Congratulations, we finally made it to the first 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 last night, and another featuring another 10 candidates tonight. Because this is also the first week of summer and the week before the July 4 holiday, I’m in “zero f–ks mode” again, so let’s just get into this already.
First, let’s quickly review last night’s action: Beto = broke, Elizabeth = woke, Julián = bespoke
If for whatever reason you missed Part 1, you can review all my notes here. Basically, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro turned in stellar debate performances and cemented their respective roles as progressive policy leaders in this 2020 presidential field. And for the most part, fellow Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) also had a great night in that he often stole the show and managed to demonstrate his own policy chops while also proving that good policy is far from “boring”.
Then, there was the other Texas Democrat in this race: former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. There’s no sugarcoating this: He bombed. The former media darling had a prime opportunity to breathe new life into his comatose presidential campaign by proving he’s more than just a political fad. Instead, his word salad, non-answer answers (in English y en español!) only strengthened many Democratic voters’ fear that he lives down to that old Texas idiom, “All hat, no cattle.”
As for the others, they occasionally had good moments and were mostly forgettable the rest of the time. Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) proved that he could talk about more than just climate change, but he walked himself into a trap by claiming he’s done more to protect women’s reproductive rights than the women on the debate stage. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) gave a great clapback on that, but she herself faltered later on, when she couldn’t answer Rachel Maddow’s question on racial justice. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) delivered surprisingly strong answers on foreign policy (considering her controversial stance on Russia and Syria), but her attempt to explain her past hostility to LGBTQ+ civil rights was painful to watch.
All in all, the big takeaways from last night are that Warren proved she’s a formidable frontrunner, Castro and Booker proved they are anything but “also-ran’s”, and O’Rourke may have proven his critics correct with his cringeworthy performance. Tonight, it’s their turn to debate: Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Kamala Harris (D-California), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California), former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D), spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, and tech investor Andrew Yang. For those of you who wanted to see Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts), and/or Miramar (Florida) Mayor Wayne Messam on the stage this week, they didn’t make the final cut. On this note, let’s get on with the show!
6:00 PM (Pacific): Here we go again!
Just as I began sipping my French Rosé (not sweet, but not too dry either), NBC News’ Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie welcomed us back to Miami. Guthrie started with Bernie Sanders by asking him what she asked Elizabeth Warren last night about expanding the social safety net and how to pay for it. Sanders insisted, “We have a new vision for America. […] We think it is time for change, real change,” and insisted “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, universal free college, and higher taxes on Wall Street transactions constitute such “real change”… And that the wealthy and middle-class will have to pay more in taxes, but middle-class households will ultimately save by paying less for health care and education.
Next up, Joe Biden on his recent and controversial private fundraiser comments. He insisted, “We’ve got to be straightforward,” but then he ignored his own advice in pivoting to talking about how horrible President Donald Trump is.
Then, Kamala Harris flipped the script on Guthrie by asking why Trump hasn’t faced more scrutiny over his budget numbers failing to add up. She then explained her own plan to allow $500 per month in tax benefits for working-class families.
John Hickenlooper was next, and he confirmed he’d fill the role John Delaney played last night in fear-mongering over the word “socialism”. Are you scared yet? (FYI, I’m being sarcastic here. Yes, joke!)
6:10 PM: Oooh, scary, socialism!
So far, Sanders has been off to a strong start. In responding to Biden’s and Hickenlooper’s concern trolling on “socialism”, Sanders flipped the script and noted how “unelectable” we all used to think Trump was.
Kirsten Gillibrand then jumped in to assist Sanders and perhaps clear up concerns from some on the left over her evolution into progressivism: “The truth is there’s a big difference between capitalism on one end and greed on the other […] It’s been about profits over people.” Let’s see if she can assert herself like this more often.
Here we go again with the other Colorado Centrist, Michael Bennet, concern trolling on “socialism”. And hey, here’s Gillibrand asserting herself again! “I wrote the part in Senator Sanders’ bill that details the transition [from private insurance to single-payer],” she noted.
6:15 PM: More economy
So Pete Buttigieg placed himself firmly in the “anti-socialist” camp by poo-poo-ing universal free college. Eric Swalwell said something that may have been part of the DCCC’s talking points in the recent past. Andrew Yang then popped in to explain why rising automation necessitates his universal basic income (UBI) plan, and he offered a European style value added tax (VAT) to help pay for it.
