First Democratic Debate: Key Takeaways for Each Candidate

The Democrats got their first taste of campaign season last night and already themes are emerging in the 2020 race. Many candidates attempted to speak Spanish, and few of them were willing to fully commit to Medicare for All. Perhaps the largest unanswered question in the room was: can any of these candidates successfully take Trump down? After the amateurish verbal sparring that played out on stage last night, the Dems have a lot to be worried about.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto had a rough night. He bumbled through questions, relying on nonspecific populist language that is his bread and butter. Though he was the first to use Spanish and clearly the candidate with the greatest command of the language, even taking questions from the moderators in Spanish, he withstood sustained and heavy damage from Castro, who attacked him on immigration reform policies. Beto seemed flustered by Castro’s frequent interjections and attempts to speak about him and demonstrated little ability to fend off Castro’s critique of his ‘comprehensive rewrite.’ Beto also seemed to flub a question about gun control and skated through a climate change question without scoring any major points. Overall, he seemed nervous, awkward, oozing imposter syndrome, like a kid in a talent show who can’t believe he made it to the stage, doesn’t really want to be there, but will do it anyway just to please others.

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi had a weak start but made up for it a bit later into the debate. Her first answer was prepared, stilted, and short. Throughout the night, she relied heavily on her military credentials, hardly mentioning Hawaii at all. She purposefully appeared hawkish, grave, and careful. However, she did not appear comfortable. By the second half of the debate, she had begun to fade, receiving little air time as the other candidates dominated the stage. But just when it looked like she might be forgotten altogether, she unleashed a blistering takedown of Tim Ryan that not only crushed Ryan’s night but elevated her performance to a net win. She completely outclassed Ryan with her striking appearance and calm yet piercing delivery. This moment redeemed her otherwise lackluster responses to earlier questions about her failure to support the LGBTQ community in her younger years and her unclear stance on medicare for all.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren had a good night. She achieved the main goal before her, which was to not mess up, stay above the fray, and display her leadership skills.  Though she seemed to fade into the background at times, she spoke forcefully about every issue (except immigration, where her silence was notable), and stood out from the crowd by being one of the only candidates (other than De Blasio) on stage who raised their hand when asked if they would take public healthcare over their current private insurance. She had several applause moments, such as when the moderators asked if she had a plan for dealing with McConnell, and she said, “I do.” She also seemed to be the only candidate who had a solid economic plan that included green jobs and investment in a wide range of research. Her closing argument was also effective, perfectly landing the line, “I will fight for you as hard as I fight for my own family.”

Bill de Blasio

Ah De Blasio, what a guy. De Blasio looks like a goofy daytime TV injury lawyer. His overbearing and aggressive interjections risked annoying the audience and moderators, such as when he attempted to speak over an ad break. But he managed to communicate enough passion to offset this buffoonery. De Blasio had several notable lines, such as when he pleaded directly with working-class white people, saying, “The immigrants didn’t do it to you! The 1% did it to you!” He took a few good swipes at Beto, and he threw a good curveball on racial justice issues by informing everyone that he has a Black son. But overall, he came off as desperate and flailing.

John Delaney

Delaney had a mixed night. He performed very well on substantive issues such as jobs and healthcare. He also had a decent response to the question of impeachment, forcing the mods to concede that not only does no one have a better idea of how to move forward on the issue than Nancy Pelosi, but also that the question of impeachment does not matter to American voters. He may have lost points with hard leftists by appealing to bipartisanship so heavily, but his aggression towards other candidates, the constant interjections and sparing with De Blasio, Ryan, and Booker came off as passion. He had an unwavering focus on a jobs, the economy, and working-class voter issues. But for all that, he did not stand out from the crowd in any meaningful way.

Jay Inslee

Inslee has mastered the high school football coach vibe. He came across a straight shooter, and where he lacked sophistication, he made up for it with the sheer force of his voice. At times it looked like he might swallow the microphone. He was clearly the only candidate who took climate change as seriously as many Democrats do. However, he seemed to fade from the stage at times, and when he claimed to be the only candidate on stage who has fought for reproductive rights, Klobuchar laughed at him and responded that “there are three women up here who have fought for it.” Despite that blow, Inslee delivered perhaps the most powerful closing statement. He invoked climate change and delivered a nearly flawless rebuke of the other candidates for not taking it seriously enough.

Tim Ryan

Poor Ryan had a terrible night. Not only did he lack charisma, but he seemed downright scared and angry. His appeals to middle American voters and his attempt to score points on immigration by invoking the children in detention centers were all completely overshadowed by Tulsi’s stunning attack on his foreign policies. During a blistering exchange, she confused him and made him trip up. Flustered, he mistakenly claimed that the Taliban “flew planes into our buildings,” at which point Tulsi finished him off by informing him that that Al-Qaida was responsible for 9/11. From then on, he had clearly lost all command of himself, fumbling through a few more questions before finishing with an unfocused closing statement full of random images, flailing, and intense desperation. 

Julian Castro

Castro had a good night overall. He successfully pushed Beto back onto his heals and relentlessly attacked him in ways that Beto was clearly unprepared for. Though Castro’s lack of Spanish speaking skills was conspicuous and awkward as the only Latino candidate on a stage where several candidates spoke Spanish, his command of immigration issues more than made up for his weak answers on healthcare and economic issues. Castro relentlessly sparred with Booker, Beto, and De Blasio while largely steering clear of Klobuchar when directly invited to attack her by the moderators.

Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar successfully nailed the quaint small town girl vibe. While she was clearly not as polished as Castro or Booker, she came off as the least elitist on a stage full of elites. While the other candidates claimed to be fighting for the midwest working class, Klobuchar actually sounded like a person from a working-class rural midwestern community. She executed a fantastic takedown of Inslee after he claimed to be the only candidate fighting for women’s reproductive rights, and she joined Booker in refraining from supporting the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal. She also had several notable lines. For instance, at one point she attacked Trump, saying, “I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in a bathrobe at 5 in the morning,” and later, she displayed some of her folksy charisma in her closing statement that could help her with midwest voters.

Cory Booker

Booker performed well but perhaps came off as too intense. He was noticeably upset that Beto used Spanish before he could, and he struggled consistently with Castro and De Blasio for minority voters’ attention on social justice issues. He also took a lot of questions about his stances on the Pharmaceutical industry early on, but successfully fended off Castro’s sparring on immigration issues. Noticeably, Booker was the only candidate to invoke religious language, saying that the thoughts and prayers are no longer enough, and that, “Faith without works is dead.” But his intense facial expressions certainly distracted from all of the substance of his performance, and his weak closing statement left a lot to be desired.

You can also check out the full footage of last night's debate here:


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