The first Democratic presidential debate is in the books, and 10 of the 20 candidates who qualified for the proceedings have had their say – in one-minute chunks.
Now that we’ve had a chance to see what at least some of this massive presidential field has been able to do on the same stage and under the spotlight, here are a few takeaways.
Sparks fly on healthcare
The debate started a bit slow, with the candidates preferring to give their introductory remarks rather than answer questions about the economy or take the debate moderators up on their offer to criticise their opponents.
This era of good feelings ended as soon as the topic turned to healthcare, however. In an instant, it became a left-on-left sparring match. Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio and Tulsi Gabbard all gave full-throated endorsements of “Medicare for all” – with government-managed health insurance supplanting the private sector – while Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney advocated a more incremental approach.
Candidates who don’t support bold healthcare changes, Warren said, “won’t fight for you.”
A government takeover of health insurance would force hospitals to close, Delaney countered.
De Blasio, taking aim at O’Rourke, shot: “How can you defend a system that’s not working?”
There were several other points of friction during the debate, but healthcare was the first and the most animated.
It’s a debate that’s just starting within the party – and one where Democratic voters are going to have clear choices.
Beto versus Castro
Speaking of sparks, the two candidates on the stage from a border state, Texas, had one of the most heated exchanges of the debate. The point of contention was whether those who cross the border should be treated as criminals – something the Trump administration has done to justify separating migrants from their children.
Castro kept referencing a specific portion of the law that allows this, Section 1325, and pressed O’Rourke and others to support its repeal. O’Rourke spoke of comprehensive reform and injustice at the border.
It was a classic contrast between policy minutia versus an appeal to the heart, but it ended with a flourish, as Castro snapped at O’Rourke: “You should do your homework”.
Immigration is a big issue for both of these candidates, and the give-and-take demonstrated that they’re both going to have to fight to claim their ground here.
On the whole, it was a bit of an off-debate for O’Rourke, the once rising star who has sputtered of late. He frequently seemed a step slow in the rapid-fire pace of the proceedings.
While Castro may not end up the beneficiary of his continued struggles, he could help keep his fellow Texan down.
Inslee and Booker have their moments
One of the by-products of a quirky debate draw that put Warren as the only top-tier candidate on the stage is that there was space for other candidates to have their moments.
Jay Inslee, for instance, was able to demonstrate that there’s more to his campaign than just climate change. He’s the two-term governor of Washington, and as he pointed out he’s “advanced the ball” – enacting progressive policies that other candidates just talk about. He also had a chance to note that it’s been Washington state that has led many of the lawsuits filed against Trump administration policies, including successfully blocking the first immigration bans.
Cory Booker was another candidate who had a few good turns, including taking a question about gun-control issue and making it personal. After Warren spoke about guns as a “serious research problem,” the New Jersey senator related how he hears gunshots in his Newark neighbourhood and knows people who have died.
Democrats may want passion when it comes to guns – and Booker delivered.
Who will take on Trump?
Ten is a crowd
As expected, having 10 contenders on the stage at the same time made for a bit of an awkward debate. Candidates disappeared for long stretches – including Warren, who missed out on the entirety of the immigration topic. When they did have their chance to speak, many seemed practically out of breath as they tried to cram as many words into their answers as possible.
Tim Ryan and Tulsi Gabbard, who have to contend with low name recognition, received few opportunities to make their pitch. Poor John Delaney seemed to constantly try to get a word in edgewise, only to be batted down by more forceful speakers, like De Blasio, or the moderators themselves.
If the format is problematic, it’s the hand the candidates have been dealt – tomorrow and again next month in Detroit. At some point the field will winnow down and the debates will get more personal. Until then, however, those on the stage will have to do the best they can with fleeting chances they’re given.
There may have been one clear winner of tonight’s debate, and that was a man who wasn’t on the stage – Joe Biden. Despite his position as the front-runner in the race so far, none of the 10 candidates present on Wednesday night did so much as mention the former vice-president directly or by implication. They seemed content to talk about their own policies or take swipes at those within immediate earshot.
The only concern Biden may have is that Klobuchar made her own case for practical moderation – the same political ground the vice-president has staked out. But she has much more work to do to convince Biden’s voters to switch to her.
Biden’s luck may run out tomorrow, of course, when he has to contend with Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris – all of whom are high enough in the polls to believe that a Biden stumble could put them at or near the top.
At least for one night, however, the front-runner didn’t have to worry about dodging rhetorical bullets because none were fired.