Congratulations, we finally made it to the second round of debates. We listened to 10 of the 25 Democratic presidential candidates last night, and we’ll hear from 10 more candidates tonight. 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 this party started.
First, let’s review Night 1: “Centrist White Guy Caucus” = broke, Bernie = woke, Elizabeth = bespoke
As we discussed at great lengths last night, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) nailed it at the CNN Debate in Detroit. When she told former Rep. John Delaney (D-Maryland), “I genuinely do not understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States just to talk about what we can’t do and what we shouldn’t fight for,” she spoke for a large contingent of Democratic voters who are hungry for, dare I say, “big, structural change”.
And when Warren added, “We can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in. Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it,” she cut to the heart of the “electability” discussions happening within the Democratic Party this year. Should the party try to adapt to the polls suggesting voters want a more “middle-of-the-road” approach, or should the party try changing the poll numbers and changing voters’ hearts and minds with ideas that really move people?
Between Warren’s dressing down of the “Centrist White Guy Caucus” (Delaney, Rep. Tim Ryan [D-Ohio], Montana Governor Steve Bullock [D], and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper [D]) and fellow Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) citation of poll numbers showing he can beat President Donald Trump and the policies he’s long embraced are gaining traction among voters inside and outside the party, they turned the tables on the moderates and left them having to defend their “fairy tales” and “wish lists”.
It’s increasingly likely that none of those four will make it to the ABC-Univision Debate in Houston this September, so last night may have just been a sort of dress rehearsal for the near future. Since former Vice President Joe Biden will almost certainly be invited to more debates, tonight will be worth watching just to compare and contrast his efforts to defend his more moderate platform with the full-throated case for big, bold, progressive change that Warren and Sanders made last night. In addition to 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 are on tonight. 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?).
5:10 PM: Here we go again!
In the words of famed philosopher Nene Leakes, I aim to never make the same mistake twice, so tonight I came prepared with a bottle of Sonoma Chardonnay. Unfortunately CNN hasn’t learned this lesson, as we were again subjected to a nearly 15-minute-long spectacle of opening credits, candidate introductions, the national anthem and presentation of colors, and early commercial break, followed by opening statements.
“For the working people of America, tonight I bring you hope.” That’s how Bill de Blasio opened opening remarks, along with direct attacks on Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Next up, Michael Bennet: “I love America, and I know we can make it better.” He touched upon his pre-Senate job at Denver Public Schools to contrast himself with “a president [Trump] who doesn’t give a damn about your kids or mine”. Bennet gave us early nominees for best zingers of the night with, “Kids belong in classrooms, not cages,” and, “Empty promises won’t beat Trump. I can.”
As expected, Jay Inslee opened with his “big, bold, ambitious” climate action plan “We can defeat the climate crisis. Let’s get to work!” Keeping on the theme on hard work, Kirsten Gillibrand spoke of her mother’s hard work and her own work ethic as she stated, “If you want to get something done, just tell me it’s impossible.” She added, “Beating Donald Trump is not impossible. We need someone who will take on the tough fights and win.”
5:20 PM: More opening statements
“I know what patriotism is. […] Donald Trump is not behaving like a patriot.” That’s from Tulsi Gabbard’s opening statement, along with, “Fighting for justice and equality for all.” Considering Gabbard’s controversial history on foreign policy and civil rights, that’s quite the bold move for her.
Julián Castro touched upon the kind of generational change theme that we normally see from Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg when he stated, “I don’t want to make America anything again. I don’t want us to move backward.” Andrew Yang said something about himself being “an Asian man who likes math,” and he cited the automation trend in the workforce to pitch his universal basic income plan.
Cory Booker asked, “Who are we as a people?,” seconds after a group of protesters heckled the debate and had to be removed from the room. Kamala Harris followed that up with, “Who are we? […] We are better than this.” “We must fight for the best of who we are, and fight for it we will.”
Joe Biden finished opening time with, “Mr. President, this is America. America is better because of our diversity, not despite it.”
