick-clipped debate format first and foremost highlighted divisions in the party, as the moderators forced dramatic confrontations between moderates and progressives (“Hey John Delaney, you’re rich, Elizabeth Warren wants to tax the hell out of you, what do you think about that?”). If intra-party conflict continues being played up on TV and discussed around America’s water coolers, then the Democratic Party is going to need to put forth a lightning-rod candidate with appeal to voters across identity-based and ideological lines. Warren may not be there yet, but her fellow debaters on Tuesday night seem to be even farther away. One of the most disappointing moments was Pete Buttigieg’s cringey answer to a question on race. Buttigieg’s vague ideological language continues to convey his fundamental disconnect to the Black community. 

Jess: Our three frontrunning candidates of the night held their own in a mostly civil debate featuring some tastefully heated moments. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were certainly more fiery than we saw them in their last round: Warren incredulously asked John Delaney (who, by the way, strikingly resembles my big toe) why anyone would bother running for president if all they focused on is what they can’t do; Bernie tossed his hands in the air and virally proclaimed that he “wrote the damn bill” when Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) leveled his Medicare for All criticisms. Pete Buttigieg kept his cool, as usual, reminding the party that Republicans would call them crazy socialists regardless of how far left they really were. When asked to explain to Black voters why they should nominate him, however, he cringe-ily replied, “The racial divide lies within me.” Gimme a break, Twitter responded. The naive, borderline insensitive comment is unfortunate from a campaign perspective, given his extensive Douglass plan to address the systems creating racial power, and polls revealing even lower Black approval for the mayor than for Trump. Moreover, his remark stood out in contrast to the much more cohesive talk on reparations delivered by Marianne Williamson, whose responses throughout the debate were more impactful than they were nutty this time around. 

Jonas: If you’re not going to engage with a “Republican talking point,” what are you going to do in the primary election exactly? The two frontrunners of night one, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, don’t seem to have a clear plan to win a general election. Warren and Sanders’ populist “no enemy to the left” tag-team is effective against the dregs of the Democratic primary, but it’s winning no friends from the right. Judging from the endorsement numbers of the two, it’s hard to say whether they can win over the party, let alone the general electorate. I appreciate and agree with at least some of their message, but the rhetoric and evasion of fact is too reminiscent of the current president to not be alarming. Meanwhile, Marianne Williamson still believes one good hard Care-Bear Stare could knock Donald Trump out of the White House. Delaney, Bullock, Ryan and Hickenlooper were on the debate stage as well, I guess. Beto O’Rourke somehow still exists and has qualified for the next debate. Buttigieg provided a consistent performance, quietly pushing himself to the forefront of the structural-change debate by asserting that he’d look at amending the Constitution. Klobuchar continues to unimpress, existing solely for those who can’t handle Joe Biden Regular.

Night Two

Jesse: If the first night belonged to the big-name progressives, the second night belonged to the lesser known and up-and-coming candidates. Andrew Yang, Bill de Blasio and Julián Castro improved upon last round’s performance, while Kamala Harris and Cory Booker stumbled. Harris demonstrated that, while she’s good at playing offense, she is not nearly as good at playing defense. Candidates like Tulsi Gabbard did major damage to the California senator’s campaign, something that Harris seemed completely unprepared for and had no means of defending herself against. Joe Biden, meanwhile, gave a stronger performance, but not strong enough to secure him the nomination. Despite a few compelling answers, he didn’t prove himself capable of taking on Donald Trump in the general election. Gabbard had a strong moment in her takedown of Kamala Harris, but I don’t think that takedown served herself as well as Harris’s attack on Biden did last time. What made Harris’s attack on Biden so brilliant is that it simultaneously knocked the former Vice President off his pedestal as the frontrunner while promoting her own vision in contrast. Gabbard’s attack was excellent at halting Harris’ momentum, and for the senator it was a low point in an already mediocre debate, but I’m not sure that will translate to promoting Gabbard’s competing vision for America. Jay Inslee did a better job than last time, and it’s possible his supporters could rally to keep him in the race, but I kind of doubt it.

