Democratic Debate #2, Night One: Warren and Sanders Stand Out Amidst the Midwestern Discourse

In the spirit of full transparency: I’ve made three small contributions to two Democratic presidential campaigns.


Last night, the Democratic Party hosted the second of six scheduled debates of the 2020 primary season. Just like last month’s debates, the second round is a two-night event, with 10 candidates appearing on the stage each night. Each candidate who appeared on last night’s Detroit stage has either amassed 65,000 campaign donors, including at least 200 donors each in 20 states, or showed least 1 percent support in at least three polls.

After failing to qualify for last month’s debate, Gov. Steve Bullock joined the presidential debate stage for the first time last night, replacing Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA-5th) who suspended his campaign earlier this month. Five candidates — Rep. Seth Moulton (MA-6th), Florida Mayor Wayne Messam, former Senator Mike Gravel, former Congressman Joe Sestak (PA-7th) and billionaire Tom Steyer — failed to meet the minimum requirements to join their fellow Democrats on the debate stage.

The Participants:

+ Marianne Williamson – Author and activist
+ Tim Ryan – Congressman from Ohio’s 13th district
+ Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota
+ Pete Buttigieg – Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont
+ Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachussetts
+ Beto O’Rourke – Former Congressman from Texas’ 16th district
+ John Hickenlooper – Former Governor of Colorado
+ John Delaney – Former Congressman from Maryland’s 6th district
+ Steve Bullock – Governor of Montana


CNN Is the Worst

On Sunday a teenage shooter, his mind warped by white nationalism and armed with a legally purchased AK-47, walked into a Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California and killed at least three people including a six year old boy and wounded 12 more. According to Vox, it was the 260th mass shooting of the year. It’s a tragic situation that begs a serious response and what better time to get that serious response than at a presidential debate?

We should have a full-throated policy conversation about how those 12 people now have pre-existing conditions and how this administration continues to erode those protections. Or a debate about the access to guns or the assault weapons ban or the rise of white nationalism. We could have had that debate. We should have had that debate. Instead, we got this shitshow.

In hindsight, I should have anticipated this when CNN turned the line-up drawing for the debate into a dramatic hour-long event reminiscent of NCAA Selection Sunday, but… woo boy this was terrible. After 10 minutes of Superbowl-esque graphics and introductions and some performative patriotism, we got an hour of questions that came straight out of the GOP playbook. Beyond that, CNN seemed intent on stirring controversy between the campaigns: framing every question in an antagonistic way to instigate fights between them. Despite their lackluster polling, Delaney, Ryan and Bullock earned the bulk of their speaking time by being the moderate antagonists to Warren and Sanders. Even when the candidates endeavored to answer the questions — which eventually did include topics like gun control and white nationalism — CNN stuck to time constraints that valued buzzworthy answers over serious policy debate. 15-second responses do not lend themselves to substance, they lend themselves to soundbites.

We deserved a more serious debate than this. We deserve a better media than this.


Warren, Sanders Win

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

After a lackluster first debate where he faded into the background and slumping poll numbers — since the last debate, he’s hit his lowest polling numbers of the campaign — Bernie Sanders returned to the debate stage looking for a fight. I think, as a candidate, he’s at his most effective when he perceives himself to be the underdog. With Warren’s help, he batted back criticism of Medicare for All and defended the kind of wholesale, revolutionary change that’s been the center of his presidential campaign.

When Ryan accused Sanders of creating a health care system that wouldn’t provide a health care comparable to what the union receives today, Sanders pushed back firmly on the benefits of Medicare for All. Ryan continued to protest, claiming that he couldn’t know the intricacies of what his new plan would cover and Sanders forcefully responded, “I do know it, I wrote the damn bill.” When Delaney tried to join in the fray, suggesting that Sanders’ math on Medicare for All just doesn’t add up, Sanders blasted him for making money off a broken healthcare system.

“Maybe you did that and made money off of healthcare,” Sanders said. “But our job is to run a nonprofit healthcare system.”

It was a good night for Sanders. Does his momentum survive in a third debate, on a smaller stage with a more progressive slate of candidates? That question still remains, but last night certainly favored the Vermont senator.

With a shared opponent in the moderation of other candidates, Warren and Sanders never turned their ire on each other and, as a result, Warren did what she does best: communicating complicated policy in straightforward, easy-to-understand manner. While Delaney, Ryan and Bullock clung to the politically appealing, she advanced an agenda of justice.

“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said, delivering the line of the night and putting the final nail in Delaney’s $15 million coffin.

Because of Sanders’ propensity to yell — Ryan telling Sanders, “you don’t have to yell,” was a highlight for me — I think he undercuts himself a little and it plays to Warren’s advantage. On substance, their campaigns are similar but Warren’s style often pushes her just ahead of Sanders in scorecards.


Eyes on the Third Debate

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Thus far, just seven of the 24 Democratic candidates for president — Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker — have met the requirements for the third debates. For those still hoping to qualify for that third debate, the second debate was their best shot at creating buzz for themselves before a national audience. They needed to create a moment, akin to Kamala Harris’ response to Joe Biden in the first debate, to spike the polls (however temporarily) and get an influx of new donors. I’m not sure that any of the six candidates who appeared onstage last night did themselves any favors in that regard.

Perhaps no one on the stage needed a buzzworthy moment more than Amy Klobuchar. She’s met the polling threshold for the next debate but has, thus far, fallen short on donors. One sharp elbow on national television… at Warren, at Sanders, at anybody… and maybe she would have drawn the attention she needs to recruit those new donors, but instead, she whiffed. The President attacked a member of her Congressional delegation, Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN-5th), to open his 2020 campaign and Klobuchar didn’t even say her name in the debate. She barely answered a question about Flint. She talked about her Midwestern roots ad nauseum, but never distinguished herself from the other Heartland candidates. Her answer to the nation’s gun problem is that she will not fold. Given the opportunity to get more specific about a critique she made — “A lot of people are making promises, and I’m not going to make promises just to get elected” — she sidestepped the pitch. And then, perhaps egregiously, she said, “there are people that voted for Donald Trump before that aren’t racist.”