5:30 PM: Health care
Dana Bash actually began the debate by asking Kamala Harris about her “Medicare for All” plan that’s not really single-payer, but rather a more regulated mixed system akin to that of France. She said, “The bottom line is this: Access to health care must be a right, not a privilege.”
Joe Biden then heckled her with, “The Senator has had multiple health care responses so far. […] You can’t beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan.” He claimed her plan costs $2 trillion, then $3 trillion, and that, “It requires middle-class taxes to go up.”
Harris retorted, “The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive.” She noted national health care costs will soon reach $6 trillion when she rebutted, “We must act.”
Bill de Blasio then declared, “I don’t know who the Senator or the Vice President are talking to, as folks are telling me their health insurance isn’t working for them. They’re wishing they had better insurance, and they’re mad they [pay more for] private insurance.”
5:35 PM: More health care
Biden insisted, “My response is Obamacare is working.” He added, “My plan costs $750 billion,” in contrast to the higher price tags for the “Medicare for All” single-payer plans.
Dana Bash invited Kirsten Gillibrand into the mix, and she cited her own son’s early health care scare when she declared, “Health care should be a right.” She tag-teamed with de Blasio and essentially picked up where Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders left off, and pivoted to attacking Republicans when she said, “They want to take away your health care by making it harder to afford it.”
Harris jumped back in and noted former HHS Secretary (under President Barack Obama) has endorsed her “Medicare for All” hybrid plan. After Biden poo-pooed single-payer some more, Bash asked Cory Booker whether his “I like ‘Medicare for All’ but I won’t do away with private insurance” means he likes Harris’ plans. He sidestepped, instead saying, “You always keep your eyes on the prize. […] Everyone should have access to health care.” Booker essentially played peacekeeper on the stage.
5:40 PM: Even more health care
“The reality is we don’t have a health care system. We have a sick care system.” Gabbard then clocked Harris for consulting Sebelius, who now works for a private insurer. Harris corrected her and said Sebelius had no role in creating her health care plan. After Biden finally spoke more about his own plan, Jake Tapper asked Michael Bennet whether “Medicare for All” will get Trump reelected. Bennet answered in the affirmative, and he claimed Harris’ plan may be illegal and that it takes away people’s right to choose (le sigh).
Julián Castro gave a succinct case for single-payer when he simply said, “I want to strengthen Medicare for the people who are on it and offer it to the people who want it.” Honestly, his explanation, de Blasio’s, and Gillibrand’s make more sense than the gobbledy-goop that some of the others on this stage have already fallen into.
Harris explained that her plan offers choice, as people will get to choose a public Medicare plan or a private Medicare(-compliant) plan. After I took a much-needed sip of my Chardonnay (nice balance of buttery and lemony), Jay Inslee got to talk about health care and humble-brag about Washington State’s successes in building their Obamacare system and improving on it (with a public option).
After Yang said something that sounded supportive of single-payer, de Blasio jumped back in and tried his best Warren (or is it Sanders?) impression by asking, “Why are we not going to be the party that does something bold?” He then noted, “Donald Trump won Michigan by promising to disrupt the status quo. How about we break the status quo!”
5:50 PM: Even more health care??!!… Then immigration
After Bennet concern trolled some more on single-payer, de Blasio shouted back some facts and figures on the Americans who still don’t have health insurance now. Biden finally brought in one of his trademark lines in saying, “This whole idea is a bunch of malarkey that we’re talking about here!,” before insulting the states of New York and California.
Harris rebutted Biden by stating her “Medicare for All” plan actually addresses the core problem of people who can not afford health care. Biden responded with another of his trademark lines, “Here’s the deal,” then said something about gold plans (as in, the top-tier plans offered on Obamacare exchanges).
Castro then got a question from Tapper on his newsmaking immigration reform plan. Castro declared, “If you elect me president, you won’t elect me to follow. You’ll elect me to lead.” He said repealing Section 1345 (or the criminalization of undocumented border crossing) is necessary to prevent any further human rights abuses like we’re seeing from the Trump administration now.