Talya: Wow, Joe Biden. Just…wow. America’s least favorite uncle managed to get in the first and the last words of the debate, and he thoroughly embarrassed himself on both ends. First, he apparently forget that it’s inappropriate to refer to a 54-year-old senator (and one who kicked the shit out of him in June, no less) as “kid”; and second, he mixed up the function of the Internet with the function of a text message and directed voters to visit him on the Web at “Joe 30330.” (Hilariously enough, savvier denizens of the Internet capitalized on his flub by purchasing related domain names, meaning that now redirects to Pete Buttigieg’s campaign site.) Total lack of stage presence aside, Biden did, like, fine overall, given the whirlwind of attacks he was fielding from all sides, including from the moderators, who were eager to pit him against Kamala Harris on healthcare. Harris, for her part, could’ve done far worse, but I wish she’d been better. It’s somewhat shocking that the assault on her criminal justice record from Tulsi Gabbard—who, given the fact that she’s totally irrelevant, was in a perfect position to attack Kamala without fear of being attacked back—seemed to catch Harris so off guard. After all, Harris is lucky that the skeletons in her closet didn’t come dancing out onto the debate stage until the second round. If it wasn’t already clear, Harris is far from my top-pick candidate, but at this point, she seems like the most viable option to beat out Biden—which is why I hope she finds a way to crystallize her campaign around a defined vision other than “Let’s prosecute Trump LOL,” because I just don’t trust that voters will rally around a message of “being realistic and getting things done.” If Biden and Harris were lukewarm last night, Cory Booker (who, notes Trevor Noah, formed one cookie in the world’s most racially charged Oreo) was smoldering, proving himself yet again as a gifted orator. No surprise that this was the same man who reportedly chased down a bank robber with his bare hands while shouting “NOT IN MY CITY.” Oh, and that slip-up from Biden in which he called Booker “president,” corrected himself to “future president” (yeah, I wish), and then touched Cory’s arm? Super weird. Please, Mr. Biden, for once in your life, keep your hands to yourself. On the theme of talented rhetoricians, Julián Castro didn’t live up to his breakout performance in June, but he sparkled onstage nonetheless, with just the right amount of policy wonkiness to be convincing but not enough to be totally opaque. The Google Trends results for “section 1325” say it all:

Finally, this blurb would not be complete without giving a nod to Jay Inslee and Andrew Yang, two single-issue candidates whose signature talking points shone onstage as brightly as their impeccable fashion. I’ll personally fight anyone who gets on Yang’s case for not wearing a tie, although I was a tad put off by his feigned concern over his personal health care plan: Sir, aren’t you rich? And Inslee made the bold and professorial choice to sport glasses on Wednesday, inspiring an article on The Cut titled “Horniness for Jay Inslee Is a Renewable Resource.” Um…okay. We all know that (despite his tragic slide from grace) Beto O’Rourke is the sexiest candidate. Maybe those good looks will even help him when Inslee fails to make the threshold for the September debates and our entire continent goes underwater.

