Congratulations, we finally made it to the second round of debates. And yes, I’m deliberately using the plural version of the word because we have two debates: one featuring 10 of the 25 Democratic presidential candidates tonight, and another featuring another 10 candidates tomorrow night. Because this is also the last week of July and leading into a very busy weekend here in Nevada, I’m in “zero f–ks mode” again, so let’s just get into this already.
What’s changed since last time?
After the first round of debates hosted in NBC in Miami last month, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) dropped out of the presidential race. That opened up debate podium #20, which ultimately went to Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D) for making the 1% polling threshold. Yet he won’t get to celebrate all that much tonight, as he and most of the other Democrats outside the “Top 5” top tier are at risk of being left out of the ABC-Univision Debate in Houston in September due to the higher 2% polling and 130,000+ unique donor requirements that will kick in going forward.
Getting back to tonight’s CNN Debate in Detroit, Bullock will be joining the stage with U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), along with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), former Reps. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and John Delaney (D-Maryland), former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson. If you want to hear more from former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-California), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D), and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, stay tuned for them tomorrow night. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts), former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pennsylvania), Miramar (Florida) Mayor Wayne Messam, billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, and former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) failed to qualify for this week’s debates, and they’ll probably have an even harder time trying to qualify for the September debate(s?).
We will have to wait until 2020 for a debate here in Nevada, but the vast majority of the Democratic candidates will return to Las Vegas for the AFSCME Public Service Forum at UNLV this Saturday. From here, we will have two more candidate forums (which, unlike debates, give each candidate one-on-one time to speak with the moderator and the audience) later this year with the PLAN Action and People’s Action “People’s Presidential Forum” on October 26 and The Nevada Independent’s own forum on November 18. On this note, let’s hop over to Detroit and get up in this gig.
5:05 PM PDT (in Las Vegas)/8:05 PM EDT (in Detroit): Let’s get this party started!
I’m trying this sober, so wish me luck (or just send me gift cards for Total Wine!). After spending some 13 minutes on an opening credits montage, the national anthem, a commercial break (already??!!), and a reading of the rules, CNN finally got around to… Opening statements?
Yep, and Steve Bullock got to go first and brag about “getting stuff done” without “compromising our values”. “Progressive, emphasis on progress,” Bullock added. Interestingly enough, he was followed up by Marianne Williamson and her rallying cry for “Americans to rise up against our amoral economic system”. She added, “Conventional politics will not solve this problem, because conventional politics is part of the problem.”
Then, John Delaney directly attacked Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with his contention that they will “turn off independent voters and get [President Donald] Trump reelected” if one of them wins the nomination. Tim Ryan, another member of the “centrist white guy caucus”, tried a more subtle route with his contention that, “It’s not about left or right.” John Hickenlooper disagreed with Ryan and one-upped Delaney by claiming his tenure as Colorado Governor “provided solutions to problems”, rather than what Warren and Sanders are offering.
Amy Klobuchar, another of the centrist candidates, struck a different tone in declaring, “Tonight we debate, but ultimately we have to beat Donald Trump,” deciding to attack Trump rather than the progressives sharing the stage with her. Beto O’Rourke followed suit with optimistic platitudes, including, “Before we are anything else, we are Americans first.”
5:20 PM: More candidate introductions (really)
Next up, Pete Buttigieg: “I’m running for president because our country is running out of time.” As he’s regularly been saying on the campaign trail, Buttigieg made a generational argument “recycling the same arguments and politicians that have been dominating Washington for a long time.”
Then, Elizabeth Warren: “Donald Trump disgraces the office of President of the United States every single day. She then added, “Our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump.” Warren went on to declare, “We’re not going to solve our problems with small ideas and spinelessness, but rather with big, structural change. […] I know what’s broken with our system, and I will fight to fix it.”
And finally, Bernie Sanders used his intro to talk about economic justice. “Tonight, half of the American people are living paycheck to paycheck,” he noted. Sanders later said, “We have got to […] come together as an unprecedented grassroots movement to defeat Trump and transform our economic system.”
5:25 PM: Health care
Jake Tapper pitted Sanders against Delaney with the very first question on “Medicare for All” single-payer health care. Sanders flat-out told Delaney, “You’re wrong!” Sanders pointed out what works in Canada, then declared, “Health care is a human right, not a privilege.”
Delaney responded by claiming single-payer will threaten union benefits, but Sanders retorted by saying his plan will result in lower health care costs. Delaney pushed back, but then Warren jumped in and declared, “We are Democrats. We are not about taking health care away from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are doing!”