Swalwell then tried to use Biden’s 1987 comments against him in saying, “It’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.” Biden’s response? “I’m still holding the torch.” Biden then highlighted a suite of policies that sounded intriguing when Obama proposed them seven years ago, but feel much more centrist now.
Sanders, Gillibrand, and maybe a couple others then tried shouting over each other before Sanders overpowered everyone else to shout something. Harris then told them all off: “America doesn’t want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’ll help them put food on the table!”
“You have people in America who are working two jobs or more […] No one should have to work more than one job to have a roof over their head and food on the table.” In this round, Harris got some mojo at the expense of the centrists trying to pile onto Sanders.
6:20 PM: Health care, and the great debate on “Medicare for All”
So who supports true single-payer? Sanders and Harris raised their hands in support of eventual abolition of private (primary?) insurance. Gillibrand then tried some nuance in saying competition between private insurance and a more affordable public plan will likely result in a less tumultuous transition to “Medicare for All”, and Buttigieg pretty much piggybacked on her explanation.
Biden spoke of his late son Beau’s tragic death from brain cancer to explain why he wants health care solutions now, which he believes does not involve “Medicare for All”. “I oppose anyone who tries to take down Obamacare,” he exclaimed.
Lester Holt then asked Sanders about the 900 pound gorillas in the room, in the form of California Democrats’ and Vermont Democrats’ failure thus far to make single-payer happen in their respective states. He didn’t really answer the question, but he did give an emotionally powerful cry for single-payer to rival Warren’s last night.
“We have a sickness care system in the United States”: So Marianne Williamson now agrees with Sanders and Harris on “Medicare for All”. Bennet still doesn’t, and he spoke about his own recent cancer bout to explain why he also wants something more feasible.
6:30 PM: More health care
Bennet claimed Canada’s much smaller population means Sanders should stop pointing to Canada as proof that we can make it happen here. Sanders obviously disagreed, and he alluded to the many more nations that also have single-payer health care systems that work better than our mostly private-based care system.
Oh wait, Harris jumped in again: “On this issue, we have to think of how this affects real people.” She spoke of parents’ real fear of their children not getting the care they need, as well as the costs families face every day, to explain “Medicare for All” in a way that effectively debunks the “anti-socialism” fear-mongering.
Guthrie then asked everyone whether they want immigrants with undocumented status covered by their respective health care programs. Nearly everyone raised hands. Pete Buttigieg used this moment to pivot to immigration reform in declaring that Democrats need to rebuild consensus around a more humane, comprehensive plan.
Next up, Biden: “You can’t let some 11 million people go sick. You can’t do that.” He then explained why America will ultimately save money by ensuring everyone is covered.
6:40 PM: Immigration
José Diaz-Balart asked Harris about immigration. We got a sneak preview of her answer here in Southern Nevada earlier this month, when Harris unveiled a suite of executive actions to provide legal status to DREAMers and their families regardless of what Congress does or doesn’t pass. She declared, “We have to think of this issue in terms of freeing people,” then explained why refugees are coming here in search of a better life and how it’s un-American to turn them away, as Trump is doing now.
Hickenlooper was next, and he said a lot of the gobbledy-goop we’re used to hearing from a number of Democratic politicians on immigration. Williamson, on the other hand, was much clearer in her response: “What Donald Trump has done was kidnapping. […] These are state-sanctioned crimes.”
Gillibrand was next, and she upped the ante after Williamson: “He’s torn apart the moral fabric of who we are. […] We have to look at the children who have died under his custody.” She then showed off her policy chops here in explaining why his posturing on “border security” is counterproductive.
When Diaz-Balart asked them all to raise their hands if they agree with Julián Castro’s proposal to decriminalize undocumented border crossing, it appeared that all but Bennet raised their hands, though Biden seemed to raise his halfway. Buttigieg snuck in a good zinger in saying Trump has “lost all moral authority” and claims to “good Christian values” with his incarceration of refugee children.
6:45 PM: Foreign policy
Biden then defended Obama’s record on refugee treatment, which is more complicated than Biden wants us all to believe. Sanders and Harris were more willing to distinguish themselves and their own plans, as Sanders honed in on the foreign policy part of this problem (as in, our long history of meddling in Latin American affairs, and not always in a helpful way) while Harris pushed back on criminalizing or punishing refugees escaping extreme violence and poverty.
Next up, Bennet on what’s America’s biggest foreign policy challenge. Bennet said Trump is wrong in yelling about China while placating Russia, then he defended the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform plan that he helped push but has since gotten pushback from some progressives for giving away too much on “border security” spending while going too hard on immigrants.
