Image Credit: Gabriella Demczuk for CNN
In such a packed field, it’s hard to isolate standout moments from the 20 political candidates on show. Perhaps positively, these debates were characterised by far more aggression, as candidates openly criticised the plans put forward by their peers. Here are a few people who have reason to be happy and disappointed coming out of the two debates.
The radical frontrunners
The second debates would be a battle over the identity of the Democratic party: should the primary voters adopt the more radical left-wing policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or do Democrats favour more moderate candidates? Sanders and Warren were forced to field questions about their “electability”, a sign that, despite widespread left-wing support for their platforms, nationally, voters are more sceptical.
Under pressure from their peers in most policy areas, both were able to put forward a positive case. The debate opened with a discussion of “Medicare For All”: their programme that supposedly guarantees a single-payer system that classifies healthcare for Americans as a “right, not a privilege.” As expected, moderates heavily criticised their plans, notably Montana Governor Steve Bullock, and Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney. That said, Warren’s retort that she didn’t understand why moderates had entered the race “just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for” earnt loud applause and plenty of supportive media attention after the debate. Both Warren and Sanders will be happy with their performance.
The previous NBC debate had received criticism for the moderators’ loose style as well as their frequent requests to divide candidates on key policy areas through one-word answers or raised hands. CNN returned to a more traditional system, testing candidates with Republican criticisms of their policies, as would likely be the case in the general election.
This, combined with tighter restrictions on timing, and greater punishments for interrupting, allowed the candidates to speak more clearly, and establish a more positive policy narrative. Although exchanges frequently broke out, the CNN debate presented clearer divisions between candidates, with more vocal individuals punished more heavily for jumping in to discussions where they weren’t mentioned.
As we explained in our last debate round-up, the incoming President will likely face a divided Congress, which will make legislative reform at the domestic level almost impossible. Foreign policy is a far easier space for change, as most trade deals, treaties, and international agreements do not need Congressional approval.
That said, the discussion was almost absent from the debates. Although moderates pressed candidates briefly on President Trump’s tariffs, the field was not quizzed on other international issues, such as NAFTA, the Iran Deal, or America’s current lack of engagement in the Paris climate change accords. This was a key omission from a debate where moderators even found time to talk about obscure domestic policy details such as candidates’ positions on educating illegal immigrants.
The former President’s agenda came under frequent criticism in the second debate, even as Joe Biden defended him. Speaking to reporters afterwards, Biden said he was “a little surprised” that Obama’s policies were so unpopular with the rest of the field. Kamala Harris attempted to repeat the success of her last debate, and criticised Biden heavily for his maintenance of the “status quo, and for not doing enough to reign in insurance companies during the Obama administration. Later, former New York Major Bill de Blasio ripped into Biden for his administration’s tough stance on illegal immigrants.
The strategy was more than a little strange, considering most polls give Obama a favourability rating of around 60 points nationally: do Democrats really need to criticise the past administration in order to win the forthcoming general election?
In Detroit, a faint air of desperation hung in the air for most of the candidates on stage. The forthcoming third set of debates have far higher entry requirements: polling at at least two per cent in four national polls, and having the support of at least 130,000 unique donors. For most of the field, these requirements will be completely prohibitive: this week may have been the last time we see them on stage: their last opportunity to stand out from the crowd, and prove they’re worth the pundits’ time.
Despite this, very few of them managed to break through the noise: Steve Bullock was perhaps the most impressive, but it is unlikely his debate performance was strong enough to give him the support he needs to qualify for the next set of debates, which will likely be dominated by the frontrunners: Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, and Booker.
The El Paso Congressman’s campaign was relaunched earlier last week to much media fanfair, it has failed to revitalise his poll numbers. Most polls now put the former rising star in sixth place, and his campaign has also been dogged by controversy, from his assertion that he placed “most of the work” of raising his kids on his wife, to his claim that he was “destined” to become President.
O’Rourke needed a standout night, but onstage he appeared nervous and fidgety. As Vox contributor German Lopez put it, “O’Rourke needed a big moment to change all that. He didn’t get it.”