Unlike the NBC Debate last month, Warren seems much feistier tonight. She stated, “Billionaires are going to pay more. The middle class will pay less out-of-pocket.” And while Tapper was pushing Warren to get into the nitty-gritty on taxes, Warren instead used personal stories of people suffering under the current system
Steve Bullock’s big debate debut involved him saying something about the public option, but Pete Buttigieg explained his seemingly similar “not Medicare for All, but maybe still universal health care” plan in a less sanctimoniously hokey way. Beto O’Rourke then talked about the same health care plan he shares with Buttigieg as something that “preserves choice”, and that was when Bullock decided to jump in and poke at O’Rourke over the same “middle-road, not single-payer” plan they all mostly share.
5:35 PM: More health care
Tapper then pitted Amy Klobuchar against Elizabeth Warren on health care. Klobuchar called herself a “street fighter from the Iron Range”, then tried to prove it by pointing out Sanders once supported her public option bill. Sanders rebutted by chiding Klobuchar and the other centrists for “repeating Republican talking points”.
Warren backed up Sanders and struck her own blows against the centrists for “lacking the courage” to do what’s necessary. Delaney jumped back in and said, “The public option is great, but it doesn’t go far enough,” even as he was deriding the Senators who want to take the nation further. Hickenlooper claimed, “We need an evolution, not a revolution.” Warren disagreed and pointed out the epic complications under the current mostly privatized system. And then Williamson, who previously identified as a Warren- and Sanders-friendly progressive, sided with the centrists.
Then, Buttigieg crossed over to defend Sanders and Warren by saying, “It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. […] If we embrace a conservative agenda, they’ll still say we’re crazy-eyed socialists.” Tim Ryan then jumped in and tried to paint Warren and Sanders as hostile toward unions for threatening to take away their private plans (and replace them with “Medicare for All” single-payer).
Sanders again fought back: “They will be better because they will be comprehensive. ‘Medicare for All’ covers everything!” He then argued that unions will be better off under single-payer because they can focus on negotiating better wages and benefits rather than fighting employers over health insurance. He also reiterated Warren’s point on the pitfalls of the current system where health care providers put more energy into paperwork that could be used to actually provide care.
5:45 PM: Immigration
Dana Bash asked Buttigieg about immigration. He described the status quo: “We have a crisis of cruelty and incompetence that is an unmitigated disaster. It’s a stain on the United States.” Yet then when Bash asked about Buttigieg agreeing with Julián Castro at the NBC Debate on decriminalizing undocumented border crossings, he tried to wiggle out and criticize the NBC crew for asking it in a way that made them all choose whether raise hands on it.
After O’Rourke said something that involved words, Warren stepped in: “The point is not about criminalization. That is the tool that gives Donald Trump the ability to break families apart.” She further clarified, “Decriminalize: That’s the whole point,” after Hickenlooper complained about the others’ “170 years of Washington experience”. (Huh?)
Klobuchar declared, “There is the will to change this in Congress. What’s missing is the right person to do it.” She seemed to agree with Castro and Warren, just maybe. Then Sanders said, “In my view, they are not criminals. […] Why are people walking 2,000 miles to a strange country?”
Bullock then dismissed Castro’s and Warren’s proposals as “free benefits that might draw more people here”. He then pivoted, “In my view, the biggest problem we have with immigration is Donald Trump,” never mind that these problems existed before Trump ran for president. Bullock kept trying to just make the entire immigration debate about Trump, but Warren countered that unless laws and policies change, these human rights abuses will reoccur. She stated, “That is not a crime. […] What we need is a sane system.”
5:55 PM: More immigration, then gun violence and money in politics
After Ryan claimed Sanders’ and Warren’s (and Castro’s) immigration plans will incentizeive more immigrants to come here undocumented, Sanders declined to take his bait. Williamson then listed all the policy failings she says caused the current border crisis.
Don Lemon then pivoted the stage to gun violence and let Buttigieg go first. Buttigieg again hit on past politicians’ failure to act, then Hickenlooper pointed Klobuchar promised, “As your president, I will not fold,” and she cited the victims of the Gilroy Shooting as reasons to act.
Buttigieg exasperatingly said, “It’s the exact same conversation we’ve had since I was in high school [during] the Columbine Shooting,” but Klobuchar said it’s not Democrats’ fault that Republicans won’t allow votes on gun safety legislation. Bullock tried to pivot the entire conversation to money in politics and Citizens United (after asked about his prior good relationship with the NRA), and O’Rourke also said words to that effect.
