The second round of debate nights began Tuesday night as CNN brought the candidates to the Fox Theater in Detroit, Michigan for two back-to-back nights of debates, and there were some expected and unexpected winners and losers.
Tuesday’s debate was moderated by Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon and featured Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), motivational speaker Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former Congressman John Delaney (D-Maryland) and Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D).
This marks the second time 20 total Democratic candidates would take the stage on two separate nights, and might be the last time some of the voices of these candidates are heard. The threshold for the round of debates in September will be harder for candidates to meet, making the debates this week do-or-die for many campaigns lower in the polls. One candidate already bowed out after the first round of debates: Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California).
Detroit also is a major venue for the Democratic Party. It has a powerful history for people of color, is only 70 miles from Flint (which still distrusts its water after the city was poisoned five years ago), and is represented by Rep. Rashida Talib (D-Michigan), who is one of the young congresswomen of color the President told to “go back” to her nation of origin (she was born in Detroit).
Flint got a shout-out in the debate as its infrastructure issues reflect a broader disastrous state of infrastructure maintenance nationwide.
We won’t know for a few days who is going to have to pack it in after tonight, but we do know who seized the night and who faded into the dark. Not all, or even most, of the biggest winners and losers were even on the stage.
Winners: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren
*gif of the rock and jason statham back to back firing machine guns at all the bad guys except it’s bernie and warren*
— Jules Suzdaltsev (@jules_su) July 31, 2019
Despite efforts both from the conservative end of the field and the moderators to advance conservative talking points about progressive ideals, Warren and Sanders defended the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and compassionate immigration policies against the rest of the stage, and were rewarded regularly with applause. Sometimes aggressive, sometimes clever, the progressives did not fight one another but fought together to advance an agenda they fundamentally agree on.
Even when asked about areas she disagreed with the biggest name on the stage, Warren refused to take the bait and instead focused on the important values that drive progressives.
Warren also defended the idea of the a wealth tax against the biggest loser of the debate, Delaney, who thought rolling back the Trump tax cuts was all that was needed to get the wealthiest Americans to invest in America. Warren said that by taxing the richest one tenth of one percent of Americans, her wealth tax could provide a slate of Democratic policies — like universal pre-kindergarten care.
Losers: Kids Who Don’t Want to be Shot
“This is the exact same conversation we were having when I was in high school,” Buttigieg said in response to a question about gun violence.
Senator Klobuchar blamed the National Rifle Association for the troubles with passing gun reform in the wake of the second generation of school shootings, and Governor Bullock and former Congressman O’Rourke saw it as a symptom of special interests funding elections. However, Buttigieg didn’t have patience for the same conversation today that existed twenty years ago.
Buttigieg called for a slate of structural reforms that would address the issues that the more conservative Democrats on the stage, including a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United. Williamson also called out others on the stage who have taken money from those special interests who are now trying to cast themselves as champions in the fight against dark money.
But once the conversation went there, it left behind those students just afraid of dying at school. Maybe like students at nearby Oakland University in Detroit, the Democratic field could hand out hockey pucks?
Winners: Sick People
John Delaney called Medicare for All “taking insurance away” from the people who currently receive healthcare. As Sanders pointed out, however, millions of Americans have private insurance not because they chose their coverage, but through an employer-provided health plan which you can’t keep even if you like your plan if someone’s circumstances of employment ever changed.
Other opponents of Medicare for All like Bullock said it was “wishlist economics.” Meanwhile, some like Buttigieg and O’Rourke were painting the difference between Medicare for All and improving Obamacare around the margins, preferring a public option.
When Jake Tapper told Bernie Sanders he didn’t know that Medicare for All would provide better insurance than private insurers and would give comprehensive coverage as others on stage argued, Bernie had no patience.
“I wrote the damn bill!” said Sanders.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 31, 2019
The biggest moment on this came with Senator Warren. She started telling a story about a terminal patient, and was interrupted by Tapper with a separate question about healthcare. When she finished the question quickly to go back to her story, the audience laughed. Warren chastised them, though. A person is dying, she said, and there’s nothing funny about that. This turned the normal practice of a debate anecdote into a jarring moment that really communicated the gravity of inadequate coverage.
(Fun fact: The debate was held on the anniversary of Medicare.)
Loser: John Delaney
There were a lot of people on the stage that struggled to stand out among the wide ocean of white, male, centrist Democrats, but John Delaney was by far their champion. If only that played half as well with the audience as he wanted it to.
From phrases that were clearly tested but failed to pop, to articulating a view of Democratic politics that did not resonate with the audience he was standing in front of, Delaney was repeatedly smacked down by the bulwark of progressive values displayed by Warren and Sanders. Even the middle-left of the ideological spectrum beat back Delaney at every chance. As The Young Turks‘ (and Grit Post contributor) Ken Klippenstein pointed out, someone edited Delaney’s Wikipedia profile to state that he died following a viral exchange with Sen. Warren.