Buttigieg then pivoted the stage to another controversial Trump foreign policy move: “Tariffs are taxes. We’re all paying them.” He then called upon the nation to return to our “democratic values at home” to show a better example for the rest of the world. Considering what’s been happening in South Bend lately, Buttigieg needs to heed his own advice better.
7:00 PM: Civil rights and racial justice
Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow took over again. So far, no “hot mic” or other technical difficulties. Maddow kicked off Hour 2 by addressing the other 900 pound gorilla in the room by asking Buttigieg about the police officer involved shooting.
“It’s a mess. We are hurting,” he acknowledged. He also acknowledged “systemic racism” in American law enforcement, but he sidestepped questions of his own role in allowing this to continue in South Bend. Interestingly enough, Hickenlooper was the first to clap back at Buttigieg. Williamson was next, and she used her clapback to pivot to her reparations plan.
Then, Kamala Harris jumped in: “This is an issue that is still not being talked about truthfully or honestly.” She spoke of her own struggle to overcome systemic racism, then she clapped back at Joe Biden for his controversial fundraiser comments on merrily working with segregationist Senators.
And Biden? “That’s a mischaracterization of my position.” He then proceeded to dismiss Harris’ comments on his prior comments. Then as he tried to blithely dismiss concerns over his campaign against “school busing” school integration in the 1970’s, Harris retorted, “It was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America!”
7:10 PM: More civil rights, including LGBTQ+ equality, then bipartisanship and process
Chuck Todd asked Bernie Sanders about his campaign’s general de-emphasizing of social justice. Sanders pretty much fell into Todd’s trap in saying nice things about “diversity”, but pivoting back to his usual economic message. Strangely enough, considering her stronger emphasis on social justice, Gillibrand mostly echoed Sanders here.
Then, Todd asked Michael Bennet about the current acrimonious state of American government. According to Bennet, “That will not disappear so long as Mitch McConnell is there.” He then said, “We face structural problems that we will have to overcome with a larger coalition,” as he explained why his centrist platform will make it easier for Democrats to win the House, the Senate, and the presidency next year.
Biden was next, and he boasted of his past deal-cutting in a way that proved Bennet’s point while also confirming what Sanders, Gillibrand, Harris, and last night’s progressives were warning about the relentless pursuit of “bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship”.
“We need to place elections back into the hands of the voters, not in the hands of the Koch Brothers.” Gillibrand’s plan for “clean money” campaign finance reform sounds way more feasible these days than “bipartisanship” magical thinking.
7:15 PM: Abortion and reproductive justice, then climate change
Rachel Maddow asked Bernie Sanders what he’ll do if Roe v. Wade is overturned. He used this as an opportunity to finally confirm that his “Medicare for All” plan will guarantee reproductive health care… After Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro beat him to that punch. Gillibrand’s very detailed answer (she has a plan!) serves as a stark contrast, in a good way for her.
“I don’t even call it climate change. It’s an existential threat”: Kamala Harris noted her own state’s recent suffering in explaining the fierce urgency of now on climate change. She also snuck in some foreign policy talk by throwing good shade at Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong-un while ignoring North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Buttigieg then tried his signature “values talk” on climate, but Harris already beat up to that punch.
Hickenlooper said something about “doom and failure,” which far too many in my generation and the next generation fear our current elected “leaders” are subjecting us to now. Biden then touted his climate plan, which has been appearing less impressive as time’s been marching on.
“The old ways are no longer relevant.” That’s actually a good line from Sanders, who got some mojo back here. But then again, Sanders doesn’t even have his own climate plan yet.
7:25 PM: What’s the most important issue that you’ll work on first?
Harris and Gillibrand kept it 100 with their respective “kitchen table” economic justice plans. Biden still wanted to talk about what Obama did. Hickenlooper said something about a “collaborative approach to climate change”. Yang said UBI, because of course he did. Williamson brought everyone back to the kitchen table by promising to make America “the best place in the world for children”.
Chuck Todd gave them all a C- for their longer answers, which were supposed to be two words or less. I disagree. Gillibrand, Harris, and Williamson broke the rule, but did so in a good way to explain why “family values” is an important issue that should be addressed ASAP. As for Biden, he’s keeping it old-school, but not in a good way.
7:35 PM: Gun violence
Rachel Maddow gave Eric Swalwell the first crack at gun violence prevention. What will he say to those concerned about “gun rights”? For Swalwell, “Keep your pistols. Keep your rifles. Keep your shotguns, but we’re taking the most dangerous weapons.”
