2020 Election

10 Things We Learned From Night One of the Democratic Debates in Detroit

12 minute read

Ten Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Detroit on Tuesday night for a debate that revealed the party’s fault lines on issues ranging from healthcare to immigration to foreign policy.

Here are 10 of the top takeaways:

1. The Moderates Tried to Break Through

The Democratic primary has been dominated by big ideas like Medicare for All, relaxing immigration laws and free college. On the first of two nights of debates in Detroit, several of the field’s struggling moderates tried to give their campaigns a jolt by warning these positions could cost Democrats their shot to make Donald Trump a one-term President.

Lesser-polling candidates like former Rep. John Delaney and former Gov. John Hickenlooper took aim at the hallmark promises of progressive Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock immediately criticized “wish-list economics” in his first turn on a presidential debate stage, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota pointedly declared that her proposals “are grounded in reality” and Delaney invoked Democratic failed nominees like George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, warning of “bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected.”

Democrats say defeating Trump is their most important priority, and several of the candidates on stage cautioned that Trump may be a trickier opponent than they’re willing to admit—especially if the Democrats nominate someone from their left flank. When Sanders confidently asserted that every poll shows him beating Trump, Rep. Tim Ryan darkly noted that the same surveys also indicated an easy triumph for Hillary Clinton. Ryan has been openly telling voters that Democrats cannot win back the White House if they alienate voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin with proposals that fall outside of the mainstream. “I can win this,” Klobuchar said. “I’m from the Midwest. And I have won every race, every place, every time.” —Philip Elliott

Democratic presidential hopefuls (L-R) Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, US senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders and US Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren participate in the first round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 30, 2019.Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

2. But the Left Punched Back

Under fire from their rivals, Sanders and Warren easily batted back attacks throughout the debate. In the process, they landed some of the night’s most memorable lines. When Ryan went after Sanders over how Medicare for All would compare to benefits negotiated by unions for their members, suggesting Sanders did not know how it would affect them, Sanders responded: “Yes, I do, I wrote the damn bill.” The Sanders campaign immediately capitalized on it, launching a sticker with part of the Sanders quote on it as a thanks for donors.

Warren also got the better of Delaney, at one point snapping, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” The line was met with applause.—Lissandra Villa/Detroit

3. Foreign Policy Was An Afterthought

After ignoring foreign affairs all night, in the last fifteen minutes of the debate the moderators finally served up a handful of rapid-fire questions that ranged from incredibly broad to oddly specific. This left candidates rushing to compress the only statements they would give on national security and how the U.S. deals with the world outside its borders, and provided little clarity about their worldview and plans.

Asked how he differed from President Trump on foreign policy, given that both opposed a U.S. role “as the policeman of the world,” Sanders shot back: “Trump is a pathological liar. I tell the truth.” The response set the tone for the rest of the candidates to give answers centered on differentiating themselves from Trump by emphasizing diplomacy and working with allies around the world. Klobuchar slammed Trump for withdrawing from international agreements, calling it the “go-it-alone doctrine.” Ryan tried to draw a contrast with Trump by saying he wouldn’t be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unless he agreed to give up nuclear weapons.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke also committed to withdrawing the 14,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan if elected, in their first year and first term, respectively. Of course, Trump made the same promise during the 2016 campaign—and, like previous presidents who oversaw America’s longest-running war, was convinced by the Pentagon to stay the course. —Vera Bergengruen

4. Medicare for All Takes Center Stage

Medicare for All got a lot of attention on Tuesday night, as the first 30 minutes of the debate consisted largely of Sanders and Warren defending the policy from attacks leveled by their more moderate rivals. The substantive back-and-forth laid out the concerns that other candidates have about their plan. Delaney and Bullock, who outright oppose Medicare for All, slammed it as not politically viable, while Buttigieg and O’Rourke argued for a different path toward universal coverage.

Voters don’t always understand what Medicare for All really means, but polling has shown that many have similar reservations. A recent poll from Marist College, for example, found that “Medicare for all who want it,” as Buttigieg often frames his idea, is more popular among Democratic voters than a Sanders-style Medicare for All that eliminates private insurance. And the Kaiser Family Foundation found that support for a national Medicare for All plan decreased slightly from 56% in April to 51% in July, while 85% of Democrats said they would support a proposal that involved a public option for Americans to buy into a government plan.

These numbers don’t mean that progressives can’t convince voters to go for Medicare for all, but they do show that Sanders and Warren will have to continue defending their stance on the issue. Warren and Sanders argued the criticism might be playing into the Republicans’ hands. “We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone,” Warren reminded her rivals at one point. “That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.”—Abigail Abrams

Democratic presidential hopeful Governor of Montana Steve Bullock participates in the first round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 30, 2019. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI—AFP/Getty Images

5. Bullock’s Debut

In his first debate appearance, the Montana governor acquitted himself well, defining himself as a “pro-choice, pro-union Democrat who won three elections in a red state.” Bullock argued that Democrats don’t have to sacrifice their values to win, but do have to focus on voters who feel they have been left behind. “Hopefully I did make a case — it’s at the end of the day up to the voters — about how we can win and also how we can govern, because all of these plans in the world aren’t going to get done if we can’t actually win this election,” Bullock told TIME after the debate.—Lissandra Villa/Detroit

6. The Candidates Were More Cautious on Immigration

Julian Castro was not on stage on Tuesday, but the questions candidates faced showed how drastically he has shifted the Democratic conversation on immigration. As in Miami, decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings—making it a civil offense rather than a crime, a stance that would have been unthinkable for most Democrats not long ago—again took center stage due to Castro, who in April became the first candidate to release a detailed immigration policy proposal.

