NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, August 3rd, 2019

How did each candidate fare in night one of the Democratic debate in Detroit?

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. 

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