As all the illustrious Democratic presidential candidates wrapped their discussion about their visions for America at the historic Fox Theatre in Detroit, select members of our politics team sat down with their editor to dig deep into what really went down on the first night of the second Democratic Presidential Debate. Here’s what transpired:
Atharva: Right off the bat, did we get to see the big Sanders vs. Warren showdown that the political pundits predicted? Didn’t they have a bittersweet romance going in?
Kat: I did not think there was a “showdown”. They seemed equally progressive on the issues discussed, especially healthcare, in which they both defended Medicare for All. Warren tended to present as more aggressive than Sanders, especially on identity issues such as white supremacy. Sanders stuck to his main talking points and was more aggressive about income inequality and economic issues.
Joanna: I would say that in many cases, Sanders and Warren actually did the exact opposite of what was predicted. I’d say that both Sanders and Warren faced such a harsh slew from the moderates that they were actually forced to cooperate and not showdown amongst themselves.
Chloe: They surprisingly got along pretty well compared to the other candidates — Beto and Bullock, Sanders and Delaney, and Warren and Delaney. Bullock and Delaney butted in a lot of the times and looking back at my notes, they both made a lot of responses that counteracted Warren’s and Sanders’ responses.
Atharva: Moving on, Joanna, who do you think helped their campaign the most tonight and why?
Joanna: I think the shock of the night today was absolutely Delaney. After a pretty mediocre debate last time, where he had barely any speaking time, it shocked me that he was able to voice out so many frustrations and concerns. I think that Sanders also bolstered his performance tonight, definitely improving from the previous debate. Delaney though, in my opinion, did the most to try and regain stamina from a pretty shallow first debate, and I think it might actually help give him a boost in the polls.
Atharva: Anyone wants to add to/disagree with that? Any other candidates that you think did extremely well?
Kat: I think Elizabeth Warren was not necessarily the shock of the night, but she distinguished herself from the other candidates very well. It helped that she was separated from Harris and Biden and her only big-name rival was Bernie Sanders — and she almost seemed to win against him (even though there was no showdown) because he stuck to his talking points from 2016 that we’re all familiar with. I still don’t think John Delaney has enough name recognition to give him a hard enough boost above the big names.
Chloe: I actually disagree with Joanna on Delaney. He made valid points but only by butting into other people’s responses. It got to a point where it was annoying viewers, including me. But Delaney did have several points about Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, such as stating that it will close hospitals. I wanted him to expand more on that and give more insight on the healthcare issue. Furthermore, Delaney’s clash with Warren during the discussion of corruption in DC provided a good point — America needs feasible solutions, not big promises. However, Beto was essentially the only candidate that gave a straight answer to the moderators when they asked whether or not the middle class would pay higher taxes in regards to the healthcare issue. That was a standout for me. and I think Beto definitely did better this time than last, even though the boost in performance may not result in a boost in the polls.
Joanna: I don’t think Delaney boosted himself up as much as Harris did last debate, but I think that Delaney stuck up for himself fairly well. Delaney also hasn’t had a chance to face off with Biden, something Harris used to gain traction. But he was able to, as Chloe said, take on the bigger names as well in this debate. I disagree with the Warren thing, I think that she did worse than last debate when she actually was the only real standout candidate on the field. Tonight, I think with Sanders present, she didn’t get to say as much as she could have and I didn’t really feel like she helped herself tonight.
Chloe: I agree with Kat on Warren. However, I also think Warren tried her best to distance herself from Bernie’s stances — after all, the moderators did say they had close views and were friends — but Warren’s stances are very similar to Bernie, and if they advance to the next steps, their clash is ultimately inevitable in pursuit of progressive voters. I see where Joanna is coming from because both senators have really similar views and make it a part of their main mission as president to take on big corporations and D.C.’s corruption.
Under attack from Rep. Tim Ryan and Gov. Steve Bullock over his climate change agenda, Sen. Bernie Sanders says, "I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas."