Some of the candidates took a more cautious approach than they did in Miami, where all but two candidates raised their hands when asked if they would back a proposal to decriminalize unauthorized crossings. Even candidates who said they would do so tried to couch their language and emphasize that immigrants who do break the law should face federal charges. Sanders, for example, talked about strong border protections and “sane” immigration policy. And other spoke up against decriminalization, such as Bullock. “Right now, if you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to get rid of Donald Trump, but you don’t decriminalize people just walking into the United States.” —Vera Bergengruen

7. Impeachment Never Came Up

The debate over whether the House of Representatives should start impeachment proceedings against President Trump has embroiled Democrats on Capitol Hill for months. In the wake of last week’s testimony from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the number of lawmakers advocating for action on impeachment reached 113, just six shy of a majority in the House Democratic caucus, while the House Judiciary Committee filed a lawsuit for grand jury testimony from Mueller’s report, casting it as the strongest step in that direction.

But watching Tuesday’s presidential debate, one wouldn’t know the issue bitterly split many Democrats. That’s because they didn’t discuss it at all. While nearly a dozen of the Democratic presidential candidates support impeachment, the issue never came up on the first night in Detroit. The moderators never asked about it, and the candidates—who often strayed from the question to preferred talking points—never inserted it into the conversation. The omission may suggest that the candidates believe the debate doesn’t really matter to voters. —Alana Abramson

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Detroit Over Two Nights
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes the stage at the beginning of the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

8. Buttigieg makes the case for generational change

Throughout the debate, Buttigieg kept talking about how old he is—37, in case you missed it. Buttigieg brought up his age as he answered questions about guns, climate change and other policy issues. The repeated references were an allusion to the argument for generational change that underpins his campaign. “We are not going to be able to meet this moment by recycling the same arguments, policies, and politicians that have dominated Washington for as long as I have been alive,” the South Bend, Ind., mayor said in his opening statement. “We’ve got to summon the courage to walk away from the past and do something different.”

He answered a question on immigration by noting that “we’ve been talking about the same framework for my entire adult lifetime,” and said the gun debate was “exactly the same conversation we’ve been having since I was in high school,” adding that he was a junior at the time of the Columbine massacre. He answered a jobs question by describing plant closures “20 years before I was born.”

But when asked directly about whether any of his opponents were too old to be President, Buttigieg pivoted. “I don’t care how old you are, I care about your vision,” he said. Then he rooted his own vision far in the future, looking backwards at this moment from a historical perspective, at Congressional Republicans who defend Trump. “When the sun sets on your career and they are writing your story,” he said, “of all the good and bad things you did in your life, the thing you will be remembered for is whether, in this moment, with this president, you found the courage to stand up to him or you continued to put party over country,” he said. It was yet another way he emphasized the generational aspect of his challenge to Trump: a reminder that he would live to see the day when Trump was in the rearview mirror.—Charlotte Alter

Election 2020 Debate
Marianne Williamson participates in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.Paul Sancya—AP

9. Gender Issues Were Ignored

Three of the 10 candidates in Tuesday’s debate were women and so was one of CNN’s moderators, but none of the questions during the nearly two-and-a-half hour debate touched on gender. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who will participate in Wednesday night’s debate, called out the omission on Twitter, noting that moderators did not ask about reproductive rights, paid family leave, child care or economic opportunities specifically for women. Gillibrand has made gender a focus of her campaign, though she has so far struggled to gain momentum in the crowded field.

During the first round of 2020 debates last month, the Democrats showed that they knew women, and especially women of color, would be key voters in any winning coalition. They talked about pay equity, tried to one-up each other on abortion rights and emphasized the importance of maternal health and child care. Senator Cory Booker and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro even mentioned transgender issues. This time around, the candidates talked about health care, but notably did not dive into policies aimed specifically at women. —Abigail Abrams

Election 2020 Debate
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke participates in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN on July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.Paul Sancya—AP

10. Beto failed to break through.

It was another difficult night for the one-time Democratic rock star. O’Rourke’s considerable talents to connect with crowds and inspire adoration in Texas have not translated to debate halls. He’s better jumping on lunch counters than behind podiums. His is a style of speech not suited to 60-second answers and 15-second responses. When the debate focused on health insurance, O’Rourke’s plan didn’t fit neatly into the Medicare for All being offered by Sanders or the build-out of Obamacare being offered by the centrists. When asked about gun violence, he pivoted to blame political action committees and proposed banning them outright — a move that in the current dynamic would require a Supreme Court ruling. For much of the night, he simply faded into the background.

O’Rourke entered the race with huge hype, landing the cover of Vanity Fair immediately after he made public his campaign. He raised more than $6 million on his first day in the race and started off around 12% in the polls. But the fall has been fast: O’Rourke was down to 5% support a month later, and he’s checked in around 2% heading into Detroit. Fundraising, too, has been a struggle: he raised just $3.6 million in the second quarter. None of this means he’s going to drop out any time soon. His campaign staff is strong and he’s making up for lost time in Iowa and New Hampshire. O’Rourke has already qualified for the September debates, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be any better. —Philip Elliott

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