The top 10 Democratic candidates shared a single debate stage for the first time in the 2020 race, trading body blows while drawing stark contrasts on issues like health care and criminal justice reform.
I picked the best and the worst from the night. They’re below.
*Joe Biden: The first 30 minutes of this debate – typically the time with the highest viewership – were Biden’s best moments in his entire campaign to date. He didn’t stumble as he had in previous debates and was able to show off his righteous anger side when Bernie Sanders seemed to suggest the former vice president was responsible for people getting cancer. (Worth noting: As the debate went on, Biden stumbled more.) Biden also got a bit lucky; Julián Castro’s blatant attempt to make Biden’s age an issue – he kept asking the former vice president if he was “forgetting” what had been said a few minutes before. Low blow. And sort of ugly – and likely to boomerang back on Castro (more on that below). Biden’s full embrace of Obama – all eight years, “good and bad” – was also smart, since Obama remains a hugely popular figure in the Democratic Party especially among black voters. Overall, Biden looked strong and presidential although it wasn’t perfect – most notably in his meandering (and Trumpian) answer on the way forward on Iraq and Afghanistan. Overall, however, a good night for the vice president.
*Beto O’Rourke: Supporters of the former Texas congressman have been waiting for months for the O’Rourke that showed up on Thursday night. “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15,” O’Rourke pledged when the topic turned to gun control and the recent mass shootings in Texas. And the audience went wild. Yes, O’Rourke was helped by his opponents – including Biden and Elizabeth Warren – taking time out to praise him for his statements on gun control. And, yes, that speaks to the fact that they don’t believe he poses any threat to their chances at the nomination. Still, for a candidate who has been losing altitude for months now, O’Rourke had a night to remember.
*Barack Obama: After taking a surprising amount of incoming from some of the candidates in the July debate, the former president made a major comeback Thursday. Not only did Biden fully embrace Obama’s eight years as president, the former president was praised by virtually every candidate on the stage. Which makes sense, politically. After all, Obama is the single most popular Democratic politician in the country – by a long shot.
*Kamala Harris’ opening statement: I thought a bunch of the California senator’s prepared one-liners – and she had a LOT of them – fell flat. (Case in point: “Instead of saying ‘no we can’t’ let’s say ‘yes we can.’” Oomph.) BUT Harris dedicating her entire opening statement to directly addressing Trump was smart. And her closing line – “And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News” – was a huge applause line in the room and likely will be replayed dozens of times over the next 24 hours.
*Julián Castro: The former San Antonio mayor had a clear plan going into this debate: Go after Biden and paint himself as the true heir to the Obama legacy. Unfortunately for Castro, he went way too hard at Biden on the age issue with his “are you forgetting” line – that he repeated four times. The attack wound up making Biden look sympathetic – and the former vice president’s response, measured and in control, made Castro look small.
*Andrew Yang: Look, I just wrote today about how Yang has come from absolutely nowhere to be surprisingly relevant in this race. But he stunk tonight. His promise to give a Freedom Dividend ($1,000 a month) to 10 families around the country at the start of the debate came across as gimmicky rather than a piece of provocative policy. His line about knowing a lot of doctors because he is Asian was painfully bad – and furthered dumb stereotypes for no reason.
*Elizabeth Warren: The Massachusetts senator wasn’t bad – she just wasn’t super involved in the debate, which is weird given that she is widely seen as the strongest challenger to Biden at the moment. For a chunk of the first hour of the debate, Warren sort of disappeared. Some of that is a function of not getting questions from the moderators. But Warren also needs to find ways into conversations – especially given how centrally located she was on the stage. When she got questions, Warren was solid, particularly when talking about teachers and her own personal narrative. But she didn’t get enough questions.
*The economy: This was a looooong debate. And we know that, in election after election, voters say the state of the economy (and how they feel about it personally) has a huge impact on their vote. Which makes the fact the economy wasn’t the subject of a single question in that time remarkable. And bad.