A Good Debate, Especially for Warren

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 30: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) gestures while former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (R) speaks and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Texas con... DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 30: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) gestures while former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (R) speaks and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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On balance I thought this was a pretty productive, good debate for the simple reason that a series of central debates in the Democratic party and this campaign were joined clearly, in a generally well argued and illuminating way. Former Rep. John Delaney was clearly the odd man out on the stage (possibly with Gov. Bullock a runner up). He frequently seemed like he was in a time warp back to the 1990s. But he provided an effective foil to Warren and Sanders; he even leveled some reasonable critiques. In so doing he managed to garner wildly more time on air than his non-candidacy possibly merits. But I thought it was good because you had a series of set piece exchanges which really captured the broader debate in a clear and illuminating way.

On balance, I would say Warren was the big winner of the evening. I continue to think and worry that her embrace of Medicare for All, with a deep clarity about the prohibition of private insurance, could be a major electoral liability if she becomes the nominee. But to me she had a clarity and energy that owned the stage. She had directness, moments of memorable humor and compelling explanation. I didn’t think she did as well in the first debate as some others did. In this case I think she had a very strong night.

Sanders clearly sees that he’s not and can no longer run a frontrunner’s campaign. He has to dig in and fight for it. He was more declarative and thundering, a bit more the genuine article. He had crowd pleasing moments. Here’s a selection of his punchy one-liners and punchy moments. But I didn’t see anything that would make him break the trend that is moving toward Warren. This may partly be the skeptical prism through which I view Sanders rather than the particulars of this debate. You can decide. But that’s my take.

I don’t have terribly strong thoughts about the other contenders on the stage. I don’t think any of them are really significant players in the race. That applies to Pete Buttigieg, who I admire a great deal. But his campaign seems to have stalled.

One final point. To me one of the most interesting things about Delaney’s rather ridiculous role in this race is this. He’s the caricature centrist stand in who everyone else can pivot off of. As Warren said with what I think was genuine exasperation: why do you run for President to troll everyone and say all the things you can’t do? And yet, by relatively recent standards Delaney isn’t even that ‘centrist’.

Delaney says Warren’s wealth tax is unworkable and may be unconstitutional. (On the latter point, he may be right, certainly with the current judiciary). But his counter is to tax the wealthy by (if I understood him right) changing the capital gains rate to match the income tax rate. Twenty years ago and really even ten years ago that’s not something any national Democrat was saying. You could say something somewhat similar on health care. He is as much as anything an example of how much the party has shifted. For whatever reason he’s chosen to frame his race around being the guy who says “no you can’t do that”. But that’s more strategic than anything else. His actual positions show the dramatic shift in the party over the last ten to fifteen years.

The debate got kind of chaotic and a bit off the rails toward the end before recovering. But on balance, I thought it was simply a good debate because it got the core issues out there in front of voters – not simply the policy choices but the decisions over priorities that separate the candidates. I think both Sanders and Warren did well for the audiences they are appealing to. But I think Warren had the much more commanding evening.

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