2020 Election
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Here’s Who Shined, Who Stumbled and Who Survived At Wednesday’s Democratic Debate

11 minute read

Ten Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Detroit Wednesday for a rowdy debate that underscored the party’s deep divisions. Here are 10 of the top takeaways:

1. This Was the Most Diverse Presidential Debate in American History

Wednesday night’s debate featured three women, two black candidates, one Latino, one Asian and a Pacific Islander. The conversation they had reflected this diversity, ranging from busing and immigration issues to criminal justice reform, pay inequality and white privilege.

The white candidates on stage were certainly aware of the dynamic. In his opening remarks, former Vice President Joe Biden nodded to the diversity around him. “This is America,” he said, “and we are strong and great because of this diversity.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spent time addressing her “responsibility to lift up those voices of color.” And Gov. Jay Inslee at one point acknowledged that he has never been “a black teenager pulled over in a white neighborhood. I have never been a woman talked over in a meeting, I’ve never been an LGBTQ member subject to a slur.” —Lissandra Villa/Detroit

Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden (R) and US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker chat during a break in the second 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 31, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

2. Biden Escapes a Pile-On

“Go easy on me, kid,” Biden told Harris as they shook hands at the outset—knowing, of course, that she wouldn’t. Harris renewed her attacks on the former Vice President’s collaboration with avowed segregationists and his positions on school desegregation. Booker took Biden to task for trying to have it both ways with Barack Obama—embracing the President for popular moves yet ducking questions about disagreements by claiming their discussions were confidential. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio demanded Biden disclose what he did to stop Obama-era immigration policies. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand trotted out a 1981 op-ed about childcare tax credits and asked Biden to explain himself.

Biden took the lashing and lives to fight on. Advisers had spent the month since the first debate bracing for impact. They knew the aura of inevitability was not going to protect them and told him to anticipate wallops far worse than what Harris offered in Miami. Biden had tweets drafted and ready to go for a number of anticipated attacks, including a thread about that 1981 op-ed. It wasn’t a command performance for the front-runner, but he took incoming from all over the stage and appeared to come away relatively undaunted. —Philip Elliott

3. Do Democrats Care About Judges?

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Trump prioritized putting conservative judges on the bench, which has turned into a legacy project for his presidency. Many Trump allies credit his promise to nominate conservative judges—and to take the unprecedented step during the campaign of publicly releasing a list of judges he would consider for the Supreme Court—with being a key factor in his victory. National exit polls after the 2016 election showed that 21% of voters said the Supreme Court appointment was “the most important factor” in their decision, and those voters favored Trump.

Yet federal judicial nominations and Supreme Court vacancies were never mentioned over the course of two Democratic debates in Detroit, despite the fact that Trump has already confirmed two Supreme Court justices and more than 100 lower court judges. The closest the candidates came to engaging on the issue was when Biden said he supports a constitutional right to an abortion during a discussion about the Hyde Amendment. It was a stark demonstration of how the right is better organized and more energized on abortion than the left. On Monday, liberal judicial advocacy group Alliance For Justice laid out the stakes this way in a statement: “As candidates prepare for the second debate, the Senate is preparing to confirm President Trump’s 150th judicial nominee to a lifetime seat on the federal bench. The harm Trump is inflicting on our federal courts is clear.” Still, there wasn’t a peep about the issue in five hours of substantive debate between 20 Democratic candidates. — Tessa Berenson

4. “Republican Talking Points” is Just Another Talking Point.

It was an easy attack line: “We cannot keep with the Republican talking points on this,” Harris warned, defending her health-care plan. Castro used the same phrase, which echoed Warren’s language from the night before, when she, too, dismissed out of hand criticism of her health proposal. But the issue is far more than GOP hot-takes, as more centrist contenders like Biden argued.

There are real divisions among Democrats — both the contenders and the voters alike — on big issues like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. While the policy proposals have great resonance on Twitter and among activists, they also stand to alienate many voters in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states Democrats have to win back in 2020. Outside of the ideological question of whether private health insurance should persist, there are political realities: only 30% of Democrats want private coverage to go away, while a plurality (49%) think Americans should have an option to buy-into a government-run plan. — Philip Elliott

Democratic presidential hopeful US Representative for Hawaii's 2nd congressional district Tulsi Gabbard speaks during the second 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 31, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

5. Gabbard Highlighted Harris’s Big Weakness

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard came out swinging against Harris Wednesday, a sign of the California Senator’s rise and a reminder of the danger her prosecutorial record could pose to that ascent. “Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president. But I’m deeply concerned about this record,” Gabbard said, citing Harris’ record of jailing people for marijuana violations.

