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A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election.
A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

4 winners and 3 losers from the second night of the Democratic debates

One moment was instantly historic.

It’s over. After two grueling nights, all the Democratic presidential candidates have had their say. (Well, not all — not Seth Moulton, not Joe Sestak, nor any of the three other candidates whom the Democratic National Committee deemed “not as important as Eric Swalwell.”)

But 20 candidates have said their piece, in the final event of its kind until [checks calendar] next month. And on night two, the two arguable frontrunners (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders), two candidates who’ve been nipping at their heels (Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg), and two agents of chaos (Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang) all came to play.

It was, all told, a less substantive night than night one. There was no detailed discussion of the nuances of immigration policy, and the Medicare-for-all debate remained near surface level. At times, the proceedings devolved into incoherent shouting with no understandable contributions from anyone. But there was one moment amid the chaos that stood out as an instantly historic moment in a presidential debate — more on that below — no matter who winds up winning this primary in the end.

Here’s who ended the night ahead, and who fell behind.

Winner: Kamala Harris

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) participates in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) participates in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

There was a common thread to almost every standout moment during the debate on Thursday: Kamala Harris.

Known for her pointed Senate questioning of Trump officials, Harris employed this prowess at the debate, calling out her fellow candidates for engaging in a “food fight,” confronting former Vice President Joe Biden about his work alongside segregationists, and explaining how executive action could overcome congressional roadblocks.

On issues as varied as medical bills and the migrant crisis, Harris demonstrated an ability to marry descriptions of policy with an accessible story of a person it could affect.

In her remarks toward Biden, this approach was particularly effective, because the personal experience she spoke to was her own:

It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me.

Harris has served as a prosecutor for most of her career and was elected to the Senate in 2016. Prior to the Thursday debate, she was likely known to many voters for her fierce scrutiny of William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh in Senate hearings. Her turn Thursday night suggests those standout performances were far from a fluke.

—Li Zhou

Winner: Pete Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debates.
Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debates.
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

Almost every breakout moment belonged to Harris, but insofar as anyone else stood out, it was Pete Buttigieg.

Mayor Pete’s meteoric rise from obscurity to the top tier (or at least the second tier) of Democratic candidates has been somewhat complicated in the past week or so by another South Bend controversy over police violence toward minorities, a simmering issue that has dogged Buttigieg throughout his campaign.

His big challenge came when host Rachel Maddow asked him point-blank about the ongoing lack of minority representation in the Indiana city’s police force. Most politicians, notable for large egos and an inability to admit error (cough Biden cough), would have spun it, so it was striking that Buttigieg began his answer with a simple confession: “I couldn’t get it done.”

He went on to talk about the pain in his community, what he has managed to accomplish, and what he plans next, but it was that simple confession that stuck. It is thoughtful self-awareness, meant as a contrast to the belligerent certainty more common in politics these days — very much Mayor Pete’s brand. (Some of my colleagues find it Ivy League irritating; your mileage may vary.)

His other big moment came when he was asked to name his first priority in office. He cited “democracy reform,” without which nothing else is possible. That is, to a first approximation, the correct answer, narrowly beating out “call New Zealand.”

Thursday night, Buttigieg needed to remind primary voters why they took such a shine to him in the first place — his calm, sensible intelligence — and he largely succeeded. He’s likely angling for VP at this point, but he’s still in the running.

—David Roberts

Winner: the National Rifle Association

NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre is displayed on the Indiana Convention Center during the National Rifle Association convention held on April 27, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre is displayed on the Indiana Convention Center during the National Rifle Association convention held on April 27, 2019, in Indianapolis.
Jeremy Hogan/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Democratic primary and debates have been defined by some bold proposals that demonstrate how far the party has moved to the left: Medicare-for-all, wealth taxes, the Green New Deal.

But as Thursday’s debate showed, that boldness hasn’t quite extended to gun control. On that issue, Democrats are still fighting on terms that gun lobbyists have set (and this was before Joe Biden uncorked the line “Our enemy is the gun manufacturers, not the NRA”).