— ABC News (@ABC) July 31, 2019
Atharva: Alright. Next question: while talking about some of the economic policies of the progressive batch, we saw the usage of terms like “Wishlist Economics” (by Gov. Bullock) and “Fairytale Economics” (by Former Rep. Delaney). Did you think that move was basically co-opting the GOP language or was this the moderate batch desperately trying to distinguish themselves? Did it go too far?
Chloe: I think the language could really be used for both. Both Delaney and Bullock definitely took a brave step by speaking up more in this debate, they needed to find different ways to stand out among the candidates. Both candidates need voters from different areas to boost their numbers in the polls. I think it was to distinguish themselves from the rest of the batch.
Joanna: I think that at this point in the game, the moderates need to lay out stepping stones in order to set them apart from the progressives. However, I also think that this strategy is currently fruitless because these are democratic primaries. Although the moderates may be trying to step out of the batch, using GOP coined terms and trying to appeal to Republicans shouldn’t be the goal of moderates running in the Democratic Primary. I think it may have gone a little too far. And the moderates have clearly set themselves apart in other factors with less jagged and party-oriented language as well.
Atharva: Yes, I think it was Sanders and Warren, who at one time while discussing healthcare did say “not to use the Republican Party’s talking points”.
Kat: We also saw the terms “realistic” “pragmatic” and “getting things done” thrown around a lot, especially by the moderates. Both the moderates and the GOP tend to criticize far-left goals (like tuition-free college for all) by saying they’re so unrealistic they’ll never get done. I think O’Rourke said it best: that no matter what the Democrats do, they will be labeled as crazy.
I agree with Joanna in that if Democrats want to win, they should stop trying to appeal to the other side. Polling consistently shows that the majority of the GOP has sided with Trump — after all, he is their candidate whom their constituents voted for. Instead, Democrats should focus on mobilizing their own people to get out and vote for their candidate.
Atharva: Taking the conversation ahead — in your opinion, what would qualify as the most heated moment of the debate?
Joanna: I think that foreign policy definitely made one of my top heated moments, mostly the quick rundown between Klobuchar and Ryan on Kim Jong Un. I think that the exchange about meeting with global leaders and how America should deal with foreign policy and global cooperation was an interesting and pretty heated split between pretty moderate candidates, and was surprisingly heated considering that those two people were pretty close to each other on the “radical” spectrum. This was definitely a moment where I saw the distinction between otherwise similar candidates.
Chloe: The Hickenlooper/Sanders argument ensued as they cycle basically the same argument about socialism from the last debate. Sanders and Delaney at the beginning started discussing “Medicare for All” and Delaney didn’t like it and believed hospitals would close down, etc. This continued throughout the entirety of the debate and for me that was probably the most heated moments of the debate.
Kat: I thought the “Medicare for All” exchange was among the most heated, because it was one of the moments where you could really see the difference between the progressives (who were in favor of a government healthcare that would completely replace private insurance) and moderates (who wanted to keep private insurance and provide a public option for the uninsured). The moderates insisted that people should have the freedom to make choices and that we shouldn’t be ripping away healthcare. The progressives were adamant that not implementing Medicare for All would just keep us where we already are and continue to allow insurance companies to profit off of illness. I think a truly undecided Democrat would have a lot of trouble discerning which side was better.
Atharva: Yes, there was one point when Bernie was trying to explain how hospitals wouldn’t close down because they would save a lot in billing costs and Delaney said that he had been involved in the business and knew how it was run. Bernie answered back with “Yes, you did work on it and probably made money off of it”
Joanna Hou: I feel like the reason that wasn’t heated for me was just because I expected it, I wasn’t expecting the infighting between the moderates. However, I kind of expected that there would be loads of clashing between the progressives and the moderates. It isn’t the strongest moment for me.
Atharva: Onto an issue which worried a lot of moderates and conservatives after the last debate. We saw a diverse array of answers from candidates when asked about what the legality of illegally crossing the border would be. One could go on and say that the whole topic of immigration saw very different answers from everyone. What immigration policy (including the border crossing issue) did you find the most unique and intriguing and why? Did we learn something new from the candidates?