Sanders promised he will “take on the NRA”, and he also sidestepped his past friendliness with the NRA by noting his current D- grade. Buttigieg again tried the generational argument, but Bullock again pivoted to Citizens United and the State of Montana’s current efforts to effectively nullify it within his state. Williamson finally talked about clean money (as in, public financing of elections) in a way that was much clearer and sensible than Bullock’s soundbites and O’Rourke’s word salads.
6:10 PM: Really, polls?
After another commercial break, Tapper brought up polls suggesting Democratic voters value “beating Trump” over “fighting for values” and let Hickenlooper go first. He proclaimed, “Donald Trump is malpractice personified,” and pointed to Trump’s unfulfilled promises as proof.
Sanders then responded, “Every credible poll I have seen has me beating Donald Trump,” rebutting Hickenlooper’s recent social media ads claiming Sanders can’t beat Trump. Hickenlooper then pointed to Vermont’s failure to enact single-payer health care as proof his ideas aren’t feasible, and Sanders rebutted that naysayers once claimed Medicare wasn’t viable 54 years ago. (Happy birthday, Medicare!)
In a downright Trumpian turn of words, Ryan dismissed “free health care for undocumented workers when so many Americans don’t have health care.” Bullock soon proclaimed, “I’m the only one on this stage who won a Trump state!” He then said something about “not sacrificing our values”.
Warren then rebutted, “I know how to fight, and I know how to win.” She pointed out her own defeat of a formerly popular Republican incumbent (Senator Scott Brown) in 2012, then said, “We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re too afraid to fight. […] Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we fight for it.”
6:20 PM: Progressives v. centrists, socialism v. capitalism, or courage v. fear
After John Delaney sang paeans to public-private partnerships while dismissing Warren’s “fairy tale economics”, Warren rebutted, “We need to have the courage to fight back.” Sanders then rebutted Delaney’s points by pointing out, “Detroit was nearly destroyed because of awful trade policies.”
Tapper soon drew Klobuchar into this ideology fight. After trying to sidestep it, she dismissed “Medicare for All” and universal free college as impractical. “We are more concerned about winning an argument than winning an election,” she said, then gently rebutted Bullock by reminding the room of her prior statewide victories, including in rural regions that broke heavily for Trump in 2016.
Dana Bash actually cited scientific consensus on the need for rapid decarbonization by 2050 for human survival (hooray, climate science) in asking Delaney why he opposes the Green New Deal. Delaney then checked off a laundry list of things he wants to do, things some of his rivals have included in their respective Green New Deal plans.
Warren responded, “The climate crisis is our existential crisis,” and she pointed out her $2 trillion plan as necessary to achieve the goals laid out by the scientists Bash cited. Hickenlooper then poo-pooed Warren’s Green New Deal plan. She retorted, “I put a real policy on the table to create $1.2 trillion in new jobs. […] What you want to do is find a Republican talking point and say, ‘We don’t really have to do anything.’”
6:30 PM: Climate change and environmental justice
Ryan lamented, “China dominates [in renewable energy investment],” then lamented Sanders’ and Warren’s more aggressive plans to change this. Sanders responded, “I’m getting tired of my Democratic colleagues’ fear of big ideas. […] Don’t tell me we can’t take on the fossil fuel industry.”
Ryan said more words, but Sanders fought back with righteous anger: “We have got to be super aggressive if we love our children!” Bullock jumped in and said, “Republicans won’t even acknowledge climate change is real,” and he then said the kinds of lines we normally see in 30-second Democratic campaign ads (for the general election, that is).
Sanders responded, “We are not anti-worker,” and promised his Green New Deal programs will result in more and better paying jobs in rural America. Bullock responded, “Let’s not just talk about plans that are written for press releases,” which is interesting considering his checkered record on climate in Montana.
O’Rourke promised, “We can not move with half-measures.” Buttigieg then pivoted to himself running as a war veteran against Trump (who claimed “bone spurs” to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War). Klobuchar then pointed towards Trump’s broken promises on infrastructure as she promised real action.
6:35 PM: Racial justice
Williamson warned, “Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” and she warned “Donald Trump will win” if Democrats don’t do more to act against institutionalized racism and environmental injustice.
