vision 2020

Here’s Who Won (and Lost) the First Democratic Primary Debate

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With humanity trembling on the precipice of ecological disaster, and migrant children trembling in squalid detention centers at America’s border, ten of the Democratic Party’s top contenders for the presidency gathered in Miami Wednesday night to debate the many pressing questions facing our republic.

But the only question that really matters is this: Which candidates derived the most political benefit from Wednesday night’s earned media opportunity, and which the least, as measured by the subjective impressions of an exceptionally unrepresentative white man in New York City?

Happily, I am well-positioned to answer this question. Here is how the ten Democratic candidates’ debate performances rank, from best to worst:

1) Julián Castro

The former Housing secretary came into the night polling a cool 0.8 percent in RealClearPolitics’ running average of Democratic primary surveys. Had the DNC adopted more rational rules for debate eligibility, Castro wouldn’t have stepped foot on a primetime stage.

But he made fine use of his opportunity, and did more to improve his (still rather dim) prospects than any other candidate. He proved himself sharp, confident, well-versed in his signature issues, and willing to tell Beto O’Rourke to do his “homework.” Asked at the debate’s opening about the gender pay gap, Castro deftly shoehorned a let me introduce my humble, working-class self to America story about being raised by a single mom into a straightforward answer about how he would ensure such heroic women weren’t shortchanged by their bosses (pass the Equal Rights Amendment, enact stronger protections against pay discrimination).

He then took dead aim at his fellow fresh-faced Texan in an exchange about immigration policy, noting that, for all of Beto’s liberal rhetoric on immigration, the former congressman has refused to endorse the decriminalization of illegal border crossing. For the bulk of U.S. history, crossing our nation’s border without legal permission was a civil-law violation, not a criminal offense. But “Section 1325” of Title 8 of the United States Code changed that, and thereby created the legal basis for the Trump administration’s most draconian border policies, including family separation.

Castro has called for the repeal of Section 1325, and Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have seconded his proposal. But for some strange reason, O’Rourke has not — despite the fact that he’s been campaigning as unabashed dove on immigration. By all scientific measures (the consensus response on my Twitter feed), Castro won his joust with Beto. In so doing, he established himself as a credible challenger for the title of “the Democratic field’s foremost relatively young liberal Texan.” But more importantly, he succeeded in shifting the terms of his party’s immigration debate in a more humane direction. Ostensibly intimidated by Castro’s thrashing of O’Rourke, Ohio congressman Tim Ryan — whose campaign is founded on the premise that Democrats need to reconnect with the (often restrictionist) white working-class voters in the post-industrial Midwest — endorsed the repeal of Section 1325 as common sense.

It remains highly unlikely that Castro will win the Democratic nomination. But his performance Wednesday was enough to demonstrate that his candidacy actually serves a useful purpose. Which is more than one can say for many of his rivals.

2) Elizabeth Warren

By certain empirical metrics, Warren is not an exceptionally effective politician (she’s underperformed the Democratic lean of her state in Senate elections, and boasts a less-than-stellar approval rating for a blue-state senator). But by the more reliable metric of how progressive bloggers like myself respond to her public oratory, she’s a world-class political talent. And in recent weeks, the data has begun to catch up with our wisdom.

On Wednesday night, Warren spoke with characteristic eloquence and detail on a variety of issues, but tied them all to her campaign’s overriding theme of reclaiming America’s government from the big corporations (a theme that virtually every other candidate on the stage felt compelled to echo in more milquetoast form). She also executed a bid to eat into Bernie Sanders’s base of support. Going into the debate, Warren had endorsed Medicare for All, but given the policy relatively short shrift on the campaign trail. And she had notably declined to forthrightly state that she favored the abolition of private insurance — an idea that is central to Sanders’s vision, but which also polls poorly, and has therefore functioned as a litmus test that few of the Vermont senator’s rivals can pass. But Warren decided to take that leap Wednesday, and gave a very accessible account of why the business model of private insurance is inherently wasteful and exploitative.

Later on, in response to a question about how she would advance her agenda if faced with a Republican majority in the Senate, Warren endorsed Sanders’s theory of “political revolution” (i.e., using presidential politics to cultivate social movements that can force bottom-up change):

[S]hort of a Democratic majority in the Senate, you better understand the fight still goes on. It starts in the White House, and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the frontlines come January 2021. We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.