Kat: I did notice that, on the topic of whether or not we should decriminalize illegal border crossing, those that opposed decriminalization (namely the moderates) almost tried to hide it. Both Bullock and Ryan would sneak “we don’t need to decriminalize” into their statements, and then quickly move on. I thought it was intriguing that Sanders and O’Rourke both talked about intervening in Central America to an extent to solve the instability that is leading to mass migration in the U.S. I question whether that would actually help, or if more U.S. intervention would just further destabilize the region.
Chloe: Amy Klobuchar’s responded well with a plan to process cases, secure the border, and provide refugees with a pathway to citizenship, making her response, I think, more unique than most of the candidates because she seemed to have a clear idea on what she wanted to do.
Atharva: I didn’t quite get Klobuchar‘s yes or no answer on the legality of crossing borders. However, I do think she spoke quite eloquently about immigrants being America and how we need to reform the immigration system. In addition to that, it was interesting when Mayor Pete said that he would favor making it a civil offence but it would be prosecuted as a criminal one if there was fraud involved.
Atharva: What did you guys think of the moderators? Which one did you like the best? Do you think they did enough to push the candidates on the right issues? Where could they’ve bettered themselves?
“Thank you, Senator.” “Thank you, Congressman.” “Thank you, Governor.”
CNN moderators weren’t just being polite in last night’s debate. They repeatedly cut in to enforce strict rules for speaking times and maintain order. https://t.co/t9CgTn14I6 pic.twitter.com/Yrm0QJxplZ
— POLITICO (@politico) July 31, 2019
Chloe: I didn’t really take too many notes on the moderators and didn’t really zone of them individually, but I think the moderators spent too much time on healthcare and kept allowing the candidates to circle back to the same points they already stated, making the debate feel repetitive. I didn’t really understand — but maybe this was because of some etiquette or rubric that I’m not aware of — the timing given to each candidate and the penalties were given if they interrupted. Sometimes it felt like candidates were either given too much time to talk about their views (Williamson) and not enough to others that were making very good points (Delaney).
Joanna: I think that the moderators were very good in this round. They were strict on the guidelines but did not try to cut the candidates short by forcefully interrupting. They remained civil and polite the entire time and hardly ever raised their voices, which I appreciated. Also, I think that these moderators did better than the moderators from NBC, focusing more on ideas that more people cared about, such as climate change, and less time on things that people had less interest in. Overall, I’d say that all the moderators performed very well tonight and actually did manage their time pretty well. And Chloe, I think that healthcare is a pretty important and divided opinion among the Democratic Party that kind of brushed over in the previous debate, so I think the time was fair.
Chloe: I’m glad they allowed the candidates to speak when they wanted to by giving them the spotlight if they budged in. I agree with Joanna. They weren’t interrupting too much this time like NBC’s moderators. They just kept their jokes to themselves and did what they were supposed to do. Also, Joanna, I understand what you mean, but looking at the clock, healthcare dragged on for a while and it might have been briefly touched in the first debate, but it was definitely delved into in the second one, considering this debate had 6 candidates from the second night of the first debate, making a majority of the statements from the candidates repetitive.
Kat: I think that it was also good that they insisted on clarifying with the candidates their answers to yes/no questions if the candidates tried to go off on a tangent to avoid answering the question.
Atharva: I personally thought that Jake Tapper and Dana Bash did a pretty good job of highlighting the past statements of the progressives (Warren and Sanders) and pushed the moderates to take names when disagreeing. I only wish more had been done to highlight intra-moderate differences. Also, I wasn’t really a fan of the format and timing slots when it came to discussing complex policies. I think the policy conversations are much more nuanced than we saw tonight.
Joanna: Yes, I agree with healthcare, I think it was too much time but at least it was something that Michigan voters cared about, and I think some of the moderates ended up blending together because of the lack of differentiation, but I don’t think that was really the moderators’ fault.