Harris, whose work as California attorney general has been scrutinized in the media ever since she announced her run six months ago, was ready with a quick reply, arguing that she was proud of her record and that it’s informed her subsequent policy positions. “Because I know the criminal justice system is so broken, it is why I’m an advocate for what we need to do to not only decriminalize but legalize marijuana in the United States,” she said at the conclusion of her response. But the debate indicates the conversation about Harris’ record in California is just beginning. — Alana Abramson

6. Inslee Shines on Climate Change

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has staked his campaign on addressing climate change, and on Wednesday he finally got a chance to bring it front and center. He discussed climate change as a lens through which the U.S. should consider all other issues, including health, national security and the economy. Later, he emphasized the urgency of action. “The time is up. Our house is on fire,” he said. Throughout the 12-minute segment, Inslee was received as the authority on the topic, including by other candidates who referenced him in their own answers.

Some of the most interesting exchanges on climate came when Inslee and other candidates took their counterparts to task. Inslee drew a distinction with Biden, telling the former vice president that his climate plan was too modest. “These deadlines are set by science,” said Inslee. Booker challenged others — including Biden, Harris and Gillibrand — on the merits of their promise to rejoin the Paris Agreement. “Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accords. That is kindergarten,” he said. — Justin Worland

7. The Emphasis on Section 1325 Muddies the Immigration Debate

Getting rid of the part of U.S. immigration law that makes it a criminal offense to enter the country illegally has become a litmus test in the Democratic primary thanks to former Housing Secretary Julian Castro’s emphasis on the issue. It was the fulcrum of the Democrats’ immigration discussion once again on Wednesday night, portrayed by Castro as the key to preventing policies like the Trump administration’s family separations. “The only way that we’re going to guarantee that we don’t have family separations in this country again is to repeal Section 1325,” said Castro, who wants to make it a civil instead of a criminal offense). “That is the law that this president…is using to incarcerate migrant parents and then physically separate them from their children.”

But simply abolishing Section 1325 would not prevent family separations. A filing by ACLU lawyers this week found that more than 900 children had been separated from their parents by other measures in the year since a federal judge had ordered the practice to end. (The Department of Homeland Security got around it by using an exception that said parents and children could be separated if the parents posed a danger to them.) Meanwhile, the focus on 1325 has diverted discussion from bigger policy questions, such as addressing the immigration-court backlogs or asylum crisis. — Vera Bergengruen

8. Booker Had a Good Night

The New Jersey senator — who had gone after Biden on his language around race, his past work with segregationist lawmakers, and criminal justice reform all before the debate — sharpened his attacks on Wednesday night, delivering a performance that may have been the best of his campaign so far.

In one interaction with the Vice President over immigration, Booker called Biden out for frequently referencing his ties to Obama. “You can’t have it both ways,” Booker told Biden. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”

At one point, Biden had a slip of the tongue and referred to Booker as “president,” then backtracked by affectionately referring to him as “future president.” Booker, who shook off an early interruption from protesters and rallied for a strong night, quickly began fundraising off the comment. “I’m grateful that he endorsed my presidency already,” he said. —Lissandra Villa/Detroit

Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand speaks during the second 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 31, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

9. Gillibrand Stumbles On Her Signature Issue

Gender has been a key theme of the New York Senator’s presidential campaign, as she positions herself as a fierce advocate for federal policies to help women. When asked whether she would support imposing fines on companies with wage inequities, she turned her ire on Biden, highlighting his opposition to a childcare tax credit nearly 40 years ago. It was a golden opportunity for a young working mother to criticize an older white male on a policy that would disproportionately benefit mothers. But the attack didn’t land. Biden pointed out that he opposed the idea because he wanted the funds to go towards families with lower incomes, and invoked the tragedy of losing his wife and daughter to reinforce the point. “As a single father,” he said, “I have some idea what it cost.” The audience erupted in cheers.

The back-and-forth encapsulated Gillibrand’s struggles so far. For all the focus she has put on female empowerment, she has failed to make inroads with female voters. A Quinnipiac poll released July 29th had her at 0%. Biden, by comparison, led the pack at 34%. —Alana Abramson

10. The Biggest Topics in These Debates Don’t Play to Top Contenders’ Strengths

Healthcare dominated much of the first part of the debate, as the candidates tussled over specifics in their plans and the future of employer-provided insurance. But the primary players in that exchange, Biden and Harris, both have weaknesses on the issue. Biden was forced to defend the imperfections of Obamacare, which many Democrats now see as insufficiently progressive in light of government-run alternatives put forward by the likes of Warren. And Harris’s views on the subject have repeatedly shifted.

The candidates also showed their vulnerabilities on criminal justices. Harris faced tough questioning of her record as California’s top cop and perceived hypocrisy on criminal justice. Booker got slagged for his policies as Newark mayor and Biden for his role in the 1994 crime bill. And de Blasio and Castro alike took aim at the cluster of perceived leaders over actions taken to improve the nation’s immigration system.

For all of the advantages that Biden, Harris and even Booker enjoy, their records on important policy markers leaves them on shaky ground. With six months before Iowa’s lead-off caucuses, it is a good bet that they’ll continue being called to account for their ideas. — Philip Elliott

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