On that note, Don Lemon asked about racism in the Trump era. O’Rourke wants an America where we can honestly say, “We don’t just tolerate our differences, but we respect them. […] Diversity is our strength.” Hickenlooper then humble-bragged about making universal pre-K happen in Colorado.
Warren declared, “We need to call out white supremacy for what it is: domestic terrorism.” She then promised to take on institutionalized bigotry across the board, and she used her universal free college program (which includes funding for historically black colleges and universities) as proof of her commitment.
6:45 PM: Racial justice, continued
When Lemon confronted Buttigieg on his own crisis in South Bend, Buttigieg responded, “Our community is moving from hurting to healing,” and he promised national action with his “Douglass Plan” for racial justice. Klobuchar then condemned Trump’s recent attacks on the entire City of Baltimore and promised, “I will tell you, as your president, that will stop.” She later added, “Economic opportunity must be there for everyone.”
O’Rourke cited his own family’s troubled history of owning slaves and condemned it, then noted, “Our country was built on the backs of those who were brought here by force.” On her reparations program, Williamson called it, “It is $200 to $500 billion payment of debt that is owed.”
Lemon then confronted Sanders on his opposition to cash payments to African-Americans as part of a reparation program. He pivoted to promising, “We will rebuild distressed communities throughout America.” He more specifically promised more investment in public schools serving communities of color and better teacher pay.
6:50 PM: Economic justice
After a commercial break, Lemon asked Ryan if he will continue Trump’s steel tariffs. He answered, “I think we need some targeted action against China,” and promised something involving a “Chief Manufacturing Officer”. Lemon pressed further, and Ryan left the door open to continuing at least some of these tariffs.
After Delaney boasted, “I’m the only one running for president who actually supports the Trans Pacific Partnership,” Warren rebutted, “We’ve had trade policies that have been written by giant multinational corporations.” She then warned, “If they can save money by moving a plant to Vietnam [and cutting wages for workers there], they’ll do it,” and she promised a different trade agenda that includes better environmental, workplace, and human rights rules.
After Delaney claimed Warren’s an isolationist, she countered that she wants global trade that’s fairer trade for all sides. “Make them pay their workers more. Raise their environmental standards,” she said. “It’s just not working for the United States.”
Sanders said, “Elizabeth is right,” and he also voiced support for fairer trade policies. Hickenlooper declared, “Trade wars are for losers,” but spoke more about ending Trump’s tariffs then addressing the Warren and Sanders v. Delaney trade fight.
7:00 PM: More economy
O’Rourke said something about Trump’s tariffs sucking, and Bullock seemed to concur while also going for a “lite version” of the fair trade ideas Warren and Sanders have offered. Buttigieg mostly sidestepped the trade issue and instead promised action to adapt the nation’s labor laws and job training programs for the internet era and the “gig economy”.
Delaney seemed to offer Warren an olive branch by saying, “I think the wealthy need to pay more,” but then poked her with it by claiming her wealth tax plan will be “stuck in the Supreme Court”. She countered, “$0.02. Think of what we can pay with this $0.02.” She listed the various programs she wants to pay with her wealth tax, from universal pre-K to free college. “It tells us how bad it is that the wealthy won’t let us take $0.02 to invest in America.”
After Buttigieg tried to sidestep a direct answer on Dana Bash’s question on whether all student loan debt be forgiven, Sanders doubled down on his free college and debt forgiveness programs as part of his “political revolution.” Williamson then said, “I agree with Bernie,” and she pointed out tax benefits shifting to the top while shanking the bottom. She then chided the centrists on the stage for “thinking there’s something wrong with using the instruments of government to help people”.
7:10: More economy and college, then foreign policy
O’Rourke declared, “I support free two-year college,” like it’s such a revolutionary idea. (Barack Obama pushed that idea when he was president.) Klobuchar then derided “government subsidies for rich people who go to college.”
When Tapper tried to compare Sanders’ and Trump’s respective foreign policy platforms and claimed Sanders’ stance on military intervention is close to Trump’s, Sanders rebutted, “Trump is a pathological liar. I tell the truth.” He continued, “We need a foreign policy that focuses on diplomacy,” as he criticized Trump’s erratic and uneven threats of war and promises of peace.
When asked about Klobuchar’s promise to meet with more world leaders rather than rely upon military confrontation, Ryan declared, “I like Amy, but she is wrong. I don’t believe Presidents of the United States meet with dictators. She responded by pointing toward the loss of lives experienced during the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. She criticized Trump’s “I believe we need to meet with people, but we’d better have an agenda.”
