4 winners and 3 losers from the first night of the Democratic debates

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Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019, in Miami.

Winner: Cory Booker.

On Wednesday night, the Democratic candidates debated for the first time. Well, some of them — 10 of the 25. Another 10 will go tomorrow night. There is no exit. Hell is other candidates.

But as preposterously large and byzantine as these carnivals are, and as low as the stakes can feel this early in the process, the opening act was surprisingly informative.

A major candidate, one who was expected to shake up the entire presidential race as early as November of last year, crashed and burned, beset at all sides by candidates who seemed better informed on everything from immigration to war powers.

Another held her own and solidified her position near the top of the pack.

And three long shots broke out of obscurity to give themselves new life, which could help with fundraising and give them a sliver of a chance that no one thought they had as of 8:58 pm Eastern Wednesday.

Here’s who held or gained ground, and who fell behind, on round one of the seemingly infinite rounds of Democratic debates.

Winner: Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks as former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke looks on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Warren, stunting on Beto.

Elizabeth Warren entered Wednesday’s debate as the clear frontrunner onstage. That dynamic became even more apparent in the first few minutes, when the other candidates — one after the other — were asked to respond to three of her biggest policies: debt-free college, higher taxes for top earners, and Warren’s plan to break up the big tech companies. The question on a higher marginal tax rate was technically based on a plan from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but Warren’s signature campaign plan is a wealth tax on ultramillionaires and billionaires.

Warren’s performance wasn’t a breakout, but it was solid. She stuck to her core message throughout the night: advocating for dramatic, structural change to eradicate corporate corruption and redistribute wealth from the top to America’s middle and lower classes. She also may have won some new fans with her full-throated endorsement of fellow progressive Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, something she hasn’t been clear about on the stump so far.

On Wednesday, Warren was unequivocal: She’s in favor of getting rid of private insurance, saying health insurance companies are too focused on their bottom line. As she closes in on Sanders’s second-place slot in the polls, she is focused on winning over Bernie’s base. That answer could get her one step closer.

Warren certainly was quieter on issues like immigration and foreign policy, and didn’t jump into the fray as much as some other candidates. But she exited Wednesday’s debate with her frontrunner status intact — a good spot to be in.

Ella Nilsen

Winner: Julián Castro

Julian Castro speaks during the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Julián Castro speaks during the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.

It’s impossible to win a debate in which you’re onstage with nine other people — and you’re not even facing half your opponents in the race. If you’re a lower-tier candidate, it’s awfully difficult to make an impression at all — much less set the terms of debate by getting get other candidates to respond to what you say.

Castro did just that.

He got the first question of the night on immigration, a subject on which he’s one of the only candidates to have released a full campaign plan. And he used it to his advantage by connecting the border crisis and the desperation of people trying to enter the United States to the most radical proposal in that plan: repealing Section 1325 of Title 8 of the US Code, which makes it a federal misdemeanor to cross into the US without papers.

To be clear: What Castro is proposing isn’t quite opening the borders. Being in the US as an unauthorized immigrant would still be a civil offense, just as it is now, and could still lead to deportation. But entering illegally would no longer be criminally prosecutable — which means, among other things, that it would be impossible to reanimate the “zero tolerance” prosecution policy that allowed the Trump administration to separate thousands of children from their parents at the border over a handful of weeks in 2018.

Then he challenged other candidates to endorse the idea of repeal, turning the whole segment into a referendum on a policy that is closely associated with him.

To people who don’t know immigration policy intimately, talk of “Section 1325” might have sounded obscure (and certainly out of sync with the passion with which candidates yelled over each other about it). But make no mistake: It was radical.

Dara Lind

Winner: Bill de Blasio

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In First Debate Of 2020 Election Over Two Nights
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Bill de Blasio wilding out.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio isn’t especially popular in his hometown. And his presidential campaign has barely registered with Democratic voters.

But damned if he didn’t make the most of his national political debut. It is a daring strategy to run aggressively leftward in a field that includes Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but if anything, he managed to position himself as more progressive than Warren on Wednesday night.

“This is supposed to be the party of working people,” he declared, in a moment that recalled Howard Dean’s promise to represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” in 2003. “Yes, we are supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy, and free public college for our young people. We are supposed to break up big corporations when they are not serving our democracy.”

I don’t think even Sanders has explicitly called for 70 percent top marginal rate. But de Blasio did.

He laid into Beto O’Rourke for promising to keep private insurance, declaring that it’s “not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the premiums and the out-of-pocket expenses — how can you defend a system that is not working?”

And he was able to emphasize that unlike his senator rivals on the left wing of the primary, he is the chief executive of a massive city, one with nearly 14 times more people than Vermont. And in that capacity, he has delivered a $15 minimum wage, universal pre-K, and the end of stop-and-frisk.

It would be folly to predict a viable de Blasio candidacy based on just one good debate performance. But it was a very good debate performance, regardless of how you feel about de Blasio’s record as mayor.

Dylan Matthews

Winner: Cory Booker

Booker’s performance did not jump out to me as especially charismatic or impressive. But I’ve also followed Booker for years, and lived briefly in Newark shortly after he left the mayorship, so I’ve seen and heard him more than most. And it appears that normal people without much contact with Cory Booker really liked what they saw:

And fair enough! Booker got the most airtime of any candidate. If you look at the Google Trends data, Booker searches surged after his comments about gun violence:

First of all, I want to say my colleague and I have been hearing this on the campaign trail, but worse is I hear gunshots in my neighborhood. I think I’m the only one, I hope I am, that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week. Someone I knew was killed with an assault rifle at the top of my block last year.

