democratic debates

Here’s Who Won (and Lost) the Second Democratic Debate, Night One

The winners’ circle. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Days after a heavily armed sociopath unleashed hell on yet another American community — and the president directed yet another racist tantrum at his nonwhite constituents — ten of the Democratic Party’s top 2020 hopefuls gathered in Detroit to debate the many urgent questions facing our sorrowful republic.

But the only question that really mattered Tuesday night was this: Which candidates will derive the most political benefit from the evening’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 query. Here is how the ten Democratic candidates’ debate performances rank, from best to worst:

1) Bernie Sanders

On first glance, Tuesday’s playing field appeared to be tilted against the socialist senator. The luck of the draw had put Sanders onstage with four separate junior varsity Joe Bidens, each one certain that their only hope for hitting 2 percent in the polls was to punch an aging hippie on national television. And CNN’s moderators — hell-bent as they were on making their network’s presidential debates as indistinguishable from professional wrestling as possible — spent most of the night daring John Delaney & Co. to take a swing.

And yet, by siccing a series of centrist heels on Sanders, CNN actually did him a major favor. The Vermont senator is as comfortable in the role of embattled, populist outsider as Paul Giamatti is in the role of anxious wisecrack. Bernie came to Detroit to yell outrageous truths and economic statistics. And his righteous shouting is most effective when it’s directed at a specific megamillionaire, or avatar of the “corporate media.” What’s more, CNN let the Vermont senator do battle on his favorite turf. Challenging Bernie Sanders to defend Medicare for All in a series of 30-second sound bites is like daring Quentin Tarantino to direct a pastiche film that’s 45 minutes too long — the man has had this art mastered since at least 1994.

Tim Ryan and John Delaney tried to frame Medicare for All as a betrayal of their blue-collar, union dads’ hard-won health-care benefits. Sanders effortlessly cracked that frame over his knee.

Jake Tapper spent much of the evening suggesting that the concept of replacing private-insurance premiums with a slight increase in payroll taxes was a stepping stone on the road to serfdom. Sanders then called attention to CNN’s health-care industry advertisers just as his allotted speaking time was expiring, so that when Tapper cut him off, the cable-news anchor appeared to be confirming that Bernie speaks truths too hot for television.

Whether the socialist’s appeal will ever be broad enough to make Joe Biden sweat remains to be seen. But Tuesday made clear that reports of the political revolution’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

2) Elizabeth Warren

As she’s done in just about all her national television appearances this campaign, Warren spoke eloquently and authoritatively on a wide range of issues Tuesday, while deftly tying the myriad planks of her agenda to her overriding theme of reclaiming America’s government from “corporations and billionaires.” One new wrinkle in her Tuesday night performance was that the senator managed to season her sharp-edged populism with appeals to the partisan identity politics of “normie” Democrats (appeals that ideological bedfellow Bernie Sanders is less well-positioned to make). Before jumping into her case for “structural change,” Warren sounded a note of partisan unity, saying in her opening statement, “I promise, no matter who our candidate is, I will work my heart out to beat Donald Trump and to elect a Democratic Congress.” She went on to mine some of her biggest applause lines from this well of partisan fellow feeling. After John Delaney suggested that Bernie Sanders wanted to take good, private health insurance away from hardworking Americans, Warren defended the Independent senator — by defending the Democratic Party’s good name.

“We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do,” Warren said to the audience’s loud approval. “And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.”

Warren persisted in wedding her insistence on sweeping populist reform to pride in Team Blue throughout the debate, most explicitly by saying that only “the Democratic Party of big, structural change” can solve our nation’s urgent challenges.

Most polls suggest that the median Democratic primary voter is not strongly invested in either side of the ideological argument that the party’s centrist and left-wing factions wish to have — a reality that’s reflected in the fact that there appear to be more voters torn between Warren and Kamala Harris than between the Massachusetts senator and Bernie Sanders. Thus, Warren’s path to the nomination involves persuading a lot of mainstream Democratic voters to integrate a preference for sweeping populist reform into their preexisting partisan identities. If the audience in Detroit is any guide, Warren is making good progress toward that goal. After pleasing the crowd with her denunciation of Delaney’s “Republican talking points,” Warren won even louder applause by excoriating the former congressman’s tepid ambitions:

3) Marianne Williamson

The patron saint of paranoid New Age wine moms turned in another alarmingly strong performance in Detroit. Williamson spoke more candidly about race in America — and the “dark psychic energy” that Donald Trump has unleashed on the astral plane — than any of the elected officeholders arrayed beside her:

“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days,” is going to echo in the mind of every insecure policy blogger from now until the end of time.

