Last night, the remaining ten qualified candidates for the Democratic nomination competed in their second debate of the 2020 campaign. Like the previous night’s debate, there were a lot of fireworks, with lower-tier candidates taking their last and best opportunity to bolster their standing in time to qualify for the third debate in September.
+ Michael Bennet – Senator from Colorado
+ Kirsten Gillibrand – Senator from New York
+ Julián Castro – Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
+ Cory Booker – Senator from New Jersey
+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President
+ Kamala Harris – Senator from California
+ Andrew Yang – Former Tech Executive
+ Tulsi Gabbard – Congresswoman from Hawaii’s 2nd district
+ Jay Inslee – Governor of Washington
+ Bill de Blasio – Mayor of New York City
Putting his politics aside for a moment, there’s always been a question for me about whether Cory Booker was made for this moment. He is, by all accounts, a nice guy. He’s the guy who’ll shovel snow for his elderly neighbors. He’s the guy who will show up at Comic-Con and geek out with the fandom. He’s the guy who preaches love and unity. There was a time that a candidate delivering that sort of inspirational message would’ve won Booker a lot of fanfare — but this is a very different time.
This is such a turbulent moment for our country and Democrats across the nation are legitimately angry at this administration for the pain it has wrought. We are, to borrow a bit from Joe Biden, in a fight to save the soul of this country and we need a fighter to carry that banner into the 2020 campaign. It’s never been clear that Cory Booker could be that fighter. Until last night. Booker managed to thread a very difficult needle: maintaining the optimism that’s been the hallmark of his campaign — of his entire career, if we’re being honest — while showing a willingness to fight when the moment calls for it. He was the night’s happy warrior.
Booker and Biden have been sparring over their records on criminal justice reform for a while now and it all came to the fore last night. Booker pointed to Biden’s legacy, as the author of every Congressional crime bill since the 1970s, and his role in creating the system of mass incarceration that exists today. Biden tried to punch back with a critique of Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark but Booker diffused his attack with a sharp jab — “if you want to compare records, and, frankly, I’m shocked that you do, I am happy to do that” — and some wit (“you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor”). He scored another strong hit on the Vice President by criticizing him for cherry-picking the Obama years: “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign… You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”
But perhaps my favorite Booker moment of the night — and one that will go largely ignored by the media — is hearing him acknowledge the real reason that Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016. A number of Democratic candidates and a lot of voters want to attribute the 2016 loss to something that Clinton did (or didn’t do)… as if just doing the opposite of that will ultimately win Democrats the White House… but that’s not the reality.
“This is one of those times where we’re not staring at the truth and calling it out,” Booker said. “We lost the state of Michigan because everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African American voters. We need to say that. If the African American vote in this state had been like it was four years earlier, we would have won the state of Michigan.”
Castro delivers another strong performance
Going into the debate, Julián Castro and Andrew Yang had, perhaps, the most at stake. Both are on the precipice of qualifying for the third debate but haven’t met the polling threshold yet — that is, they have not received receive 2% or more support in at least four polls from the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada) or nationally. As with Klobuchar on Tuesday night, last night was their best opportunity to make their case to a wide audience for why they should take the stage in September. And, for the second straight debate, Castro made a strong case for why he should join those top tier candidates.
Castro started strong out of the gate by acknowledging what’s happened in recent weeks in Puerto Rico (which, by the way, should have been a topic of discussion in this debate). Once again, he defended his stance of decriminalizing illegal border crossings and chastised Biden for not learning from the mistakes of the Obama administration with respect to deportations. I appreciated his unequivocal response about police accountability, specifically in the case of Eric Garner. But Castro’s best moment, without a doubt, came on the question about impeachment and the Mueller Report. He laid out why moving forward with an impeachment inquiry made sense from a moral and political standpoint in a clear, forthright way that was, frankly, better than anything I’d heard before from any Democrat.
I think that too many folks in the Senate and in the Congress have been spooked by 1998. I believe that the times are different. And, in fact, I think that folks are making a mistake by not pursuing impeachment. The Mueller report clearly details that he deserves it, and what’s going to happen in the fall of next year, of 2020, if they don’t impeach him, is he’s going to say, “You see. You see. The Democrats didn’t go after me on impeachment. And you know why? Because I didn’t do anything wrong. These folks that always investigate me — they’re always trying to go after me. When it came down to it, they didn’t go after me there because I didn’t do anything wrong.” Conversely, if Mitch McConnell is the one that lets him off the look, we’re going to be able to say, “Well, sure, they impeached him in the House, but his friend Mitch McConnell, Moscow Mitch, let him off the hook.”