Bennet said his own grandparents immigrated to America to escape the horrors of the Holocaust, then pivoted to his work as part of the “Gang of Eight” to craft the “border security” heavy 2013 comprehensive immigration reform plan.
5:55 PM: More immigration
Harris agreed with Castro (again), then stated, “These children [being incarcerated at prison camps] have not committed crimes, and should not be treated as criminals!” Gillibrand concurred in saying, “He’s using it as a crutch to lock up women and children. […] We should make sure we treat children humanely.”
As Biden began to talk about immigration, another group of protesters disrupted the program. Biden then tried to sidestep Tapper’s question on the many deportations that happened under Obama’s watch by talking about preventing the need for Central American refugees to escape to here before he finally admitted he disagrees with Castro.
Castro rebutted Biden in noting all the “border security” that already exists. Biden’s response? “When people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless they seek asylum.” He then said the imperative here is “beating Donald Trump,” which apparently for Biden means some variation of “Trump-lite”.
After Gabbard said something that felt like background noise, Andrew Yang rebutted Trump’s claims that immigrants “take away Americans’ jobs” by noting, “When you go to a factory in Michigan, you will not find immigrants. You will find wall-to-wall robots and machines.” Booker then stood up for Castro and Harris and warned, “We are butchering American values,” if Democrats accept Trump’s framing of immigrants as “criminals”.
6:05 PM: More immigration
After Biden said something that sounded like a typical Democratic general election campaign ad, Jay Inslee tried to make a point. De Blasio then insisted, “We need comprehensive immigration reform once and for all,” and he agreed with Castro on decriminalizing undocumented border crossings.
De Blasio then asked Biden what exactly his alternative is. Biden said something about “pathway to citizenship” that sounded like he’s partying like it’s still 2008. Don Lemon then asked Gabbard about free college for DREAMers, and she seemed to agree with the concept.
De Blasio jumped in and demanded Biden give a clearer answer on border crossings and the enforcement regime Trump is deploying against immigrant communities. Biden said, “More must be done [for what?],” but Booker responded, “Everyone has worth and dignity.” Biden also suggested he couldn’t say what he discussed with Obama, implicitly declaring any fault progressives find with Obama’s immigration record shouldn’t apply to Biden (after Biden has generally claimed all of Obama’s successes are also his).
Gillibrand then cited the real, human toll of criminalizing immigrants when she noted, “President Trump, in his administration, seven children died in this country. […] We must not forget about our values! We must not forget the least of those in our country!” If her debate performance (tonight and NBC in June) doesn’t get more Democrats to pay more attention to Gillibrand, one of the only candidates to release a comprehensive immigration reform plan early this cycle (along with Castro), I don’t know what will.
6:15: Racial justice, reparations, and criminal justice
When asked why Biden opposes Cory Booker’s plan to develop reparations for descendants of slaves, Biden said, “I’m happy to discuss my plan in detail,” that is some kind of list of targeted investments meant to help struggling communities of color. He also claimed Booker essentially adopted the Rudy Giuliani “stop and frisk”/“tough on crime” approach of mass incarcerating young people of color while he was Mayor of Newark.
Booker accused Biden of distorting his record, then noted, “I actually led the push to get into law” criminal justice reform in the Senate last year. Biden claimed the First Step Act was just a step on top of the Obama administration’s criminal justice reform agenda (so now, he’s taking credit for Obama’s record again), then Booker said the ACLU and other civil rights groups endorsed his approach to community policing in Newark.
Castro sided with Booker in this fight, then Inslee tried to sidestep that fight and instead tout his record in Washington State. Both Inslee and Castro cited the death of Eric Garner and the failure to prosecute the New York City police officer who killed him as reason for change.
That suddenly put de Blasio in the hot seat, but he tried to pass the buck to the federal Justice Department for failing to prosecute the police officer who killed Eric Garner. De Blasio again charged at Biden, and Biden again sought to take credit for Obama and claim Obama made fixes to the problem.