Atharva: Coming back to Senator Warren, she started out with quite a mellow tone as she established her firm belief to support whoever is the Democratic nominee. Her tone was seen to be altering when tone when confronting Delaney about his statement stating, “Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises. When we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics.” She immediately hit back saying, “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. I don’t get it,” Why do you think that was and was that off-brand for her?
Joanna: Well, I don’t really think that was off-brand for her. I think that being a progressive, Sen. Warren has always tried to aim high. This remark seemed to fall in line with her background. She came from a lower-class family and worked hard through law school and to the position she has now. The remark makes sense when you consider all the challenges she has faced.
Chloe: I understand where Joanna is coming from but in all honesty, I think Warren just wants what’s best for America and for the Democratic party, and that proves with her first opening statement. However, I think in ways it could be taken as Warren being too mellow or soft but I think it just shows how Warren wants people to be aware of her passion and modesty.
Kat: Obviously Warren wants to win, or, if not her, someone equally progressive. However, she also appears committed to the Democratic party and she understands the consequences of a Trump reelection. So she probably will endorse, or at least accept, whoever gets the nomination.
Atharva: Now from talking about the leading figure in the race to the real underdog. Many have often taken Marianne Williamson lightly due to her non-political background and inexperience. However, she did make waves this time around with her passionate speech about the crisis at Flint and reparations and sided with the progressives on mostly everything. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, Williamson was the most googled candidate in around 49 states. With an outsider like Trump’s election in 2016, should primary contenders be counting anyone out due to the virtue of their experience and background?
Joanna: I think that at this point, no matter how many waves she makes, the chances of Williamson prevailing against Biden, Warren, Sanders, or Harris are slim to none. Even if she is the most Googled, she barely got any speaking time. While she did use it well, I just don’t think she can make the radical jumps that Trump did. She also doesn’t appear to be the most radical and doesn’t seem to capture viewers in the same way Trump did and didn’t make a large effort to interject as Trump did. However, I’d say that I was definitely impressed by her performance tonight, and was surprised at the amount of screen time she managed to receive. I also think that Williamson received the most Google searches because people didn’t really know who she was, and Google searches don’t necessarily demonstrate or correlate with popularity. To sum it up, I don’t think the current top contenders need to worry about Williamson.
Kat: I don’t think we can discount Williamson, because, as we saw with Trump, anything can happen. I doubt she’s interested in the nuts and bolts of policy, and she said that “conventional politics are part of the problem” despite her limited knowledge of conventional politics relative to the other candidates. Both of these are similarities to Trump. Due to her inexperience, I think that she wouldn’t make a good President for anybody, but the Democrats should take her seriously and show constituents why she would do a lesser job than them.
Chloe: I think people doubt Williamson mostly because she says weird, unconventional things on stage. She makes several points but her words tend to drag on and on about defeating Trump and injustice with love, spirit and whatnot. She even said in the last debate that she doesn’t like plans, but that’s really the best way to solve issues as a president. She has great ideas and she understands the politics pretty well and provides a very interesting perspective on a lot of topics, but I didn’t hear too much about how she would lead and go about fixing the many issues she brings up. I honestly think she would do better as an advisor than a leader. Her background as a spiritual author may make her a laughing stock, but I think that’s mostly from her unconventional responses in the debates.
Atharva: As we were discussing before the debate, Mayor Pete’s campaign has successively failed to reach out to non-white voters in early states. Do you think he did enough today to gather up support amongst communities of colour? He had his brand new Douglass plan but was he able to shine a bright enough light on it to make it matter?
Chloe: No. I don’t think he really put enough spotlight on the plan but basically repeated what he stated in the past debate. Mayor Pete kept repeating that he felt remorseful and that we needed to do better to fix systemic racism, etc. It felt weird to me because he acknowledged there was a national problem with racism but it only felt like he was diverting the blame from him and the criticism towards him onto other things. Also, if he proves and literally admitted to not doing enough to solve the issue of race, that only proves Buttigieg doesn’t know enough and probably won’t do enough to fix the issue if he ever becomes president, which, mind you, is a much bigger scale and responsibility than South Bend.