For someone like Bullock or Ryan, who hasn’t met the donor or polling threshold for September’s debate — and recall, they’ll need to do both by August 28th — it’s hard to imagine a stage grander than this from which to compete.


Political Potpourri

+ I thought Pete Buttigieg did well — I particularly liked him saying outright that Republicans will call us socialists no matter what we’re for — but I don’t think this format showcases him at his best. I think a debate with fewer people will give us our first real insight into the prose behind all that poetry.

+ For his first debate on a national stage, I thought Bullock did a good job. Like many governors who venture into national politics, he struggled a bit during the foreign policy section, but otherwise, I was impressed. I do wonder, though, what path Bullock sees to the nomination. Is he just there as a stalking horse to attack the more progressive candidates or does he really think he can “out-moderate” Joe Biden? Also, there’s a very nice Senate seat that Bullock could be running for and I’m mystified that he chose to do this instead.

+ Yes, Marianne Williamson delivered answers on reparations and the crisis in Flint that made her competitors look timid by comparison but we’re not seriously entertaining voting for her, right? Seriously, we’re definitely not voting for her. Yes she was right about something, but even broken clocks are right twice a day, folks.

+ How long before the enthusiasm that Beto O’Rourke built during his run in Texas runs out? Asking for a friend who’s tired of seeing his lackluster debate performances.


What’d you think of last night’s debate? Did any moments or candidates stand out to you? Any candidate that you found underwhelming? What are you hoping to see from tonight’s debate?

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. Spends her Thursday nights trying to make #Shonday happen.

Natalie has written 82 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Hey! I like a lot of this analysis but raising my hand as a Westerner-turned-Midwesterner a little annoyed at at the coastal condescension of this title. First of all, Klobuchar aside, a lot of the candidates doing their damnedest to be republicans are mountain west democrats (Montana, Colorado) and it’s an old established talking point where I come from “we know how to talk to red staters with guns.” Second of all, Delaney.

    Finally, we got a long history of radicalism out here in the heartland and it has its faults, but for better or worse, Warren and Sanders ARE midwestern discourse in a lot of ways.

  2. the GOP talking points were everywhere and I wish more than one candidate had called it out — literally why do we need to keep playing their game? I was also disappointed that no one called out the “raising taxes for medicare question” with “uh the Republicans want to raise taxes on the middle class, lower them for the wealthy, AND take away your healthcare.” Like, come on. Stop acting like conservative dialogue is calling all the shots.

  3. Sanders and Warren were masterful in the debate last night (again, read the transcript, cuz seriously i’m not staying up that late). I appreciated what amounted to pinning ‘fake-democrats’, because lets be real, that’s essentially what some of the candidates were, as exactly that. Buttigieg was great as always and honestly I’m looking forward to hearing Sanders, Warren, or Buttigieg speak more.

    Beto… I gotta say, he said a bunch, but none of it amounted to much of anything. Williamson failed to leave any real impression on me.

    Also was it just me or did one of the debate moderators say that raising taxes on the wealthy was ‘unconstitutional’? Are they even allowed to butt into the debate like that?

    I think nothing would make me happier at this point, if Sanders isn’t the nominee we pick, to have him as running mate. I’ve respected the man for his views since 2016’s campaign, and honestly even if he isn’t going to be our president, I would love to have him as VP to keep pulling the candidates left.

  4. I say let the old Jewish man shout, he deserves too(sometimes). He and Warren have been the most consistent in their points throughout their carriers. Shame that some of the other Democrats are pandering to Republicans so they aren’t seen as socialist. Pretty much anything a Democrat does Republicans will try to play it off as socialist idea; which is odd cause Republican’s like socialism(of the corporate kind) pending it benefits their donors.

  5. Great recap. So excited to have good political coverage via Autostraddle!

    But, can we please not call the shooter a “madman”? That’s pretty ableist language that throws folks with mental health issues under the bus, and undercuts the much more accurate and relevant way you describe him in the previous paragraph.

  6. Elizabeth Warren was brilliant, just that quote about half-assed politicians was amazing. And she’s totally right, all over the world we already tried compromise, little steps and all that shit and where are we now? Going backwards…

    Pete Buttigieg won a few points with his case for structural political reforms, but honest to god, even if those are %100 necessary for your Democracy to be a real Democracy, you will never see that happening. Medicare for All has more chances.

    PD: really, Beto O’Rourke was in the debate? I didn’t notice.

  7. Warren was good. Glad she came out strong for Medicare for All since she’s been waffley in the past couple months. Marianne was kinda great but nah, she won’t be president, and that’s probably for the best.

    Sanders does speak loudly and emphatically, and I get that it can turn people off him. I liked how he handled the questions they asked (how are you different from trump on foreign policy?? Is cnn serious with this shit??) but he might have done better to moderate his volume better. Might just be cultural, honestly (https://www.heyalma.com/bernie-sanders-yells-a-lot-the-jews-of-twitter-remind-us-why/). Like he’s a brooklyn jewish grandpa, and he’s mad about the world being fucked up, that’s the deal.

    I do think he has the best understanding of the necessity of public mobilization to wield political power and get things done. That’s a necessity no matter who is president in 2021. I also think Bernie is our best shot to win (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/02/us/politics/2020-democratic-fundraising.html).

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