It was a good night for Cory Brooker, Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren – just. But Beto O’Rourke and other also-rans missed their chance to break through
The explosive disappearance of Elizabeth Warren
The big question on everybody’s mind was whether Elizabeth Warren, 59, the senator from Massachusetts, would continue her meteoric rise into the top tier of candidates.
She was the only one of the 10 women and men on stage to be polling above 5%, having shot up from the status of a relative unknown to that of a formidable player with her own mantra: “I have a plan for that”.
She is also a crack debater, and it showed. She stormed out of the starting gates at rocket speed, and for the first 10 minutes of the night left all the other nine contenders standing.
“Who is this economy really working for?” she said as the first answer to the first question. “It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top.”
She was strong on healthcare, shooting up her hand over Medicare-for-all, the policy that would introduce a national health system and eradicate private health insurance, and denouncing gun violence which she described as a “national health emergency” claiming the lives of seven children in America every day.
But it was a sign of how brutal the format was, with 10 ambitious people all gasping for air on a cramped stage, that even she faded a little as the evening went on. She didn’t get a word in on several key issues, including immigration.
Those of her supporters who were hoping for a dramatic Warren bounce after tonight will probably be disappointed. But so too will those who wanted to see her fall.
The world of Democratic presidential debating has acquired a new shiny toy: speaking Spanish. Beto O’Rourke sent a jolt across the stage when he suddenly broke into the language – an old trick for this bi-lingual former Congressman from Texas.
“Necesitamos incluir cada persona en el exito de este economia,” he said. Cory Booker, the Senator from New Jersey, stood beside him wearing a half-smile that came close to a sneer, until he too hurled into Spanish during the discussion on immigration.
It was enough to send shivers down the spines of some of the candidates who will be up on stage on the second night on Thursday, when the next round of 10 Democratic candidates will do battle. “My Spanish is terrible,” tweeted Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur turned 2020 candidate.
A good night for…
Cory Booker. The 50-year-old African American has failed to make much of a dent on the Democratic race so far, but on Wednesday night he came across as assured, focused and with a strong personal story that leant heavily on his low-income and diverse neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey.
He spoke passionately about immigration reform, a topic that has previously been owned by Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the Democratic pack, and O’Rourke. And he planted himself firmly in the Medicare-for-all camp alongside Warren.
It was also a good night for Castro who has until now failed to rise above the crowd. He gave an impassioned and personal response to this week’s distressing news from the Mexican border, and the horrifying photograph of father and daughter who had drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande. He described the event as “heartbreaking” and with the raw oratory of someone who truly feels it, said “it should piss us all off”.
The other beneficiary of the night was public discussion around the climate crisis – a subject that was raised barely at all during the 2016 presidential debating cycle. Seven minutes of tonight’s spectacle were devoted to global heating, led by Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington who is running a virtually one-track campaign on it.
A bad night for …
Beto O’Rourke. His foray into Spanish notwithstanding, the Texan looked uncomfortable on stage and his discursive, somewhat rambling style of discourse did not fit well into the abbreviated nature of this TV encounter.
Having struggled to break through ever since he launched his presidential campaign in March, he needed this to be his moment. It wasn’t.
It was certainly a bad night for the other-rans, those who are attracting less than one per cent in the polls with no sign of their hopes improving. Put in that category: John Delaney, former Congressman from Maryland; Tulsi Gabbard Congresswoman from Hawaii; and Tim Ryan, Congressman from Ohio. De Blasio managed to raise his voice among the cacophony, but to limited effect.
It was also a bad night for deeper philosophical discussion about the direction of the modern Democratic party.
Still, some major points of poignant divergence came through – notably on healthcare where the Medicare-for-all option was opposed by Amy Klobuchar, the Senator from Minnesota, who argued in favor of a more evolutionary approach that would not scrap private health insurance.
Impeachment also opened up major fault lines. O’Rourke spoke passionately in favor of impeachment proceedings beginning immediately, while the former Congressman from Maryland John Delaney said the subject was a turn-off for most ordinary Americans.
And the elephant in the room?
It is arguably the biggest question of them all for those vying for the Democratic nomination – how to deal with Donald Trump. Do you make him the epicenter of your presidential strategy, as Joe Biden, the current frontrunner, who will debate on Thursday, has done so far; or do you confine him to the dustbin of history?
The 10 candidates assembled tonight largely took the latter route. There was relatively little direct mention of their prime assailant, though a lot of what they were discussing had Trump as their unspoken target.
The single loudest cheer from the NBC News audience went to Inslee who, when asked what he thought was the biggest contemporary threat to the United States, replied: “Donald Trump”.
Castro also got a mention in – and in Spanish too. In his closing statement he looked forward to the day in January 2021 when America would say “adios” to Trump.