CNN hosted the Democratic presidential contenders in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for debates that spread the frontrunners across each night. Some of them walked away better off — and some didn’t.
The Democratic National Committee was so determined to avoid any allegations of rigging the 2020 nominating process that it agreed to open the campaign season with debate lineups set essentially by random.
The bar for qualifying was set extremely low, so as to include conventional politicians who are nowhere in the polls (Rep. Tim Ryan) and people who are nowhere in the polls and also have no business participating in a presidential campaign (author Marianne Williamson). Sideshow candidacies like those of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio were put formally on a par with heavy hitters like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Nobody knows who Rep. John Delaney is, but he somehow seemed to be the center of attention in night one.
While the 2016 GOP handled a large field by dividing the debates into a main stage versus an undercard debate, in 2020, candidates were jut split up randomly. Then by the luck of the draw, Joe Biden dodged both Warren and Sanders twice in a row. So despite all the debating, we haven’t actually seen the debate that is at the center of the argument in today’s Democratic Party.
Winner: Cory Booker
The charismatic New Jersey senator was touted way back during his first run for mayor of Newark as a potential first black president. And while that obviously didn’t happen, he entered the 2020 cycle as in some ways a very intuitive option for rank-and-file Democrats looking to recapture the Obama magic.
But mostly his candidacy has looked like a dud, with his objectively very progressive voting record and instincts a poor match for his reputation as a neoliberal shill and Kamala Harris outshining him as the top African American candidate in the race. But that was in part the luck of the draw. Harris happened to be selected to share a stage with Joe Biden in the first debate, which gave her an opportunity to attack the former vice president on racial justice. Booker, meanwhile, was relegated to another stage where he had nothing obvious to say.
That dynamic flipped on Wednesday. Harris, enmeshed in an argument with Bernie Sanders about health care that couldn’t be pursued with the two of them on different stages, shied away from reengaging with Biden on the busing topic. Instead, Booker lit into Biden by drawing sharp contrasts on criminal justice, particularly in sparring about Biden’s record on sentencing laws.
This is in many ways a more promising line of attack than Harris’s ever was: Biden’s alleged misdeeds that Booker pointed to here happened in the much more recent past (the 1990s versus the 1970s), and Booker has a very substantive record on criminal justice issues, which isn’t really true of Harris and school segregation. And it worked.
One shouldn’t overestimate the extent to which this exchange actually hurt Biden. His support comes from older, working-class Democrats who are generally moderate on social and cultural issues and likely won’t be impressed by the revelation that there’s yet another topic on which progressive activists don’t like Biden. But what Booker needed to do to get out of the doldrums was impress liberals and stop being ignored. He absolutely hit that mark, and his campaign can now aspire to benefit from one of those positive cycles of increased attention leading to increased awareness of his ideas leading to increased support.
Loser: knowing what powers the president has
The producers of the two-night debate series clearly decided that the main theme of the story they wanted to tell was “moderates versus progressives.”
A proven effective way of doing this, used on both nights, was to select particularly unpopular provisions from Bernie Sanders’s proposed massive overhaul of the health care system and ask candidates whether they’d support them. That forced candidates to either embrace unpopular ideas or get on the wrong side of left-wing activists. It also encouraged the candidates to fight with each other. All in all, it very much succeeded as television drama, especially because polls show that Democratic primary voters are very interested in health care policy.
In the real world, however, this is not how policy gets made. Even if you make some rather utopian assumptions about Democrats’ prospects for picking up Senate seats in 2020, the limiting factor on the ambition of health care legislation is going to be moderate Democrats in Congress.
It’s simply not possible for a hypothetical administration of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke to enact laws that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (who is far from the most conservative Democrat in the field) opposes. So the differences on health care between O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren on health care can be informative but don’t tell us much directly about how policy would change under their administrations.
Yet the presidency is a very important office. The debates just didn’t feature much discussion of the specific ways in which it’s important. Foreign and national security policy was relegated to brief segments at the end of both debates, and not linked in any clear way to the main narrative the hosts were driving.
We didn’t learn anything about the candidates’ approaches to staffing the executive branch — which in practice is where the progressives-versus-moderates split likely makes the most difference — or about their thinking on judicial nominations. The Warren and Sanders online fandoms have been waging a weeks-long knife fight over the theory that the two progressive contenders have contrasting social visions of how change happens, an idea that was totally absent from the debate stage. Nobody asked about the Federal Reserve or discretionary regulatory policy or any of the other things the president actually does.
But we learned a lot about hypothetical health care plans!
Winner: Joe Biden
Biden had two problems in the first debate. First, his clash with Harris revealed a side of him that some Democrats disagree with. Second, he simply didn’t seem well-prepared to argue with Harris or able to think particularly quickly on his feet.