6:25 PM: More criminal justice reform
“We can’t tear each other down. We have to beat Donald Trump.” Who said that? Not Joe Biden. Not Cory Booker. No, that was Andrew Yang, who also clumsily tried to pivot the conversation to his UBI plan.
Gillibrand, on the other hand, stayed on the subject and found a way to clock Biden and de Blasio for their respective failures on this matter. On Eric Garner’s killer, who’s still on the NYPD force now, Gillibrand stated, “No. He should be fired. He should be fired now!”
Harris also has a troubled past on criminal justice in her home state of California. She sought to sidestep that and instead hone in on the Trump administration’s overriding of Justice Department civil servants who insisted upon prosecuting Garner’s killer.
Biden saw Harris’ joining of the conversation as an opportunity to bring out the skeletons in Harris’ closet as he cited federal courts’ orders that California release some 1,000 people who were eligible for parole but were being kept in overcrowded prisons instead. Gabbard concurred with Biden and added Harris’ prior opposition to repealing the cash bail requirement. Gabbard even brought out perhaps the biggest skeleton in Harris’ closet: The people who were sent to California’s death row on faulty evidence.
6:30 PM: More on racial justice
When Don Lemon asked how he intends to “heal the racial divide”, Bennet tried to pivot to Trump, then condemn his rivals’ arguments over their past records: “Our schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago. We need to have the conversation on what’s happening now!” Bennet added, “Let’s fix our school system, and then we can end the prison pipeline!”
Inslee then addressed his own straight white male privilege and acknowledged his responsibility to speak out against bigotry anywhere and everywhere. He then pivoted to U.S. Senate procedures and warned that “nothing will get done” unless the filibuster is finally done away with. Inslee warned, “Not a damn thing will get done if they get elected president unless we get rid of the filibuster because of Mitch McConnell.”
After Yang again tried to pivot the discussion to his UBI plan, Castro returned it to racial justice: “First of all, the president is a racist.” He also spoke of the need to address institutionalized racism on everything from policing to housing.
Gillibrand then concurred with Inslee: “I believe as a white woman of privilege, it is also my responsibility to lift up these voices.” She promised action on criminal justice reform and economic justice that’s also racial justice, and she exclaimed, “Together, we can make our communities stronger.”
6:40 PM: Climate change
On his signature cause, Inslee warned, “We have to act now.” He added, “Middle ground solutions, like [Biden] has offered, will not solve this crisis.” Biden insisted he’s not just interested in “middle ground”, but Yang suggested he’s mainly just interested in UBI.
Inslee and Biden ignored Yang and instead went at each other. Biden insisted, “We will end any subsidies for fossil fuels,” but left out the wiggle room he included in his plan for “carbon capture” and nuclear power. Inslee responded, “Our planet is on fire. We have to stop using coal!”
Harris agreed with Inslee, then said, “I’ll accept any Democrat on this stage over Trump,” then mentioned her support for the Green New Deal. Gillibrand then described how she’ll make the Green New Deal happen, beginning with “Clorox the Oval Office,” reentering the U.S. into global climate agreements, and engaging Congress to pass the kind of climate plan that will meet scientists’ recommendations for fast decarbonization of the economy.
When asked why Gabbard has not endorsed the Green New Deal, she said something that sounds like support for the Green New Deal. Booker then declared, “Climate change is not a separate issue. […] It must be everyone’s issue,” as he explained why a Green New Deal with job guarantees and massive investments are necessary.
6:45 PM: More climate change and environmental justice
When Dana Bash confronted de Blasio on New York City’s public housing lead crisis, de Blasio again sought to shift blame to the federal government for failing to act. He insisted, “We do not accept the status quo. We fix it.”
Castro, who was Obama’s HUD Secretary, responded, “You don’t have to wonder what I will do. I’ve done it.” He said that during his time at HUD, the federal government did act.
Then when Jake Tapper confronted Biden with Warren’s call for “big, structural change” over “spinelessness” last night, Biden insisted he made sure Obama invested in Michigan, starting with the auto industry bailout that reinvigorated the American auto industry.