4) Pete Buttigieg

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not polling fifth in this contest on the strength of his political experience or governing accomplishments. He’s here because he’s conspicuously intelligent and good at public speaking. Unlike the vast majority of his rivals in Detroit, the 37-year-old McKinsey alum had his lines down pat. Buttigieg had a clear, confident answer to (almost) every question he fielded, and proved particularly adept at making the case for his unique strengths in a general-election campaign against Trump. (“Nominate me, and you get to see the president of the United States stand next to an American war veteran and explain why he chose to pretend to be disabled when it was his chance to serve.”)

On the other hand, when asked about his controversial handling of an “officer-involved shooting” in South Bend, Buttigieg said, “The racial divide lives within me” — a phrase so cloying and hollow, it sounds like something the film Crash would say if it attained human form and ran for president.

5) Steve Bullock

Of the four white male moderates vying to be Joe Biden’s understudy in Detroit, the Montana governor was the most interesting (if only because his accent uncannily straddles the line between cowboy and beach bro). Bullock succeeded in conveying his (genuinely impressive) résumé to a national audience: The former attorney has managed to win statewide elections in a deep red, rural state while campaigning as a standard-issue, pro-labor, pro-choice, pro–gun control Democrat. To the extent that blue America is looking for a conventionally “electable” nominee with demonstrable appeal to white, non-college voters, Bullock is arguably a better fit than Biden, who has never won an election in a staunchly Republican state (or, for that matter, a competitive race of any kind this millennium), and carries a half-century of political baggage with him everywhere he goes.

6) Amy Klobuchar

The Minnesota senator has styled herself as a ruthlessly pragmatic Midwesterner who isn’t going “to make [impossible] promises just to get elected.” Thus, while other Democrats vowed Tuesday to implement single-payer health care, a student-debt jubilee, and Green New Deal, she opted for a more realistic pledge: If she is elected, the fine people of Baltimore can rest assured that the U.S. president will not liken them to vermin over Twitter for at least four years:

I don’t think anyone can justify what this president is doing. Little kids literally woke up this weekend, turned on the TV, and saw their president calling their city, the town of Baltimore, nothing more than a home for rats. And I can tell you, as your president, that will stop.

The senator did tout some slightly more ambitious plans (a $1 trillion infrastructure package, a public option for health insurance). And Klobuchar did give viewers every reason to think that she’d be a better “conventionally electable” candidate than Joe Biden (assuming she doesn’t mortally wound a staffer with a binder mid-campaign). But she entered the night polling at 2 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average. And none of the conscientiously uninspiring promises she made in Detroit seem likely to change that.

7) John Delaney

The former congressman is polling at approximately zero percent in national polls. He was on the debate stage in Detroit primary because he has a net worth of nearly $100 million, and has used a hefty fraction of that personal fortune to relentlessly promote his vanity 2020 presidential campaign for two full years now. To have any hope of making the cut for the next round of debates in September, Delaney needed a miracle Tuesday — like every other centrist candidate suddenly self-immolating, or CNN to arbitrarily directing every other question to him as though its prime-time audience had tuned in specifically to hear why a very rich, bald man they’d never heard of isn’t a fan of social democracy.

And the latter somehow happened. The former congressman did largely serve as a punching bag for his more quick-witted rivals (and flack for the hospital industry). But he also got an inordinate amount of free prime-time exposure, with which he just might have laid the groundwork for a successful campaign (to replace Larry Hogan as the next Republican governor of Maryland).

8) Tim Ryan

The Ohio congressman mustered one of the night’s only halfway effective retorts to Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately for Ryan, this claim gets four Pinocchios — the publicly available evidence clearly indicates that the Vermont senator is physically incapable of discussing the greed of fossil-fuel companies without his lungs pumping an elevated volume of air against his larynx, producing a loud vocal sound.

9) Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke may have once been a fixture of El Paso’s “post-punk” scene, but at the debate in Detroit, he was the political equivalent of Muzak, a blandly inoffensive background noise that barely registered in the viewer’s consciousness. The former congressman’s chipper brand of civic nationalism seems a fine fit for our political moment in the abstract. But filtered through his halting delivery, odd mannerisms, and pablum-packed rhetoric, it fails to inspire.

10) John Hickenlooper

No one knows for sure who John Hickenlooper was, as the details of his existence fell out of collective memory ages ago. But scholars who have studied the few fragments that haven’t been lost to time say that he was most likely an older Caucasian man who enjoyed stammering complaints about socialism through a mouth chock-full of marbles.

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