The second Democratic debate in Detroit, Michigan is sure to shake up poll results in the coming week, based on several stellar performances.
Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) were seen by many observers as the clear winners of the first night of debates, after the two declined to attack the other and instead spent the evening defending their policies from half-baked attacks from lesser-known candidates. But the winners of the second round of debates this week will likely be hotly debated, as there were numerous big moments for candidates across the board.
Overall Democratic Debate Winner: Cory Booker
Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) may have had the biggest performance of the night, at least in terms of moving from potentially not making it into the third round of debates in September to being a candidate to watch. According to RealClearPolitics‘ polling average, Booker is at just 1.7% as of this writing, which is just shy of the threshold candidates need to meet in order to qualify for the next round of debates in Houston, Texas. However, Booker became the breakout star after taking Biden to task multiple times on Wednesday night, particularly during the criminal justice reform portion of the debate.
In one exchange, the New Jersey senator laughed when Biden brought up his record when Booker was mayor of Newark, New Jersey. This gave Booker an opportunity to delve into Biden’s highly problematic record of supporting so-called tough-on-crime legislation when Biden himself was in the Senate.
“Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community, ‘you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid, and you don’t even know the flavor,” Booker said.
The moment Booker dropped Kool-Aid pic.twitter.com/4cuzvKeDL1
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) August 1, 2019
As Booker pointed out, Biden proudly boasted that his name was on every major and minor crime bill that came out of the U.S. Senate for decades. Biden even wrote the 1994 crime bill that Ohio State University professor Michelle Alexander said was the chief contributor to America’s current mass incarceration epidemic in her book The New Jim Crow. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski dug up a clip of Biden speaking on the Senate floor bragging about that exact fact.
Biden did brag about his name being on every crime bill since 1976 as Booker said. pic.twitter.com/1BDCe2Puqj
— andrew kaczynski🤔 (@KFILE) August 1, 2019
If Booker does indeed make it into the September debates and becomes a major player in the 2020 Democratic primary, it will be credited to his performance in Wednesday night’s debate. If there was a “Most Improved” award for Democratic debate performances when comparing Wednesday’s showing to last month, it would go to Booker.
Overall Democratic Debate Loser: Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden went into Wednesday’s debate as the frontrunner, polling at an average of 32.2% according to RealClearPolitics. This meant his debate prep likely consisted of practicing responses to attacks from all sides, from all candidates. Biden was indeed attacked on all sides, and he not only failed to prevail in those individual exchanges, but he largely failed in his effort to communicate the larger, over-arching message of his campaign.
As he did in last month’s debate, Biden frequently hid behind President Barack Obama’s name as a shield, counting on the former president’s popularity among Democrats to carry him through. However, Sen. Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro exploited this defense by pointing out the ways in which Obama’s presidency fell short — particularly on immigration.
“Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anyone else in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not,” Booker said at one point.
Booker lands a body blow on Biden, points out how his invocations of Obama are conveniently selective pic.twitter.com/YbetXGdPn4
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 1, 2019
While Biden spoke, protesters with the group Movimiento Cosecha shouted “THREE MILLION DEPORTATIONS” to call attention to Obama’s record of deporting more undocumented immigrants than any other president — including Donald Trump. Movimiento Cosecha previously stormed Biden’s campaign headquarters earlier this month, and demanded the former vice president apologize for the deportations that happened under Obama’s watch. He not only refused to apologize then, but still offered no apology on Wednesday night.
Two in the audience chant, “3 million deportations” as candidates debate decriminalizing the U.S. southern border pic.twitter.com/bF3fafyFcD
— Claire Hao (@clairehaoTMD) August 1, 2019
Biden seemed unable to recover the rest of the night, and wasn’t able to effectively communicate how America would fundamentally improve if he was president, except that he would “restore the soul of America.” As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) pointed out after the debate, Biden wants to return to the “good old days,” but “the old days weren’t good for everybody.”
And it’s here where Biden seems unable to get over the hump: For the families of the three million deported immigrants, for people who were still unable to get health insurance after the passage of Obamacare, for people who are still having to work multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet after Obama’s failure to raise wages as well as lower unemployment, four more years of Obama-like policies aren’t good enough.