The main ideas put forward on the debate stage on Thursday — universal background checks and an assault weapons ban — are the exact same policy proposals that the party has been pushing for decades. The original background check bill, which universal checks would try to patch up, passed in 1993. The assault weapons ban is basically a retread of a 1994 ban that has since expired.

Even the boldest idea on the stage — a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, proposed by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) — is fairly limited in its scope. Swalwell was also clear his assault weapons ban would leave out “pistols and rifles and shotguns,” making it, essentially, an extension of the assault weapons ban.

These ideas would likely do little to address gun violence. Recent studies suggest universal background checks, on their own, don’t have a big impact on gun deaths. An assault weapons ban could make some mass shootings less deadly, but there are big questions about how it would be enforced (with a buyback or not), and it wouldn’t address the 70-plus percent of firearm homicides that involve a handgun.

Bold gun control policies should be having a moment right now. The NRA is in chaos, as its leadership is caught in a civil war. The Parkland, Florida, activists have forced guns into the spotlight for more than a year now. A recent Morning Consult poll found that Democratic voters put gun violence second only to climate change as the issue they wanted to hear about in the first debates.

The 2020 Democratic primary has so far been all about big, bold ideas — except when it comes to guns.

—German Lopez

Winner: the first night’s debaters

(L-R) Former housing secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) embrace after the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Former housing secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar embrace after the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019, in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Democratic presidential candidates had a really good debate ... on Wednesday night.

The first night felt like a debate about ideas. And candidates agreed with each other as often as they disagreed (Elizabeth Warren endorsed “Bernie’s” health care plan; other candidates stood with Julián Castro on decriminalizing migration).

Thursday night’s debate had a lot more talk about people: Donald Trump, for one, but also each other.

Maybe it was the fact that both of the 2020 race’s frontrunners — Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden — were onstage Thursday night, while the closest thing Wednesday night had to a frontrunner was Warren (who has Big Plan Energy herself). The Biden-Bernie center of gravity created attractive targets for the lesser-known candidates onstage, making the debate explicitly a referendum on Sanders’s proposals or Biden’s record rather than one in which candidates were discussing the ideas themselves. Marianne Williamson, far off to one side of the stage, may have been the only candidate running against the idea of a plan, but the field as a whole seemed less excited to discuss proposals.

The more enthusiastic vibe of Wednesday night gave off a sense of a Democratic Party trying to figure out what it stood for, together. Thursday night was about candidates trying to elbow each other out of the way and make the case for themselves.

Obviously, debates are as important for the latter as the former. But with 20 candidates on the stage and six more months until the first primary, it’s totally plausible that this debate won’t actually matter to the race. The first debates, in a way, mattered much more as expressions of the field than expressions of individual candidates. And Wednesday’s debate simply gave a better sense of what the Democratic Party might stand for, other than being against Trump and in favor of somebody else.

Dara Lind

Loser: Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden (2nd-R), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (R), South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (2nd L), and former tech executive Andrew Yang walk on stage during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27,
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former tech executive Andrew Yang walk onstage during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Honestly, Joe Biden did not need to do much to win, or at least break even, in Thursday’s debate. He is solidly in the lead in nearly every poll nationally, in Iowa, and in New Hampshire. He has enormous name recognition and a massive lead among older voters.

His goal was to do no harm. He did not achieve his goal.

For most of the debate, he did … fine. No memorable answers, but no fumbles either. And there were no obvious candidates who stole his thunder. Nothing had happened that would disrupt his standing as frontrunner.

Then Kamala Harris took her shot and the night went to hell for Biden. She directly contrasted Biden’s record as an opponent of school busing with her childhood as a beneficiary of school busing, and made the night about both Biden’s past and the divide between him and the party’s future.

