The second round of Democratic debates was hosted on Tuesday and Wednesday of the last week in July. Candidates sought to debate the merits of bold policy ideas such as Medicare For All and more handily debate their opponents on their political records. Candidates mostly accomplished to highlight the partisan divides within the Democratic party as sound-bytes and accusations of “Republican talking points” controlled the narrative.
In the first debate, candidates substantively tackled healthcare policy while putting on display the political divides on the issue between progressives in moderates. When candidates were given time to push their ideas (they were cut short almost as often), they were largely articulate.
The moderates (most notably former Rep. John Delaney and Gov. Steve Bullock) discussed their skepticism of Medicare For All and its ability to be implemented in a cost-effective manner - often claiming it to be unrealistic. Progressives responded by claiming anything different than the sweeping overhaul that is Medicare For All is not enough - even claiming those pushing a public option to be “spineless” and full of “small ideas.”
More noticeably, Warren and Sanders failed to set themselves apart from one another, often defending one another on stage even as they share the progressive base. Instead, they both used rousing language against the moderate candidates and the moderators, spouting the phrase “Republican talking points” when faced with criticism of their progressive agenda. Highlighting potential problems with a politician’s policy and implementation strategy is not a “Republican talking point” and the deflection of a valid question by using that phrase is pathetic and untrustworthy.
While other topics were also debated - such as immigration and climate change - the debate over healthcare was the main event. Sen. Warren had snappy, articulate responses in the limited time frame she was given, John Delaney and the other moderates pointedly attacked single-payer healthcare and brought public option plans more into the spotlight and moderators asked the questions which Americans wanted answers to regarding the policies discussed. The winner of the first debate, then, was substance.
The loser of the debate was the format, though it is certainly difficult to have a workable format with a crowded field. There were definitely candidates that managed to attract more attention from the moderators - Marianne Williamson, Delaney and Warren come to mind - but I can’t confidently suggest that the others performed poorly. That’s for fundraising and polling numbers to reveal.
Night two on Wednesday had lesser substance. It became a way for front-runner Joe Biden to ramp up his critiques of the opposition - and they fired back. It was a repeat of the June debates, which were more focused on Democrats’ past than the disastrous present under President Trump.
Another Democrat was consistently brought up in the debate Wednesday - former President Barack Obama. It wasn’t a rose-colored-glasses review of his two-term presidency; it was a tough assessment of Obama’s policies. I would argue that Obama’s legacy was collateral damage to critiquing his VP on stage, who invokes the former president when it’s convenient for his campaign. There’s one problem with this attack on Obama; he is probably the most unifying figure in the Democratic party. Picking apart at his legacy picks apart at party unity, which is already lacking.
Turning the party into a circular firing squad and attacking Obama is a losing strategy, and Biden remains very much the front-runner. Candidates also got to put their two-cents in about climate change, healthcare, and criminal justice. Gov. Jay Inslee had his breakout moment when he said “the house is on fire” and urged Biden to address his climate plan’s lenient treatment of the fossil fuel industry. Sen. Cory Booker went after Biden, and Obama’s, criminal justice blunders. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand went after the former vice president by suggesting he was against women working outside the home as it would compromise the “nuclear family.” Andrew Yang reminded viewers that the real enemy was Trump.
From what I’ve mentioned so far, you’d assume the entire debate related to the record of Joe Biden. That’s almost true. Tulsi Gabbard came out swinging for Sen. Kamala Harris’s prosecutorial record, claiming she put countless Californians in jail for marijuana-related offenses and laughed about smoking marijuana herself, blocked evidence which would have freed an innocent man from death row, exploited prison labor and fought to keep cash-bail in place. These charges hold some validity but misrepresented several points and largely served as more circular firing squad fuel. Harris’s response on stage was - you guessed it - redirected to Biden. Gabbard, however, pointed to something in Harris’s record that has been boiling under the service, and it’s best that it is put out there for voters to consider.
The winner of the second debate was opposition research. The loser was the legacy of Barack Obama (make no mistake, he still remains overwhelmingly popular). Individually, Booker and Gabbard had noticeable surges, Harris took a step back with the attack from Gabbard and Joe Biden took hits with more grace this time around. The “Republican talking points” line got invoked again in the second debate, and it’s getting awfully tired. I would classify it as an additional loser.
The second round of debates further highlighted the divide in the party as it defaulted on attacking its most unifying figure. Joe Biden remains the person to beat, and the Medicare-for-all versus public option debate necessitates more of a spotlight. Further, it remains to be seen who can appeal to the base and still persuade in the general. As the requirements for the third debates in September are ramped up considerably, hopefully that question gets more clarity with a smaller field. Until then, voters have a lot to chew on as they decide who to rank highly and who to donate to.