If that wasn’t enough, Biden failed to make a coherent closing statement to convince those not on board to support him. Not only did he make a gaffe in saying “eight more years of Donald Trump will change America in a fundamental way,” Biden also misstated his campaign’s text message ask as a website, leaving many on social media wondering what the hell he was trying to say.
"Go to Joe 3-0-3-3-0, and help me in this fight."
Joe, what in God's name was this? pic.twitter.com/Yq1g5mXI6m
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 1, 2019
Winner: Tulsi Gabbard
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — currently polling at less than 1% — may have also secured a spot in the September debates with her performance on Wednesday night. The Iraq War veteran-turned-Congresswoman had smart answers on everything from climate change to foreign policy, and provided a unique anti-war voice on the debate stage. When asked about whether or not she would bring troops home from Afghanistan within the first year of her presidency, Rep. Gabbard didn’t flinch.
“I served in a field medical unit where every single day, I saw the high cost of war,” Gabbard said. “[Troops in Afghanistan] shouldn’t have been there this long. For too long we’ve had leaders who have been arbitrating for policy from ivory towers in Washington, without any idea of the cost, the consequence, the toll that it takes on our service members, on their families, we have to do the right thing, end these wasteful regime change wars and bring our troops home.”
14,000 service members are deployed to Afghanistan right now. This is about leadership—the leadership I will bring to do the right thing, to bring our troops home, within the first year in office #DemDebates #TULSI2020 https://t.co/PIdii6kLxh pic.twitter.com/uZ0vLWJj4S
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) August 1, 2019
Gabbard — the only veteran who was onstage Wednesday night — was uniquely qualified to talk about foreign policy from a first-person perspective, given her war experience. She described the Iraq War she served in as “a betrayal,” as she enlisted based on lies from the Bush administration that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t) and that he was working with al-Qaeda (he wasn’t).
“We were all lied to,” Gabbard said. “This is the betrayal. This is the betrayal to the American people, to me, to my fellow service members. We were all lied to.”
Perhaps the most harrowing portion of Gabbard’s debate performance was her ominous warning to America of what could happen if the military-industrial complex is successful in maintaining forever wars.
As an example, Gabbard pointed back to the alert that was mistakenly sent out to Hawaii in 2018 that the island was facing an imminent nuclear attack, and made that fear real for Americans as part of a call to de-escalate nuclear tensions and seek peace through diplomacy. She then promised that she would redirect trillions of dollars in military spending to domestic programs, like “healthcare for all” and clean drinking water.
“If we were to get an attack on us, we would have 30 minutes. And you would receive an alert, like we did in Hawaii last year, that would say ‘Incoming missile. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.’ … And you would see, as we did, as my loved ones in Hawaii did, There is no shelter. This is the warmonger’s hoax. There is no shelter. It’s all a lie. As president, I will end this insanity, because it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Loser: Kamala Harris
What may have been Gabbard’s biggest moments was exploiting one of Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-California) weaknesses. In a tense exchange, Gabbard accurately pointed out that while Harris was Attorney General of California, more than 1,500 people were incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. Gabbard also accused Harris of blocking evidence “that would have freed an innocent man from Death Row” until the courts demanded it.
— Malik (@MalikAshante) August 1, 2019
According to a New York Times op-ed by Loyola law professor Lara Bazelon, Harris did indeed block death row inmate Kevin Cooper from seeking advanced DNA evidence that would have exonerated him until she was called out for it — prompting her to reverse course on Cooper’s case. Bazelon pointed to another inmate, George Gage, who is currently serving a 70-year prison sentence due to a technicality exploited by Harris’ office when she was California’s chief prosecutor.
When confronted with this, Harris angrily responded that Gabbard was only capable of making “fancy speeches” and never had to be in the position to make significant decisions on prosecution. However, she did not refute the individual examples Gabbard brought up. The Root reporter Terrell Starr — who interviewed Harris last year — said Harris was incapable of defending herself from Gabbard’s attacks, because they were “all true.”
Tulsi Gabbard is correct about Kamala Harris and her prosecutor's record; it is all true. Sen. Harris can't talk her way out of that and she is not challenging Gabbard's claims.