6:50 PM: Economic justice
When Tapper asked about how Democrats win back Michigan, Gillibrand insisted, “I offer real solutions,” and noted her track record of winning traditionally Republican-heavy areas of New York. Then, Andrew Yang finally answered a question in a way that didn’t just push his UBI plan.
Gabbard insisted, “I’m speaking the truth that people in Flint, Michigan, are still being left behind, still being poisoned,” and claimed that America’s large military budgets and endless wars are diverting funds that would otherwise be invested in communities like Flint. Booker then promised to fight voter suppression in Michigan and nationwide.
Harris actually pointed out the Federal Reserve’s decision to cut interest rates and their admission that the 25 basis point rate cut is needed to counteract Trump’s trade wars. She cited this as proof that Trump’s failed to deliver on his promise to “bring back the jobs”.
7:00 PM: More economy, and taxes
After another commercial break, Dana Bash basically gave Trump material for one of his campaign ads when asking whether Democrats’ tax plans could harm the country. Castro said, “Thank you, Barack Obama,” in noting the economic recovery began under his watch.
Bash then asked Gabbard about the TPP and global trade policy. Gabbard condemned the TPP in saying, “It gave away our sovereignty to a panel of multinational corporations,” and invited Biden to rebut her. And yet, Gabbard also said Trump’s tariffs are the wrong way to address trade imbalances.
And then, “Union Guy” Joe Biden defended the trade agreements that unions have generally derided. However, he soon flip-flopped on TPP and insisted he would not rejoin it “as it was presented”. De Blasio once again came for Biden and asked him if he still supports NAFTA. “Union Guy” Joe Biden said he does, but also said, “Labor must be engaged.”
7:05 PM: More economy
Bash asked a viewer question on technology, automation, and how to protect people’s jobs from Silicon Valley disruption. Bennet exclaimed, “We’ve got to invest in America again,” and he essentially accused Biden of being part of the “Washington establishment” who “set money on fire” with “bad deals” (such as the 2011 Budget Control Act and 2012-13 “Fiscal Cliff” fix) instead of solving our long-term crises.
Then, talk shifted to the gender pay gap. Yang said words, then Harris said, “I’m done with the conversation.” She instead offered her suite of executive actions to close the pay gap.
Gillibrand confronted Biden with his own words from 1981, “Women who work outside the home create a deterioration of the family,” and asked whether Biden stands by those words now. Biden responded by pivoting to his $8,000 child tax credit plan.
Gillibrand pushed Biden again to answer her question on whether he still opposes women choosing to be working mothers. He again sidestepped it and again took credit for Obama White House executive actions.
7:15 PM: Women’s rights, then foreign policy
Harris then backed up Gillibrand and expanded the conversation to Biden’s past support for the Hyde Amendment to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care. He again sidestepped.
After Inslee again tried to humble-brag about Washington State, Jake Tapper shifted the conversation to foreign policy. Booker insisted he wouldn’t conduct foreign policy via Twitter, and Gabbard insisted her experience fighting a war has taught her that war is not the answer. When asked about Iran and nuclear proliferation, Yang (again!) tried to make it about his UBI plan.
Biden then engaged in some revisionist history, proclaiming, “From the moment ‘Shock and Awe’ started, I was opposed to the effort” to expand the 2003 Iraq War battlefront, notwithstanding Biden’s vote to authorize that war in October 2002 and long refusal to apologize for doing so. He also claimed he opposed the Afghanistan War troop surge, which occurred (checks calendar) under Obama’s watch from 2009 to 2011.
7:25 PM: Trump and the rule of law
When asked about the current White House, Harris declared, “I believe no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States,” and re-upped for support for impeaching Trump and prosecuting him once he leaves office. Booker concurred: “I believe we in Congress must start impeachment proceedings immediately.” He added, “Politics be damned. The president is acting like an authoritarian leader. What are we doing to stop it?”