Over the next couple of days, Biden and his team put together some good responses to Harris and exposed the reality that her own thinking on the busing topic is pretty unclear. But in the moment, it made Biden look like someone who wasn’t nimble enough to be a great champion against Trump, and it hurt him badly in the polls.
But then over the next few weeks, memories of bad performances faded and he regained almost all that lost support.
Even though throughout multiple rounds of combat on Wednesday night more progressive candidates got in their licks on Biden, the former vice president stood up for himself ably. He was on point, able to parry attacks, and in command of his talking points.
If your sense before the debate was that Biden isn’t left-wing enough for you, he didn’t change your mind. But if your sense before the debate was that you wanted continuity with Obama but were worried Biden was a little shaky, he probably set your mind at ease. Biden came into the debates with a big lead, and after two nights of debating, there’s every reason to think he’s still got that lead.
When the field winnows enough for him to finally face sustained fire from Sanders and Warren, it’s possible he’ll falter. But for now, the frontrunner is still running in front.
Loser: comprehension of what is in these health care plans
For all the considerable time spent on debating health care policy, very little was done in the structure of the debate to explain the content of these plans.
It’s true, for example, that the Sanders/Warren Medicare for All Act contains the dread provision banning virtually all forms of private health insurance. But the reason is that under Medicare-for-all, everyone would have comprehensive insurance that covers essentially everything with no premiums, no deductibles, and no copayments. That might be unwise (certainly it seems expensive), but it very much creates a context in which you can see why there’s no role for private plans.
The various degrees of more moderate alternatives do, yes, preserve larger roles for private insurance. But they do that specifically because they also involve less generous sets of benefits. The case for that, of course, is that it’s cheaper. The case against is it does less to deliver help to families in need.
A bunch of political flashpoints arise from the different structures of these plans, but the plans themselves aren’t just assemblages of talking points. They reflect different ideas about exactly how much health care spending should be shifted out of the private sector and into the public sector, and about the uncertainties regarding how a “government pays for everything” program would actually work. But watching the debate, you wouldn’t learn anything about how any of this works. Fortunately, there are good Vox explainers.
Winner: the Great Winnowing
By far, the No. 1 thing that comes through from the exhausting process of watching 11 million hours of Democrats debating split across two nights is that things will be better when the field shrinks.
Starting with the third debate, the DNC is going to set a higher bar for who qualifies, and all the qualifying candidates will be on the stage together. We don’t yet know exactly who is going to make the cut. But we know Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, and O’Rourke, plus potentially one or two others, will be up there.
That will allow the main candidates to actually argue with each other, which would be the purpose of a debate. Biden has a strong argument that Obama was a good president and Democrats should carry on in his footsteps by nominating his VP. Sanders and Warren have both become major stars by mounting strong moral and intellectual critiques of the Obama trajectory. Others chart a middle course and bring some youth and diversity to the table that Biden lacks. That’s going to be a good debate. What we watched over these two nights was ... not quite that.
Loser: all these housing plans
For the first time in generations, housing has emerged as a major topic in a presidential campaign.
Candidates including Booker, Harris, Warren, and Castro have released comprehensive housing reform programs, while Bernie Sanders has dipped his toes in these waters and Pete Buttigieg has a plan focused on the underrated topic of cities and neighborhoods suffering from decline rather than gentrification.
It’s a very exciting time for hardcore fans of housing wonkery like me. But nobody told the moderators. Congratulations to Castro for trying to drag the conversation in this direction at a few points, but it looks like mostly a bunch of staffers wasted their time.
Loser: policy criticism of Donald Trump
Trump of course came up frequently in Democrats’ discussion of the landscape, but in a pattern that was more reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign than Democrats’ successful 2018 midterms, it was mostly to invoke him as a kind of monstrous figure — a racist, a xenophobe, etc. — rather than as the leader of a policymaking apparatus that makes decisions on dozens of banal issues.
You didn’t hear much about Trump’s hideously unpopular tax cut, about his ongoing efforts to unwind the Affordable Care Act’s regulations, about his new cuts to nutrition assistance, or about how American air quality is getting worse after decades of improvement. Even Elizabeth Warren didn’t have anything to say about Trump’s ongoing rollback of bank regulations that were implemented in the wake of the Great Recession. Nor did we hear much about how Trump is blocking a minimum wage increase or federal nondiscrimination rules for LGBTQ people.
Democrats mostly don’t disagree about any of this, so it wasn’t in moderators’ interests to guide them toward it — their plan was to make people fight for our amusements. But if Democrats’ goal is to beat Trump and win the election, they’re going to need to find a way to bring things back down to earth and talk about the concrete stakes in the elections.