Someone edited John Delaney's wiki lmao pic.twitter.com/Q88cCo78On
— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) July 31, 2019
Winners: Flinters, Migrants and Other Victims of Racism
Even when they were blasting progressive policies as encouraging illegal migration, the inherent racism in Trump’s immigration rhetoric was essential to their plans for reform. Moreover, some on stage like Sanders and O’Rourke called for a pan-American approach to the causes of migration from countries like El Salvador and Honduras. But the discussion on issues of race went much deeper.
“The president is advancing environmental racism, economic racism, criminal justice racism, health care racism,” said Warren. “We have to build a better education system for all of our kids but we have to acknowledge what’s happened on race.”
Environmental racism was no small factor in the disaster that has played out over the past five years in Flint, Michigan. Marianne Williamson pointed to that as a cause of the disaster and acknowledged it in a deeply Michigander way.
Williamson — who grew up in wealthy and largely white Grosse Pointe, Michigan — said that the Flint Water Crisis never would’ve happened in Grosse Pointe. This was met with a thunderous roar of applause from the Michigan audience.
Williamson not only went on to call for reparations for slavery in the amount of $500 billion, which she called a debt owed based on a conservative estimate of the real value of the 40 acres and a mule adjusted for inflation. She got another bout of uproarious cheers when she said any less than $100 billion is unacceptable. Sanders focused his attention on using that money for government programs to address America’s history of racism.
Even Buttigieg — who has a troubled history as a mayor of South Bend, Indiana with his support of gentrification — called for national action, though he did punt responsibility for his actions in South Bend saying mayors are at their limit with what they can accomplish without national intervention.
Losers: Conservative Democrats
WARREN: “I don’t know why anyone would go to the trouble of running for president just to talk about what we can’t do.”
— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) July 31, 2019
“The healthcare industry will be advertising tonight,” said Sanders.
Tapper quickly cut him off, but Sanders continued to characterize the tenor of Tapper’s articulation of tax increases to pay for Medicare for All as a Republican talking point (which it is) and the effort to turn people on the stage against Warren for her statement that there wasn’t enough political will to fight for Medicare for All.
“It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” said Buttigieg.
He went on to explain that if the Democratic Party were to agree with the Republicans on everything, they still would label the Democrats socialists — there simply is no point to a strategy of appeasement.
Even so, some people took lines closer to appeasement of the Republican base. The right-wing end of the slate argued that progressive policies inspire illegal immigration and how progressive policies will give the election to Trump by moving the party too far to the left. Standing in Michigan, which voted with Trump, might have seemed like a good audience for this tack, but it was Sanders and Warren who got applause breaks when articulating their policy visions.
Detroiters, who even obnoxiously sing along when their city is mentioned in Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, didn’t even clap when Delaney used their city to sell the idea that small centrist solutions are the only option today. They did, however, break into supportive cheers when Warren castigated Delaney for that.
Warren asked why someone would bother to put in the work running for president just to say no to the big ideas.
Surprise Winner: Marianne Williamson
— Marianne Williamson (@marwilliamson) July 31, 2019
From her smashing successes talking about Flint and reparations to her full-throated defense of policies like free public college, Marianne Williamson was the breakout candidate of the Tuesday night debate. She had the advantage of playing to a familiar audience being a Michigander herself, but it was her passionate articulation of issues that inspired the crowd with nearly as many applause breaks as Warren or Sanders.
“I’ve heard some people here tonight, I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” said the author. “You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the… government to help people.”
Even where she was hesitant to agree with Sanders and Warren on Medicare for All, she didn’t rule it out, seeming to admit an amount of struggling with the issue. She added she was open to persuasion — something fairly rare in professional politics.
All in all, in a make-or-break debate the clear win here went to Williamson, who earned a lot of love from the Detroit crowd.
Bonus Loser: Mike Gravel
The progressive former Senator from Alaska struggled to meet the prerequisites to be on the debate stage and lost a tiebreaker to Bullock.
Gravel was a fiery presence on the 2008 debate stage and wanted to qualify in 2020 not to seek the presidency in earnest — he’s older than Biden or Sanders and his campaign is staffed largely by Generation Z — but to articulate powerful messages of global peace and direct democracy.
The fact that the person to win that toss, Bullock, refused to rule out a nuclear first-strike by America would’ve likely provoked a dramatic response from the former senator, who once said he was afraid of the hawkishness of a debate stage featuring Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
And his core issue, citizen involvement in the democratic process, still hasn’t had a moment to shine in the 2020 primary despite it being an issue dearly fought in America today. Maybe, as some have suggested and Gravel’s campaign has hinted an interest in, he would stand out if mainstream media wasn’t such an effective gatekeeper.
Grit Post will also cover the second night of Detroit Democratic debates Wednesday night.
(Featured image: CNN/Fair Use)
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.