Mack: While Warren and Sanders were pretty confident and comfortable on Tuesday’s stage in their already established positions, the frontrunners on the second night told a different story. The opening discussion on health care was…awkward, to say the least. Harris and Biden tried to capitalize on the interest in their one-one-one, but took it too far, stumbling through overly prepared attack lines to the tune of crowd silence. For all intents and  purposes, Harris flubbed the grand unveiling of her health care plan; reading off inaccessible numbers on stage, she failed to describe a plan that was clear in practicality, or one that would optically distinguish her from the two positions currently dominating the discussion. Harris was aggressive on stage, in an attempt to run away with another big debate win—only to get hit by her own brand of political hardball. Tulsi Gabbard came ready to get down in the mud with Harris, and offered the cleanest takedown we’ve seen so far in a debate. Perhaps responding to the format of Night One, debaters on the second night worked with a clear eye toward distinguishing themselves through short memorable bursts. Unfortunately, this led to more surface-level infighting, as candidates attempted to contrast with Biden through declarative statements against some of Obama’s more unflattering policies. Given the minimal time allotted to speak, these arguments were not made with the necessary nuance needed for clarity, resulting in the Democratic Party appearing even more divided than it did the night before. If there was one candidate who successfully navigated the CNN gauntlet, it was Cory Booker. The New Jersey senator came prepared not only with memorable and playful attack lines, but also with a positive, unifying message neatly condensed for a television audience.

Jess: The second night started off on a weird note, then sort of devolved into a halfway productive string of accusations. The first of several oddities took place during Booker’s opening statement, when an off-stage protest chanting “fire Pantaleo”—the Staten Island police officer at the center of Eric Garner’s death––broke out. As expected, though somewhat disappointingly, many of the opening statements (I’m looking at you, Gillibrand, Gabbard, Bennet and Castro) focused more on what Trump is doing wrong than why we should trust them to be the next president. The only one that didn’t totally bore me was Yang’s, closing on the humorous, yet uplifting picture of himself, a self-proclaimed Asian man who likes math, standing tieless across from Donald Trump. CNN was out for blood: As soon as the cameras started rolling, moderators had Biden and Harris duke it out over healthcare strategies, asking them to “respond” to details of each others’ plans. If starting with those two was a little off, then allowing the first few minutes of the debate to devolve into a full on back and forth while all other candidates stood awkwardly by was downright weird. That set the tone for the night: Everyone made their rounds attacking Biden, though New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affection for the sport was somewhat excessive (cut it out, Bill, we already have three moderators). Despite the fact that Biden barely managed to stumble through the onslaught coming from all sides, my expectations for him have honestly dipped so low that I would count his performance a win. As for Harris, not so much: Biden and Gabbard both dug into her prosecution record, and Harris, not accustomed to being on the defense, largely failed to recover.

Jonas: Biden is polling at approximately 30 percent, about 15 percent higher than the next highest candidate. He’s still the underdog of the field, but the field is being winnowed. Only seven candidates right now qualify for the third debate, and only three more have a chance of making the cut. Biden avoided any major gaffes, traded barbs with Cory Booker about their terrible criminal justice records, and—instead of confronting Kamala Harris one-on-one—received the huge gift of having Harris’ record as a prosecutor and attorney general dissected by the soon-to-be-gone Tulsi Gabbard. The rest of the pack did little to differentiate themselves. Booker performed well, but his polling remains middling; Harris failed to have another electric moment and took a beating from Gabbard; Castro disappeared for dozens of minutes at a time; and as for the rest, we’d be (un)lucky to see any of them at the third debate in September. Looking forward to that debate, Biden should be tickled pink. Among the remaining candidates, Biden is probably the closest in terms of ideology to the median Democratic voter, and his opponents are all either far-left (Warren, Harris, Booker, Sanders) or political novices (O’Rourke, Buttigieg). He can’t rest easy, mind you—Warren and Sanders make an aggressive and competent tag-team, and Harris and Booker each have individually drawn blood during the last two debates, but Biden’s endorsement numbers and years of service reflect the fact that he does have the connections and skills needed to hold onto his lead

Big Takeaway

Jesse: The second round of debates were a do-or-die moment for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. August is likely going to be a brutal time for dropouts. I don’t expect Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio, Jay Inslee, or Michael Bennet to still be in the race by the month’s end. I expect Sanders, Warren, Bullock, Castro, and Yang to have boosts in the polls in the upcoming months, My biggest concern going forward is that the Democrats won’t be able to define their vision beyond defeating Donald Trump. The 2020 election will not be a referendum on the president; if Trump wins, it will be because the American people prefer his vision for the country over that of the Democrats. If we want to have any hope of beating him, we are going to have to talk a lot less about Trump and a lot more about ourselves. Some candidates seem to get it, others clearly don’t.

