The second round of debates for the herd of Democratic presidential candidates got underway last night. Unlike the current office holder, the ten wannabe presidents who gathered in Detroit demonstrated their seriousness about policy. In fact, that was the theme of the evening – parsing policy differences about health care, student debt forgiveness and foreign policy.
The back and forth among the candidates was a window into the future of the Democratic party. The party has been drifting leftward recently–although not comparable to the wild lurch the GOP has taken. What the candidates were really debating was just how much more liberal the Democratic party will be.
That battle was encapsulated by perhaps the biggest applause line of the night, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren smacked down former Rep. John Delaney after Delaney complained about how a lot of the candidates’ health care plans were politically unrealistic.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren said. “I don’t get it.”
But at another point Sen. Amy Klobuchar made a strong case for a moderate: “Do you want to win the argument, or do you want to win the election?” she asked.
For the most part, the candidates did themselves proud, at least for their supporters, a change from the first debates. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the only candidate who wasn’t around for the first debate rounds, showed himself a credible candidate from a red state. After a lackluster performance last time, Beto O’Rourke was much more animated.
Senator Bernie Sanders, whom the media keep pitting against Warren, showed more energy this time around (which for Bernie consists of yelling more frequently). Even Marianne Williamson came across as thoughtful, even if that probaby won’t do her much in the long run.
Pete Buttigieg was his usual eloquent self, getting off some of the sharpest lines in the debate. Three times he made use of his age to make a point. He pointed out that his generation is the first that grew up with school shootings. He talked about dealing with student debt.
And in a sly dig at Joe Biden (not on the stage last night), he said that age didn’t matter as much as vision. Returning to the past normal – one of Biden’s selling point – won’t work, Buttigieg said: “The only reason we got this president is that normal didn’t work.”
Buttigieg also got the chance to talk about his military service, the only candidate on the stage to have served. Buttigieg promised that he would withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan.
“I thought I was one of the last troops leaving Afghanistan,” Buttigieg. “We’re pretty close to the day when we wake up to the news of a casualty in Afghanistan who was not born on 9/11.”
Missing from the debate was any question about LGBTQ issues. There were a few glancing references, including Sanders calling President Trump a homophobe, an attack that Sanders has been regularly using for months. GLAAD called the lack of a question a “missed opportunity.”
There will be more debates, of course, but after tomorrow, fewer candidates. Because of a change in the rules for who qualifies, some of the candidates are likely to fall by the wayside, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Delaney, and Rep. Tim Ryan.
In the meantime, the debate of the policy and the party’s future will only heat up. Republicans will be planning Trump’s re-election campaign around portraying the Democrats as modern-day Bolsheviks. Buttigieg had a response for that too.
“It is true that if we embrace a far left agenda, they will say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” Buttigieg said. “If we embrace a conservative agenda, do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.”
Whoever the nominee is, that’s good advice to follow.