A few days ago, when controversy first raged between Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) over Biden’s comments about working with segregationist senators, Harris joined in Booker’s condemnation, telling CBS’s Face the Nation that “I would not be a member of the United States Senate if those men that he praised had their way.”

But it’s one thing to echo an attack on a Sunday morning show. It’s another to make it to your target’s face, as Harris did in the debate, directly connecting Biden’s opposition to busing to her childhood experience as a beneficiary of Berkeley, California’s busing program.

It was that connection, to Biden’s policy record rather than just his chummy attitude to his colleagues, that made the attack on him so piercing.

Biden didn’t have much to say to that. He ended his feeble reply to Harris on an almost too-poignant metaphor for his own fading relevance:

And reports suggested that his campaign saw the exchange as a disaster:

(His deputy campaign manager, naturally, denied this.)

Biden’s biggest weakness is and always has been a sense that his party has left him behind, that he is a relic of an earlier, less progressive era in Democratic history. Thursday night made that sense stronger than ever.

Dylan Matthews

Loser: Eric Swalwell

Democratic presidential hopeful former Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Democratic presidential hopeful former Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The most important question to ask Eric Swalwell about his candidacy is just, “Why?” Swalwell is a safe-seat Democratic Congress member from California. He doesn’t have the veteran credentials of Seth Moulton, the blue-collar roots and appeal of Tim Ryan, the raw charisma of Beto O’Rourke, or the independent wealth of John Delaney, the other congressmen in the race.

But perhaps dismissing him is unfair — candidates lumped in with the pack can certainly break out. It was not clear before Wednesday night that the race needed Julián Castro, but he made a compelling case, when given a chance, that he could advocate for unauthorized immigrants in a way that few other candidates were willing to do. Bill de Blasio, similarly, broke out by expressing a progressive message with the credibility of someone who’s actually run a sizable executive branch.

Swalwell could’ve had a moment like that Thursday night. He didn’t. His answers on policy were mostly pablum, and insofar as he had a memorable moment, it came when he yelled at Pete Buttigieg to fire his police chief in the wake of an officer-involved shooting. The whole scene was vaguely Trump-ish: tough-guy boss talk, not a serious interjection into a sensitive debate about police violence. It didn’t make Buttigieg look weak; it made Swalwell look desperate.

The question for Swalwell remains: why? What reason is there for anyone to back you over any number of other candidates? On Thursday night, at least, we didn’t hear an answer.

Dylan Matthews

Loser: the moderators

Moderators Chuck Todd of NBC News and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC talk during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Moderators Chuck Todd of NBC News and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC talk during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019, in Miami.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This is a selection from the rush transcript of the night’s debate. The chaos onstage was such that only Bernie Sanders is identified as a speaker, of the five people who were speaking at the time.

>> As the youngest guy on the stage, I should contribute.

>> Part of Joe’s generation, let me respond.

>> Before we move on from education —

>> Please, please.

Sanders: It’s generational. Who has the guts to take on Wall Street, to take on the fossil fuel industry, to take on the big money interest who have unbelievable influence over the economic and political life of this country.

On the page, this looks like Samuel Beckett dialogue. Live, it sounded the way that I described the McLaughlin Group as a child: “the guys yelling at each other.”

Maybe there wasn’t more pushing around of moderators than the previous night’s debate, but it certainly seemed that way. Possibly that’s because several candidates succeeded in talking about totally different issues than the moderators asked about. Sometimes, the resulting moment was among the best of the debate — Kamala Harris turning a policing question into her attack on Joe Biden for opposition to busing, for example — but sometimes, it was Marianne Williamson launching into a riff on “chemical policies” in the midst of an answer about constraining health care costs.

Thursday night, it felt like the candidates were driving the debate, for better or worse, and more frequently worse than better.

The first time Harris stepped in to direct traffic and control the flow of debate — right after the exchange above — it seemed like a bravura move on her part. The second time, it seemed like she was rescuing the moderators because somebody had to.

—Dara Lind

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