A policy lesson from Elizabeth Warren, an immigration plan from Julián Castro, and, well, everything about Kamala Harris. Let’s analyze the first Democratic debate, a week later.
Throughout the course of the 2020 Democratic primary, I’m keeping a fluid list of my personal favorites for the nomination (and, ostensibly, the order in which I would vote for each candidate). I’ll continue to analyze this list and update it after every major event of the campaign — debates, primary dates, et cetera. My first list is retroactively dated to May of 2019, essentially a placeholder date for “before the debates,” and I’ve excluded all candidates who didn’t qualify for the first round of debates.
In this preliminary ranking, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are far and away the top two picks in my opinion — a surprise to nobody who knows me as they are unabashedly the most progressive candidates with the leftmost positions on almost every issue. The next “tier” of candidates includes Jay Inslee for his focus on climate change, and Julián Castro and Kamala Harris for their mostly progressive records and rhetoric on a plethora of issues. The next group of candidates, Buttigieg, Gillibrand, Booker, Bennet, and de Blasio, are the candidates whom I haven’t focused much of my attention on (with the exception of Kirsten Gillibrand) but might be promising. Below them we have most of the remaining field: Williamson, Swalwell, O’Rourke, Gabbard, Yang, Klobuchar, Delaney, Ryan, and Hickenlooper, candidates who I don’t particularly like, but I mean, they’re there, okay. And finally, we have Joe Biden, by far the worst of the field. (And it’s not even close. At all. Whatsoever.)
But then the debates happened, and some of these people’s positions got shifted around (both in my chart and in their own policies, it seemed). We saw candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders hold their own but not really stand out more than we would have thought they might based on their previous standing in the primary. We saw candidates like Julián Castro and Kamala Harris make a name for themselves and introduce themselves to more of the electorate. And we saw people like Tim Ryan and Joe Biden embarrass themselves on a larger stage than they’ve yet been able to on the campaign. Let’s start from the top and work our way down through all twenty debate-qualified candidates:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (pre-debate #1; post-debate #1)
Senator Warren has been my number one choice from the beginning. She’s been a progressive voice in the Senate for the past eight years, hammering banking CEO’s and other powerful executives for the harm that they’ve caused for the American people. And she did just that on Wednesday night: echoed her message of equity and the need to create “big, structural” change for an America that works for everyone, not just the people at the top. She was largely the focus of the first hour of the debate, taking questions from moderators eager to talk to her and responding to the ideas and answers from other candidates. I was a bit disappointed that she didn’t get as much speaking time in the second half of the night, but her closing statement made up for it with a subtle but brilliant connection between government assistance and prosperity for the middle and working classes.
Former HUD Sec. Julián Castro (pre-debate #4; post-debate #2)
Castro has always been sort of an interesting dark horse candidate for me. When he announced his bid in January he seemed to be angling for a mainstream progressive campaign — at that time one of his major talking points was his universal preschool program that he implemented while mayor of San Antonio. On Wednesday, he pivoted to one of his other major issues: immigration. Castro called for the repeal of section 1325 of the US Code, decriminalizing undocumented border crossings. He argued that this would prevent the family separation that has become an epidemic under the Trump administration and he challenged other candidates to support said proposal, notably fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, whom he accused of “not doing his homework” on the issue — a criticism with which I largely agree. Castro’s policy work on immigration, a key issue for Democrats this year, vault him into my second spot.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (pre-debate #2; post-debate #3)
Senator Sanders was my pick in the 2016 election and his campaign was one of the catalysts for my entry into politics. In a field that has largely adopted his ideas and proposals from that ill-fated 2016 run, he has to do more to stand out, but really he hasn’t. I still respect him for his longstanding commitment to his values (many of which I share) but oftentimes on the debate stage he just seemed a bit out of step with the rest of the candidates; fairly cynical when others were preaching about hope and opportunity, et cetera. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he did fine. His best moment of the night, in my opinion, was when he was able to contrast his foreign policy record with Joe Biden’s, rehashing the Iraq War vote and insinuating that Biden’s history suggests that he can’t be trusted with major decisions in the future. Senator Sanders retains his high ranking, only surpassed by Castro’s strong performance.