Joanna: Definitely not, I feel like he had little to say and everything he said was pretty generic. It didn’t seem like he was making a direct effort to really try and reach out. He sounded more like an inspirational speaker and just seemed superficial to me. I feel like there was little real substance to what he said today and I don’t really think that he was effective. I fully agree with Chloe on this.
Chloe: It’s good he now has a plan to help bridge the divide, but if only he shone more light on his plan in his response, he could have avoided repeating the same thing from last time and gotten straight to how he was gonna solve the issue he admitted to neglecting previously. It was a misstep and indicates he won’t be proactive as president.
Atharva: Kat, didn’t you do some bits about this very issue with his campaign a few weeks ago?
Kat: It was in my article about the fundraising numbers. I noted that it was weird that he was getting so many small donations when he had very little support in the polls. He seemed almost afraid of the topic of race, and he didn’t promote his plan anywhere near as well as he could have. I think Warren did the best job on racial issues because she was aggressive and confident on her stance (for instance, outright saying that white supremacy is domestic terrorism) and ticking through all the things she’s planning to do to help people of color (funding historically black colleges, putting more money into Pell grants to close the black-white wealth gap, etc.)
Atharva: Going back on the liberal vs. moderate discourse for a second, I think as much as the moderates ganged up on the progressives, we did see some harsh backlash from the progressives too. From Warren and Sanders’ snarky comments on Delaney to Marianne Williamson posing the question as to how could some of the moderates (who didn’t support cancelling student debts for a plethora of reasons) call themselves Democrats if they didn’t believe in using the government’s tools to make people’s lives easier. Taking into context AOC and her squad’s ultra-progressive stances and how they’ve sort of overshadowed everyone else, is being a centrist-moderate democrat equivalent of not doing justice to the democratic principles? How do you think this trend is going to shape the dialogue as we progress through the primary process?
Joanna: I think that the democratic spectrum has always been broad, but in the past, moderate democrats have always been weeded out fairly early on. I would say that part of the rise for the moderate democrats has been the growing divide between the two parties. This kind of circles back to the issues from earlier, when we discussed why the moderates shouldn’t cater to the conservatives. I think the scare from the 2016 election was definitely a reason why both moderate and very progressive democrats are on the rise, and I do think that both kind of veer from the more “stereotypical” democrats. I think this is a pretty interesting trend that is definitely going to lead to some issues, it’s going to create heavy polarization and huge bouts of party infighting, purely because both sides are drifting further and further from those core democratic ideas. It’s definitely something that could hurt the Democrats if they get too caught up in the massive divide.
Chloe: I think the moderates and progressives are valuing different things here. The moderates want quick, easy solutions that will get things done fast and is feasible with not too much to waste. The progressives feel empowered in a sense and feel it is basically the time to take on these issues by dismantling corruption, big corporations, etc. Tonight, it really looked like they were going head to head. I think we are ultimately looking at a discussion of what is best for the democratic party going forward: feasibility or radical steps to dismantle structural, systemic baddies.
Also, I think Joanna has a point there. With the beef between Pelosi and the Squad, it’s looking bad because we don’t want to see polarization within the party, as it is already happening between the two parties and the Republican one too.
Kat: The moderate-progressive split will only make it harder for the Democrats to beat Trump. Trump had a similar advantage in 2016 when Sanders disrupted the party by attracting the far-left away from Clinton. Even after he endorsed her, 12% of his supporters voted for Trump because they viewed Clinton as too centrist. That’s part of the reason why Democrats lost the election. The Democrats face a similar challenge here. If they nominate a far-left progressive, moderates might say they’re “too extreme” and not vote. If they nominate a moderate, the progressives might not be engaged enough to vote. Either way, Trump (and the Russian hackers) can use the discord to weaken the Democratic challenger in 2020.
Joanna: I definitely agree with Kat. In 2016, the Republicans all eventually came around and did support Trump, but Warren’s hesitation and comments about supporting Delaney this early on already demonstrate the severe divide the party faces.
