6 Highlights From Night 1 of the July Democratic Debates


DETROIT — It was one of the most substantive presidential primary debates in recent memory, and the two Democratic candidates with the most ambitious plans dominated the stage.

Most other candidates? Not so much. But a few 2020 hopefuls did stand out.

Here are six takeaways from Tuesday night’s debate:

Warren and Sanders owned the night.

There were Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and then there was everybody else.

There was a lot of hype that this first debate between the two leading progressives would become a study in contrasts, and that Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders might angle for a way to outshine the other. But neither showed the least bit of interest in going head-to-head.

Instead the debate was a lovefest from the moment they walked onstage, as Ms. Warren wrapped her arm around Mr. Sanders’s shoulder in a warm greeting.

Rather than attack one another, they each swatted away attempts to draw blood by former Representative John Delaney and the other moderates onstage. Ms. Warren at times did a better job of articulating what Mr. Sanders’s policies would mean for middle-class Americans, while Mr. Sanders pronounced that “Elizabeth is right” when CNN’s moderators tried to bait him into disagreeing with her on trade policy.

Their nonaggression pact may have benefited Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders more than a battle. Both left the stage with the night’s best viral moments and made the larger arguments for the liberal cause and their own electability.

A surprise debate-night winner: Substance.

Sure, there were sound bites aplenty: the Sanders campaign emailed supporters with the subject line “I wrote the damn bill” about Medicare for All before the debate even ended. But the night was marked by long stretches of substantive policy discussion that helped to map the candidates along a clear ideological spectrum.

From immigration to climate change, gun control to foreign policy, the debate cleaved the field into more moderate and more progressive camps. The sharpest and most complex disagreements came on health care. It is, after all, the issue that many strategists believe cost Democrats congressional seats in 2010 and 2014, and then helped usher them back to power in 2018.

On the left, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren defended a Medicare for All proposal that would phase out the role of private insurers. That drew multiple warnings of its potential potency for Republicans, and of its dramatic impact on Americans happy with their current insurance. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke said those two rivals — though not by name — were “talking about taking away people’s choice for the private insurance they have.”

As an alternative, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s pitched his “Medicare for all who want it” plan, while others suggested their own variations of layering a public option onto the existing Affordable Care Act. “I just have a better way to do this,” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said of her plan.

Substance doesn’t always carry debate nights, but it did for long stretches on Tuesday.

Candidates who badly needed a breakout moment didn’t get one.

Mr. O’Rourke of Texas has struggled to gain momentum in a crowded presidential field. And in the debate, he did not land the really big moment he needed to invigorate his candidacy, fading from the spotlight as other candidates took the lead in pursuing memorable exchanges.

He was not alone: Ms. Klobuchar, who is running as a Minnesota moderate, advocated for her more centrist views but did not engage in the kind of direct clashes with her ideological opponents that often help lower-polling candidates stand out.

Mr. Buttigieg outpaces both of those contenders in polling, and he leads the field in fund-raising, so he faced less pressure to generate viral moments. He did gain notice for several lines, including his passionate message to Republicans willing to overlook Mr. Trump’s most controversial statements. But he also declined some opportunities to draw crisp contrasts with his opponents — most noticeably when he skipped the chance to make a direct generational argument against his opponents when asked about age — and he was often overshadowed by Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.

Steve Bullock takes advantage of his debut.

On a crowded debate stage that is expected to shrink dramatically by the next round in September, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana made the most of his first time in the spotlight. He forcefully articulated the case for a more moderate Democratic Party without seeking to tear down the popular progressives standing at center stage.

He pitched his success winning over Republicans in Montana, which gave more gravity to his warnings of where the Democratic Party was drifting too far left. Twice, he quoted President Obama’s former Homeland Security secretary to make the point that decriminalizing border crossings would only draw more immigrants attempting to cross the border.

Mr. Bullock handled the one tough question about his own record — his recent flip on gun control — as he invoked his own up-close experience with the ravages of gun violence with the killing of his 11-year-old nephew. But he seemed to stumble late in his exchanges with Ms. Warren about not ruling out a nuclear first strike.

Overall, Mr. Bullock’s performance may have given a fresh life not only to his candidacy but also the calls of some Democrats that he run for Senate, instead of the White House, in 2020.

Marianne Williamson delivered sharp answers on race relations.

After her appearance in the first set of debates, Marianne Williamson, the best-selling self-help author, was widely mocked for her spiritual aphorisms and talk of political love. Republicans even launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign to keep her on the stage.

Fewer are laughing after her second showing. The author and spiritual adviser delivered a sharp answer on reparations that put a specific price tag on an issue that the rest of the field would prefer to talk about in gauzy generalities.

“It’s not $500 billion in financial assistance, it’s a $200- to $500-billion payment of a debt that is owed,” she said. “We need deep truth-telling when it comes, we don’t need another commission to look at evidence.”

Yes, she still warned of “dark psychic forces” in politics. Yes, she still promised “radical truth-telling.” But in her quest to be taken seriously as a political candidate, Ms. Williamson was no longer regulated to the comic relief of the evening.


John Delaney pushes into the spotlight.

Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland is such a long shot candidate that he does not register in some polls. But on Tuesday, he found a way to land time in the spotlight: By emerging, for much of the debate, as the stage’s loudest moderate voice.

On issues ranging from health care to climate change to trade, he consistently and combatively staked out centrist positions, earning split-screen moments with Ms. Warren and frequently finding ways to interject.

In many exchanges, he overshadowed a number of the other moderate contenders onstage, including Ms. Klobuchar, former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio.

The ultimate impact is likely to be negligible given Mr. Delaney’s low polling numbers and struggles to break through in the crowded field. But it was a reminder that there is room in the middle for a moderate voice to stand out, something former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the field’s current poll leader, will seek to do on Wednesday night.

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