Sen. Kamala Harris (pre-debate #5; post-debate #4)
As a Californian myself, I’ve always had somewhat of a soft spot for Harris, and her performance in Senate hearings has earned her notability among many on the liberal to left continuum, myself included. However, I’ve long held reservations about her, almost all to do with her prosecutorial record as California’s Attorney General (summed up well here). However, she really brought it on Thursday night, starting off by delivering a memorable one-liner about putting food on the table for Americans in order to regain control of the debate stage. Most importantly, she cruelly and systematically tore apart Joe Biden’s sympathy for segregationists and opposition to busing during his time in the Senate. She incorporated her own personal anecdote while also criticizing Biden for toeing the segregationist line with his explanation of his support — a “states’ rights” argument that has long been used to justify racial discrimination, making Biden look unprepared and out of place. For this, Harris moves up slightly in my list.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (pre-debate #7; post-debate #5)
Kirsten Gillibrand has always intrigued me as a politician and as a candidate — she first ran for office in a House district in upstate New York, and her policy positions early in her career reflected that. For her time in the House, she was essentially a Blue Dog Democrat, but has consistently shifted to the left on nearly every issue since her appointment to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. She now prides herself on being the Senator who votes for Trump’s agenda the least out of any member of the body, and she mentioned such on the debate stage Thursday night. Gillibrand’s campaign’s focus on “women’s” and “family” issues (as much as I hate those terms) could prove to be an asset in a primary that is centered around big plans and ideas that, while extremely important, might not connect with some voters. The only thing really holding Gillibrand back is the completely unfair connection that people make between her and Al Franken’s resignation. If she can get past that, she could be a formidable candidate in a majority-female Democratic electorate.
Gov. Jay Inslee (pre-debate #3; post-debate #6)
I liked Jay Inslee a lot more before I watched the debate. The few times he did get to speak were not impressive at all. It was painful to watch. I wanted Inslee to do well because of his campaign’s focus on climate change and the issue’s severe, almost criminal, underrepresentation in American political discourse, even among Democrats. It’s clear now, however, that Inslee is not the messenger that the climate crisis needs in the Democratic primary. Hopefully someone else will pick up the torch before it’s too late. Or maybe Tom Steyer can save us now (God help us).
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (pre-debate #6; post-debate #7)
I’ll admit that I fell for Mayor Pete’s scheme a bit in the beginning of the campaign. He seemed like the cool, young guy who was just progressive enough to capture the Democratic electorate and push us into the future. His gambit about “when I’m the current president’s age” was clever, but is growing old fast, and while he handled a question about a police shooting in South Bend fairly well, he had to be bailed out by Marianne Williamson when Eric Swalwell challenged him on it further. “Mayor Pete” still hasn’t really released any concrete policy plans and continues to try to win on platitudes and good feelings, but I’d much rather his husband be president than him, if only because he actually seems cool and not so pitifully boring.
Sen. Cory Booker (pre-debate #8; post-debate #8)
Senator Booker is one of those candidates who seems like he should be doing better than he is based on his credentials, but still can’t seem to break through. I’ve always been shy on Booker, especially since his vote against a bipartisan agreement that would have helped lower prescription drug costs. Booker at times tries to be both the “happy warrior” and a stern figure in the primary, making his positions sometimes quite confusing. He did give us the infamous side eye look when Beto O’Rourke tried to open the debate in Spanish, so there’s that, at least.