These answers will make it a bit more difficult for Sanders’s backers to insist that Warren does not truly support Medicare for All or believe in “mass politics.” They may also, theoretically, increase Democratic primary voters’ electability concerns about the Massachusetts senator. But the true key to electability is to embrace all of my policy preferences. And so it’s an objective fact that Warren’s pivot was wise and will redound to her benefit.

3) Cory Booker

Booker entered the debate with oddly poor poll numbers, given his high level of support among Democratic Party activists, and his well-established gifts for inspiring documentaries about himself and for rescuing freezing dogs.

At the debate in Miami, the New Jersey senator reminded Democrats that he’s a gifted communicator who shares some of the same attributes as the guy they wish they could send back to the White House. Booker succeeded in commandeering the most airtime, and in inspiring the most search traffic of any candidate.

4) Jay Inslee

Inslee is known as the single-issue climate candidate, whose campaign exists primarily to increase the salience of averting environmental apocalypse. But he demonstrated Wednesday that he can actually speak compellingly about non-climate issues, such as strengthening unions and expanding access to health care. Inslee also made the interesting point that he is the governor of a medium-size state, and that the responsibilities of his current position overlap significantly with those of the presidency.

Inslee still isn’t as serious a presidential contender as the mayor of South Bend. But he came across as a credible candidate for national office, and promised to make averting ecological collapse his top priority (which is a threshold of political responsibility that none of his rivals have quite cleared).

5) Bill de Blasio

The mayor of New York made it through the entire two-hour debate without killing a single rodent.

6) Tulsi Gabbard

Gabbard is a strange person who has advanced very bad views on a strange list of issues. But she is also ready and able to criticize American warmongering in forceful terms, which is a quality that is somewhat lacking in the rest of the Democratic field. On Wednesday night, she gave this very clear and simple account of what’s at stake in the Trump administration’s belligerent policy toward Iran:

I served in the war in Iraq at the height of the war in 2005, a war that took over 4,000 of my brothers and sisters in uniforms’ lives. The American people need to understand that this war with Iran would be far more devastating, far more costly than anything that we ever saw in Iraq. It would take many more lives. It would exacerbate the refugee crisis.

And it wouldn’t be just contained within Iran. This would turn into a regional war. This is why it’s so important that every one of us, every single American, stand up and say no war with Iran. We need to get back into the Iran nuclear agreement, and we need to negotiate how we can improve it.

Later in the evening, she acknowledged the simple fact that the United States is not as committed to ruling Afghanistan as the Taliban is, and thus, “we cannot keep U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan thinking that we’re going to somehow squash this Taliban that’s been there, that every other country that’s tried has failed.”

I found these to be productive contributions to the discourse. So, surely the median Democratic voter did too.

7) John Delaney

The Maryland congressman argued that, unlike all the other Democratic candidates, he is a businessman, and businessmen make good presidents. I see no reason why Democratic voters would find this argument less than compelling in the current context.

8) Amy Klobuchar

At least she didn’t speak Spanish.

9) Tim Ryan

The Ohio congressman argued that the Democrats have “a perception problem,” as their party is seen as “being coastal and elital — elitist and Ivy League.” He offered no clear proposal for how the party was supposed to rectify this problem, beyond nominating Tim Ryan for president. But the congressman made that proposition seem less attractive later in the debate, when he claimed that the Taliban had attacked the United States on 9/11, and answered the question, “Who is the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, in one word” with “China, without a question. They’re wiping us around the world … economically.”

10) Beto O’Rourke

In recent days, it became apparent that Pete Buttigieg isn’t necessarily up to the responsibilities of overseeing a small city’s police department, let alone the most powerful national government on planet Earth. This reality offered O’Rourke an opportunity to reclaim ownership of the “handsome, inoffensive, youngish white man” lane in the 2020 primary fight — an opportunity he promptly squandered. The former congressman didn’t do anything egregiously wrong (he may have been the first candidate to resort to awkwardly speaking in lousy Spanish, but he wasn’t the only one who failed to resist that temptation). But O’Rourke didn’t do anything especially right, either. Castro took him to school on immigration. De Blasio yelled at him about the War Powers Act. In response, O’Rourke mostly just gesticulated a lot while saying inoffensive things in a strange, sing-songy rhythm. O’Rourke does not have the résumé of a credible presidential candidate. And in Miami, it became apparent that he doesn’t actually have the charisma of one, either.

Who Won (and Lost) the First Democratic Primary Debate