For millions of Americans, this is not a policy issue, this is an urgency. For those that have not been affected, they will learn about reading, writing, and arithmetic and how to deal with an active shooter in school, and all they have to offer is thoughts and prayers. Faith without works is dead. We will find a way. The reason we have a problem is we let the corporate gun lobby frame this debate. It is time we have bold actions and a bold agenda. I will get that done as president of the United States because this is not about policy. This is personal.

It was an unusually visceral, passionate response to an issue often treated with platitudes and vague expressions of sympathy, and one that Booker had credibility to offer. Newark really does struggle with gun violence. It really is an issue Booker knows well. And he has the rhetorical chops to express a pretty conventional version of the Democratic gun control platform in a way that feels vital and urgent.

Dylan Matthews

Loser: Beto O’Rourke

When Beto speaks Spanish
Cory Booker is all of us here.

It’s hard to nail exactly one thing that Beto O’Rourke did wrong here. His most memorable moment was when he awkwardly broke into Spanish in his first answer, but Cory Booker had his own awkward Spanish moment later on, making it a bit of a wash (more below).

The bigger problem for him was the constant stream of moments where he appeared to be outclassed, when his opponents, including seeming nobodies who shouldn’t be threats to him, went directly at him and came away looking better.

First came Julián Castro, who directly attacked O’Rourke for declining to endorse repeal of Section 1325, which criminalizes unauthorized entry into the United States. It was an aggressive, specific attack from a fellow Texan that left O’Rourke flat-footed, without a real response — and gave Castro a memorable moment through which to distinguish himself. “If you did your homework on this issue, you should know we should repeal this,” Castro insisted to O’Rourke, and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that O’Rourke really hadn’t done the homework.

Then came Bill de Blasio, who savaged O’Rourke for promising to protect private insurance, with its sometimes exorbitant deductibles and premiums.

Then came de Blasio again, when O’Rourke pledged to intervene abroad to prevent atrocities, asking:

What about the War Powers Act being a part of that equation, with deep respect to the congressman? … My dad served in the Pacific in the World War II in the US Army, Battle of Okinawa, and had half his leg blown off and came home with scars both physical and emotional and did not recover. He spiraled downward and ultimately took his own life. That battle did not kill him, but that war did. Look, in a humanitarian crisis … we should be ready, Congressman, to intervene — god forbid there is genocide — but not without congressional approval. We have not challenged presidents, and [we have] let them get away with running the military without congressional approval.

“I will not take war lightly because of what it did to my father” is a hard point to counter, and O’Rourke didn’t really try. He just nodded and moved along.

O’Rourke is not an unintelligent man, and he’s not an empty suit. He has real plans on immigration and climate change. But if he entered the night as one of the most prominent 2020 contenders, he ranked as the second most notable contender from the state of Texas on Wednesday night’s stage.

Dylan Matthews

Loser: the Iran deal

Kerry Meets With Iranian Foreign Minister At UN
Jason DeCrow-Pool/Getty Images
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations on April 27, 2015.

For the past four years, Democrats have been nothing but unanimous in their overall support for the Iran nuclear deal. Tonight was the first time some cracks showed in that unanimity.

NBC’s Lester Holt asked the candidates to raise their hands if, as president, they would rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal as originally negotiated. Every candidate on the stage raised their hands — except Booker. “We need to get into a deal, but I’m not going to have a platform to say I’m going to rejoin the deal,” he explained. “When I’m president of the United States, I will do the best I can to secure the country and the region and if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”

Then two other candidates — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) — also said they would try to get more concessions out of Iran than Barack Obama did four years ago. Klobuchar went so far as to call the accord “imperfect.”

It was a stunning moment. The deal, which lifted sanctions off Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program, was long pointed to as major diplomatic achievement, and one achieved by a Democrat, no less. But during the debate, three Democrats effectively said they could improve on Obama’s signature achievement.

The deal still enjoyed the support of most Democrats onstage. But Democratic enthusiasm for the Obama-era agreement is seemingly not as strong as it once was, if tonight’s debate is any indication.

Alex Ward

Loser: awkward Spanish

Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker took a moment during their precious speaking time to say some lines in Spanish.

The idea of speaking Spanish during a presidential debate makes sense for a party that’s trying to both appeal to Latino voters and portray itself as the defender of American diversity against Trumpian nativism. And practically, because the debate was carried by NBC and its sister channel Telemundo and co-hosted by Noticiero Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart, it made some logical sense.

But some viewers, themselves native Spanish speakers, complained these overtures were often so painful to hear. By the end of the immigration segment of the debate, people were cringing whenever a candidate dropped into Spanish.

The reality is that using Spanish for a few moments during the debate might be a useful first step, but it isn’t the full strategy for what the candidates hope or need to achieve. Latino voters are improving their turnout numbers, but they are still notoriously difficult to get to the polls. Most Latino US citizens (especially those born in the US) speak fluent English; Latinos whose parents were also born in the US may not speak Spanish at all. And furthermore, many of the Democratic candidates’ campaign websites had poor translations of their policies into Spanish.

Signals like the ones during the debate only land if they feel authentic — but the awkward pronunciation during the debate made the whole thing seem more than a little pander-y: the candidates and moderators performing what they thought “Latino outreach” ought to look like.

It was made even more awkward when Castro delivered the best zinger on this front — noting that “on January 20, 2021, we’ll say ‘adios’ to Donald Trump.” It felt more natural than other candidates’ performative Spanish.

Democrats will need Latinos if they want to beat Trump in 2020. But “speaking Spanish” is often lazy shorthand, a substitute for real Latino outreach. And Wednesday night’s debate was a reminder that sometimes, speaking another language makes you seem more culturally awkward — not less.

Dara Lind and German Lopez

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