Anyone watching the first night of the Democratic debate in Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre could see there was a clear divide between the neoliberal candidates in the field and the progressive candidates in the field.
CNN’s moderators encouraged the low-polling neoliberal candidates on stage to attack the two most progressive – and most popular – candidates on the stage: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. However, Warren and Sanders worked effectively as a team, swatting away attacks and calling out the Republican-style framing used by both their fellow Democrats and the CNN moderators.
Here’s a look at how each candidate performed:
Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock: Bullock stood out among the lower-polling candidates, giving the strongest and most convincing arguments for policies that research suggests voters in red states find enticing.
He repeatedly (and justifiably) pointed to the fact that he, a Democrat, won in Montana in 2016, when the state voted for Trump by more than twenty points. He joined in the critique of Medicare for All, and employed right wing populist rhetoric when addressing the topic of immigration. However, perhaps his most noticeable moment hurt his chances; he became embroiled in an argument with Elizabeth Warren over the USA’s nuclear first-strike policy.
Warren argued that the United States should not use nuclear weapons unless it was attacked first; Bullock wanted to keep all options – included an unprovoked nuclear strike – on the table. Incidentally, this position is so morally reprehensible that not even the totalitarian Soviet Union adopted it. Given that voters in general are anti-war, it was strange for Bullock to fight over this issue.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg leaned heavily on his relative youthfulness, painting a dark picture of the future as he condemned the destructive policies of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Buttigieg tried to rise above the simplistic left versus center left dichotomy that has been prevalent in conventional analysis of the Democratic field by big media, emphasizing his own policy directions and arguing that the Republicans will call the Democrats “a bunch of crazy socialists” no matter what.
But he often looked sidelined, rather than above the fray.
One of his rehearsed lines also bombed spectacularly; when asked about racial issues in his own city, he said, “the racial divide lives in me.”
However, he finished the night strongly, with a fierce admonition of Republican lawmakers who supported Donald Trump.
Former-Maryland Congressman John Delaney: Delaney led the charge of neoliberal candidates against Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, decrying “bad policies” and “free everything” in his opening statement and immediately attacking the progressive Medicare for All plan.
His attacks did not win him many points with the Detroit audience, who greeted his rehearsed “zinger” lines with stony silence. Worse for him, as Delaney’s Celtic Irish ancestors could tell you, the guy who leads the charge is the most likely to get hurt. Delaney was tag teamed by Warren and Sanders.
On healthcare, Bernie Sanders all but directly accused Delaney of profiting from the status quo. Elizabeth Warren questioned why somebody like him would even “go to all the trouble of running for President… just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for!” Delaney argued that Warren’s wealth-tax was “arguably unconstitutional,” but the CNN moderators were keen to point out that he himself would be a target of the tax.
Delaney seemed to be presenting himself as a liberal Republican in this debate – it is unlikely that he accomplished anything except for helping out Warren and Sanders by serving as a neoliberal foil for them.
Colorado’s Former-Governor John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper repeatedly made two points: the need for political pragmatism, and the highlights of his own record as Colorado governor. He was among the biconceptuals confronting Seators Sanders and Warren, but was a less strident performer than either Delaney or Bullock. Often, his responses seemed tumbling and ill-prepared.
For example, his plan on immigration seemed to be, to quote him directly, “how hard can that be?” His lines attacking Sanders seemed especially ineffective; when he said “you can’t just spring a plan on the world and expect it to succeed,” Sanders riposted with the fifty-year success of Medicare.
He also came dangerously close to a Biden-esque stumble over race in America. When asked about racial inequality, he offered to delegate an “urban agenda,” a phrase that has a long association with derogatory racial stereotypes. Hickenlooper also expressed a willingness to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan, differing with almost all the other candidates on stage.
Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar: Anyone suspecting that Senator Klobuchar might be hoping to be picked for the vice presidential nomination could have found justification for harboring that belief after watching the debate.
Though she sided with the neoliberals in the night’s dominating ideological clash, she didn’t come to the stage looking to pick fights with Sanders and Warren. She repeatedly emphasized to her electoral success in the Midwest, reminding everyone that Democrats need to win back the region from Republicans.
She hit a lot of sweet spots for Democratic voters with answers about taking on the NRA, addressing the Flint water crisis, and reforming the country’s broken immigration system – without getting into fights with her colleagues.
