The first night of the first debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is over, with the first 10 candidates jousting Wednesday night in Miami.
Below are some winners and losers.
Elizabeth Warren: The senator from Massachusetts went into the debate with the biggest target on her back as the highest-polling candidate onstage Wednesday. But she largely skated. Other candidates didn’t seem to have the appetite to put her on the spot. After Warren got the first question, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N. J, got chances to offer differences with Warren on her proposals – free college, a huge tax increase on the wealthy, and breaking up big companies, respectively. None of them took the bait, with only Klobuchar offering something of a quibble – the idea that taxpayers pay for rich kids’ tuition – and even she didn’t actually tie that to Warren’s proposal. From that point on, Warren got a pass. And she used her platform to do what she has done to great effect on the campaign trail: talk about her bold, liberal policy ideas. It’s about the best she could have hoped for after being slotted onto the Joe Biden- and Bernie Sanders-free debate stage
Julian Castro: For someone on the periphery of much of the 2020 debate, he made a splash. He made a strong statement about the father and daughter who drowned this week in the Rio Grande, saying everyone should be “p—– off” about it. Later, after a joust with fellow Texan O’Rourke on immigration, other candidates emphasized their agreement with Castro. It’s a great sign when other candidates are straining to show they agree with you.
Bill de Blasio: Since making a late entry into the 2020 field, the New York mayor has been the butt of more than a few jokes in Washington and New York media. He’s also by far the most unpopular candidate in the field. But he was on his game: He cut in to get more time. He talked about having hard conversations with his black son. He talked about his father’s PTSD, which eventually led to suicide. And he made perhaps the most far-reaching case for government activism outside of Warren – exactly as he wanted.
Raise-your-hand questions: Candidates hate having to answer questions with yes-or-no answers, but sometimes moderators must make them. Good news – you can get all of them to do it at once. The NBC moderators asked the 10 candidates onstage whether their health care plans would get rid of private insurance in favor of single-payer health care. Only Warren and de Blasio raised their hand. Then they all discussed the details. It worked – and it can continue to for the right kind of question.
Klobuchar’s one-liners: The overall picture wasn’t a resounding success for her, but a couple of lines landed well, one well-improvised and one clearly planned. When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talked about being the only candidate to sign into law a reproductive rights bill, Klobuchar shot back, “I just want to say that there are three women here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” The audience erupted in applause. Then later, while talking about Iran, Klobuchar had maybe the line of the night on Trump: “I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
Spanish: It was probably inevitable that some candidates would speak it on the stage, and O’Rourke was quick to do so, followed by Booker. Even Castro, whose lack of fluency in Spanish as the only Latino candidate has been much-discussed, offered a brief bit of bilingualism. “I need to learn Spanish by tomorrow night at 9,” tweeted Marianne Williamson, who will debate Thursday night. “My Spanish is terrible,” her fellow Thursday-nighter Andrew Yang admitted in his own tweet.
O’Rourke: I wrote before the debate that O’Rourke was one of the candidates that needed the most out of it. He didn’t get it. Off the bat, he was asked a question about marginal tax rates and declined to offer a specific answer – instead offering a apparently prerehearsed Spanish monologue – and again he didn’t really answer after being offered a narrower question about a 70% tax rate supported by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Later, he was asked why he wasn’t willing to get rid of private health insurance, and he was challenged on it by de Blasio. Rather than offer a forceful defense, he was rescued by former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., who offered a much more studied answer. Later, when Castro criticized him for not supporting a specific change to asylum rules, O’Rourke offered a broader rebuttal about his favored reforms. He righted the ship somewhat when talking about gun control later in the debate, but the whole thing reinforced the narrative that O’Rourke is somewhat out of his depth on policy.
Tulsi Gabbard: Gabbard was lost for much of the debate. That may not have been her fault – she wasn’t asked many questions – but fellow cellar-dwellers Delaney and de Blasio were able to work their way in by piggybacking on others’ answers. Toward the end, Gabbard was asked a question about her past opposition to gay rights, which she has apologized for. Her answer about personal evolution and coming from a socially conservative family was perfectly fine. But then Booker swooped in and argued that she should have also talked about transgender rights, making her answer suddenly seem insufficient.
Trump’s mission to “save the Free World”: Before the debate, Trump tweeted that he wouldn’t be watching. “Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” But about 40 minutes in, he tweeted, “BORING!” One problem: It came right after a particularly heavy portion about that tragic image of the father and daughter.
A political plan of action: The liberal candidates, including Warren, were asked about the practicality of their proposals, and they said leaders need to fight for things. Candidates including Warren were asked how they would bend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to their will, if he remains Senate majority leader, and they didn’t have much of a plan. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, offered a compelling case for Democrats’ need to appeal to working-class voters, and it got some tepid applause and little buy-in from other candidates. It wasn’t exactly a lesson on how you enact actual policies.
Russia and impeachment: The first mention of either of these came more than 100 minutes into the debate. De Blasio said Russia was one of his top issues. Then Delaney was asked about whether a president should be immune from prosecution, and he said it wasn’t really what voters cared about. Then Klobuchar suggested the important issue was election security, not necessarily what to do with Trump. For all the talk about Robert Mueller and impeachment in recent weeks and months, it would have been an easy applause line Wednesday night to bring this up early and often. Somehow, Democrats resisted the urge – in a way House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will surely appreciate.
Smooth production: Upon returning from the first hour and handing things off to moderators Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie, the NBC News proceedings were marred by a hot mic – somewhere? – and they had to cut to commercial to fix things.