Maddow then confronted Bernie Sanders with his own checkered past on this matter, but Sanders denied and deflected. Harris then jumped in to explain her suite of proposed executive action to tighten enforcement of gun laws regardless of what Congress does or doesn’t do.
Buttigieg gave another of his “values statements” that didn’t really state an answer to the question. Biden pointed to his prior track record as proof he’ll accomplish more.
7:40 PM: Rule of law vs. rule of Trump
Here, Bennet got to contrast the traditional Democratic Party (and formerly, traditional bipartisan consensus) foreign policy with Trump’s erratic and Putin-friendly approach.
When asked what their first foreign policy acts will be, Gillibrand stood out with her answer on avoiding war on Iran along with Bennet’s answer on engaging Central American nations more productively to solve the refugee crisis. The rest mostly stuck to the usual Democratic Party talking points on rebuilding ties with Europe and NATO.
Biden soon promised to bring the troops home from Afghanistan. Sanders soon seconded Gillibrand on preventing a new Iran War.
7:50 PM: Closing arguments
“You can’t be a forward looking party if you look to the past. I’m not changing diapers. I’m changing Washington.” Enough with the youth vs. age talk, Eric Swalwell. Seriously.
“Mr. President, you have harnessed fear for political purposes, but love will win out.” Marianne Williamson may be onto something here, though it’s hard to ignore some of the more “offbeat” comments she made earlier in the night.
“I believe we need to build a broad coalition of Americans to beat Donald Trump.” Agree or disagree with his plans, but at least Michael Bennet mostly articulated them in a way that felt way less cartoonish and offensively than John Delaney’s attempts to “own the libs” last night… Or, for that matter, what the other Colorado Centrist did.
“You don’t need big government to do big things.” This sounds like something Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) would have said four years ago, but instead it was John Hickenlooper tonight. WTF?!
“Now is not the time to play it safe. We need a president who’s brave enough to take on the toughest fights, even if she stands alone.” Damn, Kirsten Gillibrand brought it tonight.
“I am proof to our country that our democracy still works.” OK, Andrew Yang. (Huh?)
“This election is about you. This is about your hopes and your dreams.” Indeed, Kamala Harris spoke really well about this tonight. Really well. Take notes, everyone else.
“Nothing about our politics is theoretical.” Pete Buttigieg has a great personal narrative in so many ways, but he has yet to translate this into a coherent and believable vision for good governance.
“How come, for the last 45 years, wages have been stagnant for the middle class? […] Nothing will change unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street.” Bernie Sanders spoke a lot about his signature issue, and he at least survived while talking about other pressing matters.
“I am running for president because we need to restore the soul of this nation.” Perhaps Joe Biden’s “restore the soul” message would resonate better if he were to give Democratic voters reassurance that he won’t restore what’s been destroying our souls for far too long. Tonight was far from career-ending for him, but it also did nothing to strengthen his frontrunner status going forward.
And finally, my grades for the second batch of ten Democrats!
Kamala Harris: A+
Kirsten Gillibrand: A
Michael Bennet: A-
Bernie Sanders: B+
Pete Buttigieg: B
Marianne Williamson: B-
Eric Swalwell: C+
Joe Biden: C+
Andrew Yang: D+
John Hickenlooper: D
Of all the moderates running this cycle, Bennet did the best in articulating a plausible and acceptable alternative to the progressives’ bigger and bolder plans. For whatever reason, he seemed to land more often where Amy Klobuchar and Tim Ryan swung and missed last night.
Yet like last night, the progressives mostly fared better. And like last night, the progressive women stood tall. Kamala Harris not only proved why she should be seen as a formidable frontrunner, but she also proved that certain pundits’ obsession with “electability” (as in, straight white male centrist superiority) is complete and utter BS. She’s officially the biggest winner of both nights, with Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro as fairly close second place ties and Cory Booker not far behind them.
Again, this probably won’t kill Joe Biden’s campaign, but I suspect this debate will encourage more Democratic voters to explore more options and remember that they can demand more instead of settling for “the one who beats Trump” (as most of them have proven they have the potential to do).
Bernie Sanders beat Joe Biden on the debate stage tonight, but Sanders himself was surpassed by the candidates I mentioned above. Seriously, the pundits all need to look to the last two nights and reassess their “hot takes” on four white men being the be-all-and-end-all to this presidential race. And on that note, I’m signing off for now so I can enjoy the rest of my French Rosé and prepare for my big week ahead (more on that soon, I promise).