By NATHAN CARPENTER
The 2020 Democratic presidential primary cycle began in earnest earlier this week in a series of two debates that evenly split a field of 20 into two groups of 10. At times overwhelming and cacophonous, the debates — which took place on Wednesday and Thursday nights — did provide some substance on important issues. Candidates attempted to set themselves apart from a field with a lot in common, to varying degrees of success. Below are some thoughts, impressions, and takeaways, a few days after the fact.
Kamala Harris was the clear winner. The first-term senator from California absolutely dominated the second debate on Thursday night. She memorably eviscerated former Vice President Joe Biden for the stance he took on busing as a senator in the 1970s, and shone in other moments as well. Still, she has a long way to go before she can win over more progressive voters — many, myself included, are wary of her record as California’s attorney general.
Julián Castro also had a really, really strong performance. Remembering the catastrophe that was the 2016 Republican primary cycle, I was not optimistic that any of the 2020 Democratic debates would meaningfully move the needle until more candidates dropped out. Yet, Castro — who can’t really be considered a current frontrunner by any stretch of the imagination — offered sharp, incisive, and detailed answers, and raised the caliber of the conversation by forcing other candidates to take sometimes uncomfortable stands.
Most notably, he pushed Beto O’Rourke on the issue of immigration, challenging the former congressman from Texas to stand by specific policies proposals rather than regurgitate meaningless platitudes. It seems likely that Castro won’t make it too far, but his ability to shift the conversation while he’s still around is strong.
Elizabeth Warren was another winner, while Tim Ryan was undoubtedly the biggest loser. Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, was rock solid, as she has been throughout her entire campaign. She stuck to her talking points, connected with viewers, and rose above the fray. The same cannot be said for Ryan, the congressperson from Ohio, whose performance was absolutely disastrous. He was destroyed by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii on the question of intervention in the Middle East, a moment that will be tough to bounce back from. There’s not much else to say here, besides the fact that Ryan should probably gracefully bow out, and soon.
We need to have the climate debate. Earlier this month, the DNC declined to host a debate focusing solely on climate issues, a decision that provoked much ire on the left, including from several Democratic candidates.
Over the two nights of debate, climate change and other environmental issues were touched on briefly, but not nearly in enough depth. On the first night, O’Rourke emerged as a surprising frontrunner on climate issues, the first candidate to state that climate change is the greatest threat facing the United States today. A number of other candidates supported increases in green infrastructure, and developed strong links between the environment and the economy.
Despite the generally strong rhetoric, many questions remain unanswered. Voters need greater clarity around what candidates mean when they talk about green infrastructure, and how and where this infrastructure will be implemented. I have previously written about how a green economy, while more environmentally sustainable, could replicate existing inequities if envisioned carelessly. Recently, several leading climate thinkers have said that it’s no longer enough to judge a candidate based simply on whether they believe in climate change; I agree. The bar must be raised, and we need a debate about how we get to a green economy, not just about whether we should have one or not.
Interestingly, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington who originally called for a climate debate, really underperformed on this issue Wednesday night. He failed to establish his credibility as the definitive climate candidate, despite selling himself that way for the past several months.
Warren had the best answer on gun control. To this point, Warren has run the smartest 2020 campaign, and her answer to a gun control question from moderator Chuck Todd was no exception. Essentially, Warren said that we don’t know all the answers yet, and that we need to research gun violence like a public health crisis.
This is an insightful and exciting answer, for a number of reasons. Gun control has been an increasingly partisan issues in recent years, with officials and candidates on both sides of the aisle engaging in empty rhetoric that appeals to their base, rather than taking a long, hard look at how to actually curb the epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings.
Warren says that all needs to end — and she’s absolutely right. Political business as usual cannot continue when people are being gunned down in schools, movie theaters, places of prayer, and more. We need more candidates who focus on research-based policy and are willing to say when the research hasn’t been done yet; to me, that’s one of the key reasons Warren’s candidacy is so exciting.
A lot of these candidates are wasting their time. In a field of more than 20 — there are other candidates who didn’t qualify for the debates — many will never get the attention or traction that they need to keep their campaigns going past the Iowa caucuses. It’s a shame, because many of the candidates — O’Rourke and Castro come to mind — could make really compelling congressional candidates, and could work with a Democratic president to make substantive change on many of the important issues touched on in the debates.
Instead, we have an exhausting number of candidates running for president at a time when the partisan balance of both the House and Senate is of the utmost importance. Some of these more compelling candidates who aren’t going to make it far in the presidential race should consider dropping out and looking for ways to make a larger impact a little bit closer to home.
Finally, Joe Biden needs to go. Thursday’s debate once and for all resolved the question of whether the former vice president has any relevance in modern, progressive American politics, and the answer was a definitive ‘no.’ His exchange with Harris showed his unwillingness to admit past mistakes — even glaring ones — and his defensive, almost angry, reaction did not inspire confidence in his diplomacy.
Further, Biden’s answer on immigration — he refused to say that he would consider crossing the border without documentation as a civil offense, rather than a criminal one — was shameful. The Democratic Party is (hopefully) moving in a new direction, and there’s not any room for Biden’s politics on that journey. He needs to recognize that his time has passed and step back.