Chloe: I agree fully with Kat too. I think a big issue that’s not being addressed but is happening every often is political polarization that is preventing the best interests in both parties — not just the Democrats, and nothing is getting done because of it! Especially on the Democratic side in regard to issues like gun control, immigration and healthcare.
Atharva: Considering this was an all-white night, how well do you think the issue of race was handled? It seems like the idea of reparations is gaining mainstream traction. What did you think of the discussion surrounding reparations too?
Chloe: I think Marianne and Warren handled the discussion of reparations the most, but I honestly think the idea of reparations is not the smartest. There are better ways to help black communities, and that doesn’t mean giving them money (which I assume is the basic concept of reparations). They need to put that money into providing a structural and systemic foundation for underprivileged POC communities. The race issue was just barely touched, like last time. We already established that Pete doesn’t know what to do with the race issue, and only Warren and Williamson really know what action they would take against racism. Furthermore, a lot of the candidates seem to try to divert the race issue to other topics such as affordable housing (Hickenlooper) and childcare (Klobuchar).
Kat: With the exception of Warren and possibly Williamson, I think the candidates were rather timid around the issue of race relations. They didn’t seem as invested as they were when they were talking about helping “the working people” (presumably the working white people). I think reparations, while it is a good discussion to have, will just divide the Democrats further. Progressives will argue that black people deserve something to at least attempt to make up for the centuries of slavery and segregation, while white moderates will just shut them down by saying, “Well, I didn’t enslave anybody, so I shouldn’t have to pay.”
Atharva: As my final question for tonight, which campaigns do certainly see folding after this and which one do you think will receive the best boost? Also, what’s the number you see on stage in the fall debates?
Kat: I’m not certain about anything since it’s still so early, but I could see Delaney, Bullock, Ryan, and Hickenlooper dropping out eventually. They don’t have enough name recognition to make it through. Williamson might run as a third party. I’m definitely uncertain about Klobuchar and O’Rourke, because they’re “in the middle” in terms of name recognition and still down in the polls. I have confidence that Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg will stay on for the fall debates if not longer.
Atharva: Oh, Democrats are going to eat her alive if she decides to run as an independent. Throwback to the Starbucks guy who was exploring a run as an independent but was convinced not to by the overwhelming democratic anger.
Joanna: I think that Ryan, Hickenlooper and Bullock are definitely in danger of campaign collapse. They failed to utilize speech time and hardly said anything very memorable. I feel like all of them just hit a plateau after their first, equally mediocre performances. I can confidently say that Warren and Sanders will both be on stage this fall. I would disagree with Kat and say that Delaney gained ground tonight, and it might keep him in the polls. I think he truly has a chance to qualify because of how many points he was able to make tonight. Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Williamson held their grounds well tonight, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the fall debates as well. They didn’t make groundbreaking improvements but I think they will hold their positions well. O’Rourke also made improvements from his first debate.
Chloe: I agree with Kat mostly on this. I do think Beto has the chance to step up his game and I admit he definitely did with this debate, but from his performance being overshadowed and lackluster in the first, he’s definitely fighting an uphill battle among the others, even if he has already qualified. Also, the moderates named by Kat that are supposedly dropping out will probably eventually, because their chances of beating Biden, Sanders, and Warren are pretty slim. As for Klobuchar, I agree with Joanna. Klobuchar could try to hold onto her position as long as possible, but eventually, it may get harder as more candidates get weeded out of the race.
Atharva: Before we wrap up, I wanted to let you guys know that from the survey that we conducted amongst our staff, around 67% of the respondents said that Senator Warren performed the best. Around 33% of those surveyed hailed Bernie’s performance as the best. When it came to the worst performer of the night, around 50% of the surveyed staff said Hickenlooper’s performance was the worst.
Atharva Tewari is the Politics and TV Editor for Affinity Magazine. He was the coach and moderator for this conversation.
Chloe Zhao is an Assistant Editor at Affinity Magazine.
Featured Image via Shutterstock