She voiced mild disagreements with other candidates who were on the stage over education and foreign policy issues, but managed to look more composed and conciliatory than the likes of Delaney.
Texas’ Beto O’Rourke: Throughout the debate, Beto O’Rourke tried to present himself as an Obama-esque candidate, with lofty rhetoric and aspirational themes. He wisely combined this with a firm grasp of the policy issues.
However, his performance wasn’t particularly strong, partly because – like Mayor Buttigieg – he kept to the sidelines as the strident neoliberals battled the progressives. He made the argument that he could be the Democratic candidate to “flip Texas” – despite having proved in 2018 that he actually couldn’t win the Lone Star State. O’Rourke made a strong argument on race in America, calling out Donald Trump’s racism and laying out a detailed plan.
He was the first on the stage to call for slavery reparations. His platform calls for two years of tuition free college, instead of four; pulling out of Afghanistan, (but not right away), and a healthcare plan dubbed “Medicare for America,” which is not Medicare For All, but would expand Medicare.
Ohio’s Congressman Tim Ryan: Ryan advocated a populist economic message that at times seemed worryingly close to Trumpism. His oft-repeated message was, “not left or right, but new and better.” He conceded that he thought the President “was onto something” when it came to trade tariffs on China.
He took a swipe at Bernie Sanders, claiming the Senator didn’t know what he was talking about; this elicited one of Sanders’ best lines from the night (“I do know what I’m talking about, I wrote the damn bill!”)
He stood firmly against decriminalizing the act of crossing the border, straying into anti-immigrant rhetoric about the risk to American workers’ jobs.
His strongest issue was undoubtedly economic security; as he is an Ohioan representing a working-class community dominated by the automotive industry, he has a large-scale plan for the United States to lead the world on renewable energy and electric cars. He also pointed out that he has included the agriculture industry in his clean energy plan. No other candidate brought up agriculture.
Vermont’s U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders: Sanders was in familiar territory the whole night, ferociously defending his platform against attacks from those to the right of him. He quickly teamed up with Elizabeth Warren and the two proved an invincible team, especially as their individual styles complemented one another.
A populist at heart, Sanders wasn’t afraid to go for the jugular, most notably when he accused John Delaney of being a healthcare profiteer, compared to his own belief that healthcare is a human right. Sanders has clearly learned from his 2016 campaign, as he laid out strong plans on gun regulation and immigration, while defending his signature Medicare for All policy.
However, the septuagenarian senator had a habit of meandering into his favourite stump speeches rather than directly answering questions, contrasting with Elizabeth Warren. At one point, he became so annoyed with Delaney’s neoliberalism that he launched into an attack, talking over his ally.
However, that produced an endearing moment for the pair, as Sanders bashfully said, “Oh! I’m sorry!”, getting a laugh from the crowd.
Massachusetts’ U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren: Warren once again came out her debate as the strongest candidate of the night. She stood at the center of the healthcare fray, sweeping aside the third-rate candidates who tried to tangle with her policies. Her favorite slogan, “I have a plan for that,” never passed her lips during the debate (though Sanders did borrow it), but it was clear that she had one of the most comprehensive, well-thought-out platforms of the debate.
Her most-used line of the debate sounded like it had been coined by her socialist colleague – “the insurance companies do not have a God-given right to make $23 billion in profits and suck it out of our healthcare system!”
She dominated her rivals whenever she got into one-on-one arguments: with John Delaney over trade; with Steve Bullock over nuclear proliferation; and with John Hickenlooper over her climate action plan.
Texan Author and Activist Marianne Williamson: In her second debate, Marianne Williamson got to speak a lot more than in her first; by FiveThirtyEight’s count, she increased her word-count by over 60%. Her tactic appeared to be to personify the beating heart of the American Left. She came across as well versed in the issues that energize progressives. She showed she understood that the problems the country faces are intertwined and systemic.
However, she noticeably lacked any answers to the systemic problems. More than that, she didn’t sketch out a single policy or plan during the entire debate. The closest she got was calling for a constitutional amendment to remove the influence of private money from politics. She suggested the nation needed a vaguely defined social movement – that she, of course, should lead – to sweep “conventional politics” out of power in the United States.