Talya: Connecting the dots into a larger picture has never been my strongest suit, and far be it from me to draw broad proclamations on the future of the Democratic Party based on five-and-a-half chaotic hours of what amounts to reality television. I’ll leave those speculations to the folks at the Times, whose political commentary I thirstily lap up as I stumble into work with a debate (and wine) hangover. Suffice to say, the 2020 race is on its way to some kind of inflection point, and hopefully one that crystallizes candidates’ visions for their presidencies, the DNC’s vision for how to beat Trump, and voters’ visions for who is fit to lead this absolute trash fire of a nation into brighter days. As of now, I don’t yet have a top pick—thanks in part to the factional nature of the field, where the comradeship of Warren and Sanders stands in stark contrast to the brutal in-fighting largely defining the Dems as a party of division, rather than one of unification against the racist Cheeto currently occupying the White House. I’m still waiting for one candidate to rise above the fray and steal my heart. Until then, I’m finished gorging myself on debate commentary—that is, until September comes, or until I find another swoon-worthy think piece about Pete Buttigieg teaching himself Norwegian on the toilet.

Mack: As we dive deeper into election season, what I think might be more relevant to the impending Democrat-Republican collision is the political retirement of Will Hurd, the only Black Republican in the House. As Trump looks to spark the fire needed to rally his base to the polls, his administration continues to push the party further and further to the right. Resolutions on the floor like the condemnation of the Trump’s racist tweets forces sane Republicans in a corner: Put on your MAGA hat, or get replaced by someone who will. In the face of this radical movement, Democrats need to reframe themselves as the party of unity, by picking a clear direction and unifying their voting base across multiple constituencies. Unfortunately, CNN’s organization of the debates only highlighted further division within the party. The made-for-TV quick quips took substance out of the discussion, leading to a first-night debate that can be reduced to clear ideological polarization, and a second night that could be summed up as a second-guessing of the party’s most unifying political icon. I believe that the network and moderators of the next debate have an obligation to do better. Let’s give space for organic debate, and let’s give space for nuanced policy discussion. Only then can we inject sanity back into American politics.

Jess: We need to reimagine the purpose of these debates. Sure, Booker is right to point out to his more moderate counterparts that focusing on how to win over Republican voters is not productive, and neither is the narrative that progressives are unrealistic and moderates don’t care enough. But asking the questions that show policy variation among the candidates is not the same thing as “playing into Republican hands,” and I’m tired of candidates characterizing it as infighting. If getting the white supremacist out of the whitehouse truly is the “floor” of Democratic goals for 2020, as Booker put it, then parsing between the various policy plans that could lead to tangible changes in American people’s lives is worthwhile. Candidates and moderators should refocus their energy toward talking about actual proposals instead of spending 10 minutes each round discussing some other sketchy details of Biden’s or Harris’ record. When they do, we’ll see more civil disagreement, and we might actually learn something about the people who are running—factors that make for a better debate.

Jonas: It’s all about qualifying for the next debate. Biden remains the frontrunner and appears to be ready to fight for the nomination—something he wasn’t ready to do during debate one. Questions remain for the other candidates: Warren and Sanders create an aggressive left flank of the party, but how long will the amiability between the two last when they start jockeying for the same voters? Harris walloped Biden in the first debate, but will she be able to withstand more targeted strikes, like the ones she saw from Gabbard? Will Booker prove himself electable and pull Black voters away from Biden and Harris? Buttigieg has performed well up until this point, but will he be able to hold on as the race tightens? Will Beto O’Rourke be the last of the underqualified white men to go home? We’ll find out more at the third debate, but for now, I can only say this: Goodbye Marianne!

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