Because she can't. #DemDebate2
— Terrell J. Starr (@Russian_Starr) August 1, 2019
Like Biden, Harris was unable to break through in Wednesday night’s debate in any meaningful way, and was confined to playing defense when attacked whether it was in defending her healthcare plan, or her record as Attorney General. Harris is already assured a spot in the September debates given her polling position as one of the top five candidates and her fundraising haul, but she’ll have to prepare even harder for the next debate this fall.
Winner: Black Lives Matter
Police reform was a front-and-center issue at the second Detroit debate, and moderators allowed candidates plenty of time to compare and contrast with each other on issues of race and police.
Racist policing was almost one of the first things discussed, as protesters shouting “Fire Pantaleo” — in reference to New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo (who choked Eric Garner to death in 2014 and subsequently got a raise) — interrupted candidates’ opening statements.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was repeatedly put in the hot seat, both by Castro and Gillibrand, for his lack of action in regard to Garner’s death.
“He knew what he was doing, that he was killing Eric Garner, and yet he has not been brought to justice. That police officer should be off the streets,” Castro said, to loud applause.
“[Pantaleo] should be fired. He should be fired now,” Gillibrand said.
"He should be fired now."
During tonight's #DemDebate, @JulianCastro and @SenGillibrand called out NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio for not firing the police officer who killed Eric Garner. #ICantBreathe pic.twitter.com/LFC3sdnFhk
— The Root (@TheRoot) August 1, 2019
Fir his part, Mayor de Blasio promised that New York City would bring action against Pantaleo within 30 days, though he didn’t specify what, in particular, would happen. He also stated that he was forced to delay accountability until the federal investigation into the matter — which dragged on for years and ultimately acquitted Pantaleo — had concluded.
All told, it was a very big night for the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks police accountability by bringing issues of race and policing into mainstream political discourse and lawmaking.
Loser: Federal judiciary reform
Since taking office, President Trump has undertook a drastic reshaping of the federal judiciary, appointing more than 130 judges to lifetime positions in just over two years as president, as well as confirming two justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite presidents having the distinct responsibility of appointing federal judges, not one question was asked of any candidate about what kind of judges they would appoint, or how they would combat the problem of hyper-partisan judges being able to undo the progressive policies they seek to implement.
Winners: Jay Inslee and Andrew Yang
Washington Governor Jay Inslee — whose campaign seeks to make global warming the chief issue of the 2020 election — had several moments where he shined. In one exchange, the two-term governor told former vice president Biden to his face that his plan to address the climate crisis was sorely lacking in urgency and depth after Biden said he would “work it out” with fossil fuel companies to stop relying on coal energy and fracking.
“We can not work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won’t get done,” Inslee said. “Get off coal. Save this country and the planet.”
Jay Inslee responds to Biden on fossil fuels: "We can not 'work it out'. We can not work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won't get done. Get off coal. Save this country and the planet." pic.twitter.com/dZxeCBzu4l
— Axios (@axios) August 1, 2019
Venture capitalist and basic income advocate Andrew Yang also made the global warming crisis very real for debate viewers on Wednesday night. He managed to work basic income into the climate portion of the debate, saying that it was “too late” for Americans living near sea level, and that his plan to give every adult $1,000 a month could help them move to “higher ground.”
“This is a tough truth, but we are too late. We are 10 years too late. We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction, but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground,” Yang said. “The best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.”
Andrew Yang essentially says we're all screwed on climate change, so therefore we all need more money in our pocket so we can move to "higher ground" pic.twitter.com/78Ge1B2zLp
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) August 1, 2019
Losers: Victims of the student debt crisis
Even though student debt has ensnared more than 40 million Americans to the tune of over $1.6 trillion — preventing an entire generation of Americans from starting businesses, buying homes, and raising families of their own — moderators failed to ask any of the 10 candidates onstage about their plans to help struggling Americans overcome student debt.
Even though both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have plans to both forgive student debt and make public colleges tuition-free, moderators didn’t even ask Wednesday’s slate of candidates if they agreed with those plans. And in the meantime, the tens of millions of Americans drowning in student debt were left out of the discussion entirely.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.