Frustratingly, Castro disappeared for long swaths of the debate — he earned less speaking time than Gillibrand and Inslee, despite polling better than both of them — and that may have hamstrung his appeal.
Frontrunners Fail to Meet Expectations
Last month, Kamala Harris scored a monster hit on Joe Biden when she criticized his history on busing. It wasn’t a lethal blow — Biden’s poll numbers have effectively rebounded from that exchange — but it made Harris into one of the top-tier candidates in a crowded field. In the days leading up to this second debate, which, again, found Harris and Biden sharing a stage, the question became: how will Biden respond after being chin checked in the first debate? CNN was salivating over the possibility of another Biden/Harris clash and promoted it like it was the main event at Wrestlemania (I told you, CNN is the worst). But then, a funny thing happened during the second debate: Harris fell prey to exact same thing that tripped Biden up in the first debate — that is, she wasn’t prepared for the most obvious question.
“Kamala Harris is a cop” has been the common refrain of detractors of Senator Bette Porter’s campaign since she announced her bid. Harris makes her time as DA central to her campaign message — her slogan, “Kamala Harris for the People,” is reflective of that — and it was inevitable that eventually her record as a prosecutor would come up. But last night, Harris either wasn’t prepared for the question or wasn’t prepared for the challenge from Tulsi Gabbard (of all people) and got caught flat-footed.
“Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president but I’m deeply concerned about this record,” Gabbard said. “She blocked evidence… that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”
Whatever you think of Gabbard’s politics — and Harris would go on to dismiss her outright in the post-debate spin — this is a legitimate attack on Harris’ record and she has to come up with a better answer. She never addressed the substance of the Gabbard critique which isn’t a problem coming from Gabbard — who, aside from a news cycle of positive coverage, likely won’t garner enough support to advance to the third debate — but eventually, this critique is going to come from Booker or Castro and she has to be ready.
Biden didn’t fall into the same trap as the last debate: he showed up to this debate prepared for a fight. He was ready for tangles with Harris, he was ready for his record to be questioned by Booker and by Gillibrand. He did better than last time, no doubt, but I don’t think he did well. A few things stood out: first, Biden comes from a school of politics where apologizing for a previously held position is sacrilege and that doing so makes you look weak. We’ve seen that from him during this campaign already — most notably on his handling of Anita Hill — and we saw it again last night. On questions about busing, his support of the crime bill, the Hyde Amendment, the deportations that took place under the previous administration, his 1981 op-ed on the “deterioration of the family” …he just wouldn’t admit that he was wrong. What Biden misunderstands about the American electorate — and the Democratic electorate, in particular — is that we want our leaders to learn and grow and there’s no shame in that.
The other notable thing about Biden’s performance: while he handled a lot of criticism in this debate from multiple candidates, he wasn’t deft in his responses. He didn’t seem to understand the immigration question at all and stumbled a bit when challenged by De Blasio, Castro and Booker on the issue. He earned the most speaking time in debate but, at times, seem to cede the floor to his opponents to level more attacks at him. His clumsiness was a stark contrast from the previous night’s debate where Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren took on a slate of moderate Democrats and nimbly moved through a series of issues. I’m interested to see how Biden stacks up against Warren and Sanders in September’s debate.
+ I thought Kristen Gillibrand had a good night, despite a few missteps. Her answer on white privilege — which echoed an exchange she had at a town hall in Youngstown, Ohio — was pitch perfect. It was odd to see the Medicare for All conversation take place largely without her in this debate, given that she co-wrote the bill with Sanders and spent much of the first debate defending it. She smartly pivoted from critiques of her fellow Democrats to attack Republicans for their hand in undermining the Affordable Care Act, for example.
+ Jay Inslee impressed me last night. He’s ostensibly positioned himself as a single-issue candidate, forcing climate change to the forefront of the 2020 campaign, but yesterday, we got to see him showcase his entire repertoire. He touted the creation of a state-based public option in Washington, his history of taking on the Trump administration and winning and of creating a police accountability measures. Still, though, climate change is his big issue and he had his best moment of the debate in arguing with Biden about his timidity in the face of calamity.
+ Who drops out first? With the criteria for debate #3 out of reach of the bulk of the field, how long before a candidate decides to suspend their political campaign?
Now it’s your turn: what’d you think of this second night of debates? Was it worth missing the Jane the Virgin series finale on the East Coast to watch it all? Did this week’s debates leave you with a sense of which Democrat you’ll support in the 2020 primary?
Next Democratic Debate: September 12 and, if necessary, September 13