De Blasio and Bennet disagreed. Bennet said, “I believe we have a moral obligation to beat Donald Trump. […] We can’t do anything that plays into his hands.” Castro retorted that the Mueller Report points out crimes that were committed, and that it would be a moral and political failure not to act.
On that note, CNN subjected us to another commercial break. Really?
7:35 PM: Closing statements, finally
De Blasio insisted, “For us to beat Donald Trump, we have to stand for something.” Basically, returned to form as some kind of low-rent version of Warren and/or Sanders and pitched his new website (taxthehell.com?). Bennet then tried to offer a more polished version of what the “Centrist White Guy Caucus” offered last night and said, “I believe we all have the potential to be incredible.”
Inslee again pleaded for climate action. Gillibrand was done pleading: “I’m running for president because I want to help people, and I actually have the experience and the ability to do that.” She also insisted she can beat Trump: “I’m not afraid of the big challenges and the big fights.” Oh, but wait, she did plead with the audience to go to her website and help her meet the donor requirement for the ABC-Univision Debate in Houston.
Gabbard cited the “There is no shelter. It is all a lie. As president, I will end the insanity [of endless wars].”
7:40 PM: More closing statements
Castro declared, “This election is about what kind of nation we will become.” He also said, “Donald Trump has not been bashful in his cruelty, but I will not be bashful in my common sense and compassion.” And he also pleaded with viewers to go to his website to get him to Houston in September.
Yang again spoke of automation and technological change as reasons to make his UBI plan a reality. Booker zoomed out some more in pointing out the growing inequality crisis. He also rebutted Biden and the other centrists for claiming our only problem is Donald Trump occupying the White House: “That is the floor and not the ceiling. The way we beat Donald Trump is not to focus on him. […] Our common bonds and common purpose will save us now.”
Next up, Kamala Harris: “Donald Trump has a predatory nature. […] Predators are cowards. What we need is someone who can make the [general election] debate stage and prosecute the case against Donald Trump.” She added, “We must defeat him, and turning the page, write the next chapter,” and she suggested her “3:00 AM Agenda” will make for a great next chapter.
Biden basically amplified Booker’s closing argument by dismissing Trump as “an aberration” so long as Biden beats Trump next year. He also repeated the usual closing argument he makes at his campaign rallies.
7:50 PM: Finally, my grades!
Kirsten Gillibrand: A
Cory Booker: A
Julián Castro: A-
Michael Bennet: B+
Kamala Harris: B+
Jay Inslee: B
Tulsi Gabbard: B
Andrew Yang: B-
Joe Biden: C+
Bill de Blasio: C+
Unlike last night, no one really bombed on this stage. Yet also unlike last night, no one had a huge breakout moment like Elizabeth Warren did on the CNN stage in Detroit. Even Julián Castro had a little less pizazz this time than he did when he shared the stage with Warren in Miami last month, though he did turn in an overall solid performance with a solid command of the issues and real empathy.
If there are any emerging stars from tonight’s lineup, they’re the two other Northeastern Senators: Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand. Both married real emotional fervor with real, logical policy prescriptions for the nation. If Warren and Sanders started the conversation on curing the disease of Trumpism with big, bold, progressive change, Booker and Gillibrand finished it (at least when it comes to these debates, until we get to Houston). And while Kamala Harris tried to get in on this talk, she faltered tonight when trying to explain her hybrid health care plan that’s meant to bridge the divide between the centrists’ slow build upon Obamacare and Warren’s and Sanders’ insistence upon real single-payer “Medicare for All”.
Again, no one really bombed tonight, but Biden again turned in an underwhelming performance. While he was more forceful in turning back incoming from Booker, Harris, and some of the others, he was campaigning like it was 2008 when the rest of us are looking toward 2020 and beyond. And by the way, Biden ran against Obama that cycle until Obama won the Iowa Caucus and Biden dropped out that night.
I hope you appreciated our latest and greatest debate recap. We’ll talk more in the days ahead, especially as these candidates return to Nevada very soon. Until then, let’s sip some more wine and enjoy the night while we can.