Even though there’s still more than a year to go before the 2020 Democratic National Convention, the first of two initial Democratic debates solidified both the people and the issues that have staying power in next year’s presidential election.

With ten candidates on the stage, all offering their own unique plans for how to fix America, and with roughly eight months to go before voters in the first caucuses and primaries cast their ballots, we at Grit Post thought it more productive to focus more on the issues at stake in the election than the candidates themselves.

Winner: Medicare for All

Both Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio were the only candidates to raise their hands when debate moderators asked candidates whether or not they would support eliminating the private health insurance industry in favor of a government-run single-payer healthcare system. But both gave articulate answers as to why a single-payer system was the ideal system, while other candidates floundered.

Warren’s answer was somewhat unsurprising given that she’s seen as the closest in political philosophy to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), though her embracing of single-payer healthcare is a change from her previously cagey response to the New York Times about the issue. But Mayor De Blasio turned heads when he attacked former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) for refusing to call for abolishing private health insurance.

“How do you defend a system that’s not working?” De Blasio asked O’Rourke. “Congressman, you’ve got to start by acknowledging the system is not working for people. Why are you defending private insurance?”

Loser: Global warming

The issue that Washington Governor Jay Inslee called a “crisis” that candidates must make their first priority if elected president got just eight minutes of discussion in a two-hour debate. The fact that global warming was an afterthought at the first debate stands out even more when considering that it was in Miami, some parts of which may very well be underwater by as early as 2025.

Former CBS anchor Dan Rather even ridiculed the lack of global warming-related discussion in a tweet on Wednesday evening.

As of this writing, the Democratic National Committee has not yet acceded to demands from environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement to hold a debate specifically focused on climate issues.

Winner: Immigration

The issue of changing the nation’s immigration system was front-and-center at the first debate. Democratic candidates did everything they could to stand out on immigration, from awkwardly speaking Spanish to naming the specific part of U.S. code they would repeal.

In one particularly heated exchange, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro came after Beto O’Rourke. Castro called on all candidates to repeal the law that allowed for the incarceration of immigrants for illegally crossing the U.S. border (which was written by an openly white supremacist senator 90 years ago). When O’Rourke refused to back Castro’s plan (which Elizabeth Warren has endorsed) because of concerns over human trafficking and drug trafficking, Castro was ready, and shot back that there are already separate sections of U.S. code that address those infractions specifically. He even added that O’Rourke should do his “homework” and study up on immigration law.

Loser: Police reform

Not once in the two-hour debate did any candidate answer a question about police reform, even though Julián Castro has already presented a detailed plan to demilitarize police departments and establish a federal standard for use of lethal force.

In what was seen as in poor taste by some native New Yorkers on Twitter, Bill de Blasio touted that he has a black son with whom he has to have uncomfortable conversations with about the police. He also boasted about the NYPD reining in crime. However, nobody on the Democratic debate stage pointed out that Bill de Blasio has yet to bring justice to the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black father who was choked to death by an NYPD officer in 2014. And since de Blasio took office, there have been roughly 2,000 complaints of racial profiling by NYPD officers. According to Gothamist, the NYPD has not admitted culpability in a single one of those complaints.

Winner: Bernie Sanders

Even though Sanders was not on the stage at Wednesday night’s debate, the ideas he ran on in 2016 were prominently discussed throughout the debate. The initial questions Democratic presidential candidates fielded from moderators were about income inequality, raising taxes on the wealthy, and breaking up big corporations. As Sanders pointed out in a fundraising email, those ideas were all considered “fringe” in his 2016 run.

“Candidates are actually talking about raising taxes on the rich and on corporations that don’t pay their fair share. They’re talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage. They’re talking about ideas like free college and guaranteeing health care as a right in this country,” Sanders wrote. “Make no mistake about it — they are talking about these issues because we have led the way.

Loser: Beto O’Rourke

While there was no clear singular winner, Beto O’Rourke may have proven to be the biggest loser of the night. The former Texas Congressman’s unprovoked Spanish-speaking earned an incredulous expression from Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and the moment became an instant meme.

O’Rourke’s fall from grace appears to be continuing unabated. After nearly unseating Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in his long-shot 2018 Senate campaign, O’Rourke has severely diminished himself in his 2020 run. As Vanity Fair reported, O’Rourke went from a golden boy potential U.S. Senator who discussed his 2020 plans with President Obama to a mediocre candidate failing to stand out in a field full of mediocre candidates.

Between the gaffes, the corrections, the ill-considered plan to shun national media, the accusations of white male privilege and apologies for said white male privilege, O’Rourke’s poll numbers have collapsed into the low single digits, averaging less than 5 percent across several national polls, and less than 3 percent in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Winner: Julián Castro

The former HUD secretary and former San Antonio, Texas mayor proved to be the breakout star of the night — not only in schooling Beto O’Rourke on immigration law, but in telling his own personal story.

During the closing statement portion of the first Democratic debate, Castro told a heartfelt story about how his grandmother immigrated from Mexico, and that one of her two grandsons is in Congress (his twin brother, Joaquin Castro) and that the other is running for President of the United States. He then promised to say “adios” to Donald Trump in 2021, which prompted loud applause from the audience.

Loser: Tim Ryan

Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) struggled to stand out in the crowded field of candidates, and his go-to line seemed to only be that he had served in Congress for 17 years. On the topic of Afghanistan, Ryan said “we have to stay engaged,” calling for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan not only from the military, but from the State Department.

Coincidentally, the United States has also been at war in Afghanistan for roughly the same amount of time Tim Ryan has been in Congress, a fact not lost on Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who challenged Ryan directly on the Afghan war. Gabbard — a military veteran who enlisted after the 9/11 attacks — took Ryan to school when she corrected his false claim that the Taliban attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

GABBARD: We cannot keep these troops deployed to Afghanistan thinking that we are somehow going to crush this Taliban that’s been there —

RYAN: — I didn’t say squash em. When we weren’t in there, they started flying planes into our buildings. So I’m just saying right now —

GABBARD: — The Taliban didn’t attack us in 9/11. Al Qaeda did. Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 —

RYAN: — I understand.

Winner: Interjections

Because there were 10 candidates and only two hours of scheduled airtime, candidates had to fight for exposure, often stepping on each other’s statements in order to get their point of view in. Debate moderators didn’t punish candidates for interjecting, and Sen. Booker took the most advantage. According to a chart by The Washington Post‘s Michael Scherer, Booker spoke the most, with almost 11 minutes of speaking time. Beto O’Rourke spoke for 10.3 minutes, and Elizabeth Warren came in third with 9.3 minutes.

Loser: NBC

NBC ate up roughly 10 precious minutes of the Democratic debate through technical issues. After coming back from a commercial break, debate moderators pointed out that the audience mic was still on, as crosstalk was audible from the audience when Chuck Todd attempted to ask a question about gun reform.

After correcting that issue, the mics for the backstage crew were on, and one crew member was heard loudly announced that he had to go to the restroom. Moderators then called yet another commercial break to address audio issues.


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.

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