“This is when it starts,” John Delaney said early this week. He was referring to the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The response from millions of Americans: Who’s John Delaney?
Most of the 24 Democrats running for president are not household names. Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland, is a case in point.
Which is why this week’s kickoff debates are so important. The two nationally televised events, which each have 10 participants, give the low-profile candidates a much-needed chance to shine, to imprint themselves on the electorate’s collective mind. You can’t compete if the voters don’t even recognize your name and face.
“I expect two or three people to come out of these two nights that we haven’t thought about yet,” former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said before the inaugural debate on Wednesday. Dean, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also pointed out that a few candidates likely will go away soon after this week, as donors and media attention dry up for underperformers.
So which of the White House aspirants not named Elizabeth Warren, the big name in the first night’s lineup, succeeded in standing out? And which ones hurt their causes?
The upshot: Nobody had a disastrous showing Wednesday. But with very limited time to make their points, candidates had a hard time differentiating themselves and getting into specifics, which is bad news for those who most needed a boost. That said, Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Bill de Blasio, each of whom has been consistently polling in low, low single digits, demanded attention throughout the night and thus could end up reaping benefits.
Below is a quick breakdown of the candidates’ performances Wednesday, with our letter grades for each:
The former San Antonio mayor embraces Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal, and he’s called for a serious discussion of reparations for slavery. His problem: he’s vying for progressive votes with the much-better-known Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Wednesday night, he was combative and passionate. “I would start by doing something that should have been done a long time ago — pass the Equal Rights Amendment, finally, in this country,” he said. Regarding illegal immigration, he said it should be a civil offense, not a crime, for a migrant to cross into the U.S., that America must not “criminalize desperation.” And he directly attacked fellow candidate and fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke as squishy on the issue. He insisted “we need a Marshall Plan” for Central America to address the immigration problem.
How much he needed a good debate performance: A Morning Consult poll released Monday found that 29 percent of respondents had never heard of Castro.
Debate grade: A-
BILL DE BLASIO
The New York City mayor came into office in 2014 amid high hopes — and a lot of New Yorkers don’t think he’s lived up to them. His approval rating in the Big Apple is just 42 percent. As it turns out, he’s even less popular in the rest of the country. In May, a national poll found that he had the highest unfavorability rating of all the Democratic presidential candidates. So he had a lot of work to do at this first debate — and he came out aggressively, sometimes cutting off other candidates, and clearly intent on coming across as the most progressive person on the stage. “We are the party of the working people,” he said. “Yes, we’re supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy … we are supposed to break up big corporations when they are not serving our democracy.” His performance wasn’t pretty, but he got noticed.
How much he needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 30 percent of respondents had never heard of de Blasio.
Debate grade: A-
The senator from Massachusetts, the only candidate in this first debate with a high national profile, wants to make clear to Americans that she and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are not interchangeable. (Of Sanders, she’s said: “He’s a socialist, and I believe in markets.”) On the debate stage, she showed her intelligence, her policy chops and her humanity. “What’s been missing is courage in Washington to take on the giant (companies that have powerful government lobbyists). … I want to return government to the people and that means calling out the names of the monopolists. I have the courage to go after them.” She said we must bring “data to bear” to solve the problem of gun violence. She added that such violence “is a national health emergency in this country, and we must treat it as such.”
How much she needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 12 percent of respondents had never heard of Warren.
Debate grade: A-
Trade wars. Twitter wars. Children dying at the border. A potentially dangerous confrontation with Iran. These are contentious, even scary, times. Yet the New Jersey senator wants to be your feel-good candidate, once saying that “the things we revere most about American history are often incredible acts of love.” On Wednesday he showed his tougher side. He said that “dignity is being stripped from labor. [We must] check corporate consolidation and let the free market work. … We need an economy that works for everybody.” He declared that the U.S. needs “bold actions and a bold agenda” to stop gun violence, a problem he called “personal” to him. He said Americans should need a license to buy a gun.
How much he needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 21 percent of respondents had never heard of Booker.
Debate grade: B+
The Ohio congressman challenged Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic House leadership in 2016 — and failed. He’s often confused with former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. He’s a proponent of mindfulness, the kind of lifestyle pursuit that’s popular among progressives, yet he’s looking to be one of the race’s few moderate candidates. On Wednesday, he called on the Democratic Party to embrace its working-class roots and explode the notion that it’s elitist. Concerning the immigration issue, he said the migrant detention centers on the southern border are “not a sign of [America’s] strength. That is a sign of weakness.” With mass shootings the norm in America now, he said we need “trauma-based care in every school.”
How much he needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 34 percent of respondents had never heard of Ryan.
Debate grade: B
The Hawaii congresswoman and Iraq war veteran has hit the national news for only negative reasons so far — namely, for meeting with the brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and for her anti-gay views early in her political career. America must end its “forever war” foreign policy, she said. “I know the high cost of wars. … This insanity must end.” She also said she favors Medicare-for-all so that everyone “gets the quality health care they need. … No sick American should go without the care they need.”
How much she needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 48 percent of respondents had never heard of Gabbard.
Debate grade: B-
The governor of Washington state has focused his campaign on climate change, including putting out a detailed policy paper on creating a green economy. He believes this transformation will be good for working-class and middle-class Americans. “I’m proud of standing up for unions,” he said. “I’ll put people to work in the jobs of the present and future.” He also called for “taking the filibuster away from [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell.” He scored one of the biggest cheers from the audience when he said President Donald Trump is the greatest threat to the U.S.’s national security.
How much he needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 49 percent of respondents had never heard of Inslee.
Debate grade: B-
The former Maryland congressman says Medicare-for-all and proposals to completely wipe out student debt are bad policy. He wants to be the sensible, middle-of-the-road, get-it-done candidate — that is, the alternative to front-running Joe Biden. Biden without the four decades of inside-the-Beltway baggage, you could say. “I’m very different to everyone else here on this stage,” he said. “I was an entrepreneur. … I know how to create jobs.” He made the case for bipartisanship, which he said is why we need “real solutions, not impossible promises.” He started off well, but he tended to be overlooked by the moderators, and they cut him off multiple times when he tried to jump in. As a result, in the last hour he sped up his speech on the few occasions he was given the chance to talk.
How much he needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 41 percent of respondents had never heard of Delaney, even though he’s been running for president for almost two years.
Debate grade: C
The senator from Minnesota is well-liked in her home state, but most Americans from the other 49 states know her only as the candidate who’s been accused of yelling at and throwing things at her staffers. She came across as pleasant and informed Wednesday night, but she showed no charisma. “[Big] Pharma think they own Washington,” she said. “Well, they don’t own me.” On President Donald Trump’s foreign policy: “He has made us less safe than we were before he became president. … We are always one tweet away from going to war.”
How much she needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 33 percent of respondents had never heard of Klobuchar.
Debate grade: C
The 46-year-old former Texas congressman needed to prove that he’s more than glib and Kennedyesque. He repeatedly tried to make the case that he is substantive, but he could rarely get past sound bites. “I think you have to bring everybody in to the solutions you want to make,” he said. He called for a new voting rights act, comprehensive immigration reform, a higher corporate tax rate and no political action committees. He said that, “to save democracy,” President Donald Trump must be held accountable for “inviting help” from Russia during the 2016 election and obstructing the investigation into Russia’s actions.
How much he needed a good debate performance: The Morning Consult poll found that 21 percent of respondents had never heard of O’Rourke.
Debate grade: C
Thursday’s debate will feature former Vice President Joe Biden, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, New Age author Marianne Williamson, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
This second debate will air from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.
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