7:15 PM: More foreign policy
As an Afghanistan War veteran himself, Buttigieg has a unique perspective on this stage. “We need to talk not just about presidents committing us to endless war, but also the fact that Congress has been asleep at the switch.” He promised a three-year sunset on all authorizations of military force going forward. O’Rourke seemed to agree: “We do not need endless war around the world. […] We can resolve these matters peacefully.”
Hickenlooper disagreed, cautioning, “You will see a humanitarian disaster that will startle every man and woman in this country.” He claimed “tremendous progress” in Afghanistan in stating his desire to maintain U.S. troop presence there.
Warren disagreed with Hickenlooper (again), and she addressed nuclear policy in stating that under a Warren administration, “The United States is not going to use nuclear weapons preemptively, and we need to say this to the entire world. […] This puts us all at risk.” She continued, “Our military is the best on earth, but we should not be asking them to take on problems that do not have a military solution.”
Bullock said he wants to maintain Trump’s stance of threatening preemptive nuclear strikes “if necessary”. He said, “We should not take that off the table. It’s a matter of American strength.” Warren countered, “It puts the entire world at risk. It puts us at risk,” if the U.S. continues to set the example for saber-rattling and stockpiling nuclear weapons.
7:35 PM: Closing arguments
Bullock closed with another boilerplate campaign ad line: “I’m running for president to beat Donald Trump […] and reassure people that in an economy and Washington that’s left them behind, I’ll be there.” Williamson countered by saying, “We need a radical truth teller.” She continued, “You keep talking about fighting Donald Trump. He fights with dog whistles. You can’t fight dog whistles. You have to override them. You can only override them with new voices.”
Delaney compared himself to President John F. Kennedy, then sang more paeans to “the private sector” and “unity”. Ryan got meta, criticized the “mainstream media” and their sad punditry, then talked about solutions he rarely specified during his time on the stage. Hickenlooper then said something about a “healthier and more secure future.”
Klobuchar used the story of someone whose mother passed away from opioid addiction to argue she’s someone who can actually deliver solutions for people like them. O’Rourke lamented, “We are as divided and polarized a country as ever,” and pointed to his track record in El Paso as proof of his commitment to fix this. Buttigieg then made another argument on age and youth.
Warren diagnosed the disease plaguing the nation: “We have a government on the side of the rich and powerful.” She used the rest of her closing argument prescribing the medicine: “How do we beat it? We beat it by being the party of big, structural change […] and being the party of building a grassroots movement across America.” She added, “I will not only beat Donald Trump in 2020. I will bring real change in 2021.” Sanders concurred: “We need a mass political movement,” and he directed the audience to his website to sign up and volunteer.
7:45 PM: Finally, my grades and closing thoughts!
Elizabeth Warren: A+
Bernie Sanders: A-
Pete Buttigieg: B+
Amy Klobuchar: B+
Marianne Williamson: B+
Beto O’Rourke: C+
John Hickenlooper: C-
Steve Bullock: D+
Tim Ryan: F
John Delaney: F
Just like last time, John Delaney concern trolled the left to “own the lib’s”, and maybe he’ll eventually be rewarded with a Fox News contract. Tim Ryan and John Hickenlooper were nearly as annoying with their concern trolling, but at least more Democratic voters might remember who Hickenlooper is. Steve Bullock talked a big game going into tonight’s debate, but his big talk translated into a whole lot of nothing on that stage. And while Beto O’Rourke did better tonight, better may not be enough to undo all the damage his campaign has suffered over the past four months. In contrast Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg upped their game tonight, and they generally did a better job of offering a more centrist path for the party than their fellow centrists.
However, this may have been the best debate performance I’ve ever seen from Bernie Sanders. If he keeps this up, he may yet reverse his recent struggles to break through the noise involving several of his rivals. And overall, the kind of aggressive progressive message of “political revolution” and “big, structural change” broke through while moderate criticism of such bold ideas just sounded broke and felt broken.
And once more, Night #1 is Elizabeth Warren’s night. But unlike last time, Warren was much more cogent in delivering her message throughout the program. If she keeps this up, I can easily see her making waves and becoming a powerful presence when the moment arrives of her, Sanders, Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris all sharing the same stage on the same night. Say it ain’t so, Joe?
Well, we’ll have to come back tomorrow night to see how their night goes. Until then, I’ll leave you with Edward R. Murrow’s classic line: “Good night, and good luck.”