Democratic Debate #2, Night Two: Frontrunners Falter, Booker Shines

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.

The Participants:

+ 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

Booker Wins

Photo: Gabriella Demczuk for CNN

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

Gabriella Demczuk for CNN

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.

Political Potpourri

+ 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

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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. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 400 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for the continued great debate coverage, Natalie!! I really like reading your articles because much mainstream coverage focuses on aspects I’m not as interested in or takes bewildering stances on the debates. For instance, as you said, CNN missed opportunities for much better conversations, but in some places I read criticism of the candidates for not taking the moderators’ Very Important questions seriously enough! You also do a really great job of picking out key moments and summarizing.

    I agree that Booker had a really good night. I hope Castro qualifies for the third debate. As to Biden, I find it pretty infuriating that he refuses to ever apologize—that is what makes someone weak, in my opinion.

  2. Aside from CNN’s other terrible format issues, I think that this debate was done wrong. I feel that it would have been better to have all of the moderates on one night and the progressives on the other. That way you can have a firm shake out in those fields.

  3. We have a saying in Argentina, mostly used by women: “Este vive colgado de mis tetas” (“This one lives hanging on my tits”), and I think we can applied it to Biden. You were the Vicepresident, you didn’t do shit; your only job was to make deals in the Senate to pass laws and you failed 90% of the times.

  4. I think rather that giving my general impression like I did for the first part of debate night 2, is I actually want to talk about Yang.

    My thoughts on Yang last night were interesting, in that unlike the first debate he actually hand presence. He didn’t disappear, he spoke regularly, and honestly he had some pretty well thought out answers. I’m not 100% on board with him, I get the impression that he seems to think UBI is a catch-all fix that will change everything, and i’m really not convinced it is… but I think he is tackling an issue that I have not really heard any other candidate mention: automation, and the influence of AI tech in the coming decade.

    For lack of a better term, Yang is promoting what I usually call ‘Robot Socialism’ and honestly while I’m not sure he is the candidate I want to get the ticket, I would love to see him move much further in the debates. Particularly, I’d like to see a debate where he trades blows with Bernie for a bit, because I think if that happens you might see a truly interesting discussion.

    Harris I thought was a bit weak, she said some things I like, but I have to be honest, I /hate/ her Universal Healthcare plan. 10 years is too long, I honestly fear that 10 years to implement, is 10 years for republicans to gut, trash, and cripple. Even if she gets two terms as president it won’t be put in place by the time she is out. That means it’ll need no less than three back to back democrat presidential terms before it’s in full swing.

    I’m going to call it what it is: It’s a half-measure.

    Biden concerns me, I worry that if Biden is our candidate, and he becomes president, he won’t do enough. He might fix some of Trump’s issues, but there won’t be any change, and it’ll ultimately be a wasted presidency. He just isn’t enough on literally any issue, climate, healthcare, foreign policy… nothing.

    • I do think there’s a good chance Biden will get elected, because things tend to bounce to the other side and people might be craving a whole lot of vanilla nothingness after the tabloid sideshow of this administration.

      • I fear you are right, I hope not, but I fear this is accurate. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take Biden over Trump any day, but I see him as the candidate that will neglect to help restore protections to the LGBT community, or neglect to actively maintain a dialogue about civil rights. I also feel like he’ll be the president that’ll make half an attempt to do something about healthcare, and then just give up because ‘the ACA is good enough’.

  5. Just wanted to say that I am really enjoyed this debate coverage, Natalie, and am looking forward to more as the election season progresses!

  6. I’m still Team Warren, but Cory Booker had a fantastic night last night. Biden has been pissing me off — he comes off as arrogant and patronizing, and Booker was 100% right about how Biden keeps talking about being bros with Obama but never wants to acknowledge that maybe he could’ve done things better during the Obama presidency.

    I’m a big fan of Kamala Harris as well, and I absolutely do want to hear her talk about her past record as a prosecutor, because I think that’s very important. But I don’t like the way Tulsi came out swinging and making huge accusations (tbh I just don’t really care for Tulsi). That said though, Kamala needed to give more direct answers to those accusations.

    I’ll be interested to see how it all goes down in the 3rd debate, because that’ll be the one where we really trim off the fat (i.e. the random people who no one knows why they’re running) and get down to business for real. I’d be really excited for a Warren-Booker or Warren-Harris ticket. Those are kind of my ideal scenarios. Obviously I’ll “vote blue no matter who,” but a girl can dream!

    • I would also be excited about Warren/Booker, or Warren/Harris. Warren is still my first choice, but I like others too.

  7. That’s great insight about Biden not apologizing. I got frustrated with candidates, especially ones who’ve been in public service for a long time, continually dodging any questions that came up. No one is perfect. Almost all solutions are imperfect. Crime bills passed in the 90s in response to certain data and situations are clearly terrible in hindsight, but we’re more interested in what you learned from that than that you made a mistake back then. /rant

    I’m a Warren girl all the way. Still, last night I came away more impressed with Booker, Castro (who I hadn’t heard from previously), Yang, and Inslee. This isn’t a presidential endorsement necessarily from me. Well, it might be for Castro (not above Warren, but I really like how he articulates things, and you hit the nail when you pulled out his response on impeachment). To me Inslee is running for EPA President or something like that. Maybe make Yang Labor Secretary. LOL. I actually like his ideas a lot, and he’s kind of outside the box, which I also like. But I don’t know that he has the political chops to actually work the machinery and get things done in a broad sense, so I say focus his ideas on the marketplace and how changing conditions affect employment.

    I was disappointed in Harris, though she’s still an appealing candidate. Many of the other woman candidates I agree with everything they say when they open their mouths, but it says a lot that I can’t pull out who they are off the top of my head. Gillibrand. She says good things. I’d blame the media (ugh, don’t get me started on their sexism), but also I have to do better.

    CNN is trash. That’s my opinion based on how they ran this debate, the GOP talking points they used as “questions”, etc.

  8. Just commenting to say that I really love your Debate coverage, Natalie. I live in Europe so the entire process is very foreign to me but I still read every one of your articles just because they’re such great analyses.

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