Sen. Michael Bennet (pre-debate #9; post-debate #9)
Michael Bennet only rose to prominence earlier this year when he gave a scathing speech on the Senate floor criticizing Trump’s border policies, and I guess that’s why he’s running for President? I’m not quite sure because he quite literally doesn’t have a national profile other than that. However, he does get points for calling out Biden when he tried to take credit for and actually brag about implementing the budget sequester — a deal that as Bennet correctly pointed out, was bad for Democrats and for America.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (pre-debate #14; post-debate #10)
Gabbard has consistently stayed lower in my rankings until this point, mostly because her supposed progressive record isn’t really that progressive under further inquiry, and, more importantly, because of her long support for conversion therapy and other anti-LGBT causes early in her career. She has since apologized, but that is a pretty hard line to cross. She gets points in the debate for a strong performance on foreign policy and for correcting Tim Ryan about the true culprits of 9/11. Her big jump is more a symptom of the blandness of the candidates this far down the list, not her own merits, though.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (pre-debate #10; post-debate #11)
Mayor de Blasio seemed to have a promising start, interjecting with progressive talking points because he wasn’t called on much in the beginning. Most notably, he refuted the GOP talking point about immigrants taking jobs effectively and emotionally. Unfortunately for him, he made a decision to essentially tokenize his own son to defend his record on race, and I stopped taking him seriously after that.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (pre-debate #12; post-debate #12)
I read somewhere that Eric Swalwell is trying to run a one-issue campaign but doing a really bad job of it. I have to disagree — he was running a one issue campaign poorly, until he dropped out earlier this week. Good riddance, I say. Other candidates can be better messengers for gun control. I guess he was the one who ended up passing the torch.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (pre-debate #13; post-debate #13)
O’Rourke did not have a good night. He tried too hard with his Spanish, and while I applaud biliteracy and multiculturalism, he sure made it seem like pandering. Not to mention he was destroyed by Julián Castro on immigration, which seems to be O’Rourke’s signature issue. He’s dropping in the polls, and hopefully permanently, I say. He doesn’t fall in the rankings only because the candidates below him are truly awful in their own right.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (pre-debate #16; post-debate #14)
Klobuchar’s jump is quite misleading. She’s still not a good candidate. She’s a moderate in a liberal primary with progressive activists. She only jumps up a few spots because of the atrocity of some of the candidates who were previously ahead of her. Her cautious and stern pragmatism is dumb and won’t work in 2020. Next, please.
Marianne Williamson (pre-debate #11; post-debate #15)
I had Williamson up a bit higher before mostly because she seemed fine and I didn’t know much about her. Her performance at the debate (and I mean that quite literally) revealed some conspiracy theorist-esque qualities that I’d rather not have in a presidential nominee. And dismissing “plans” en masse because of something about Donald Trump? Umm, what? Thanks for the memes, but no thanks.
Andrew Yang (pre-debate #15; post-debate #16)
Yang was an…interesting candidate because of his focus on automation and universal basic income. But when he got a question about his UBI proposal, something he had to know was coming — it’s his signature, and really only, proposal — he didn’t seem to know how to answer. He had the chance at the debate that he asked for, but he wasted it terribly.
Rep. Tim Ryan (pre-debate #18; post-debate #17)
Ryan didn’t do anything notable and was caught by Tulsi Gabbard not knowing which terrorist group committed 9/11. He only moves up one place because of the abysmal performance of the candidates who fell behind him.
Former Rep. John Delaney (pre-debate #17; post-debate #18)
Delaney spent all night on Wednesday just trying to speak — I don’t know why, because when he did he made some dumb overtures to bipartisanship or something. I don’t quite remember, and let’s be honest, neither do you. For someone who had quite literally years to prepare (he entered the race in 2017), he didn’t seem that ready for the debate.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (pre-debate #19; post-debate #19)
Originally, I was disappointed that John Hickenlooper decided to run for President instead of Cory Gardner’s Senate seat in Colorado. Now I’m just disappointed that he’s running for office at all. Hickenlooper has bought into every GOP talking point about socialism and used them himself at the debate. Most egregiously, he said that Democrats have to “clearly define ourselves as not socialists” as if that would actually stop Mitch McConnell and the Republicans from calling us socialist after decades of doing so. The sooner he gets out of the race, the better.
Former Vice President Joe Biden (pre-debate #20; post-debate #20)
This list, by its nature, cannot capture the horrific performance that Joe Biden put on display on Thursday night, as he can’t fall any lower than last. He fell to predictable attacks from Kamala Harris, couldn’t defend his record against Michael Bennet, and didn’t even have a response for Eric Swalwell. Eric Swalwell. The one who already dropped out of the race. Biden proved what we all knew already — that he can’t hold his own against the current standard-bearers of the Democratic Party, and that his positions are no longer tenable in a party that has moved markedly to the left (especially on social issues) since, oh, let’s go with 1972. Biden is not the guy who can beat Trump, and he’s not the next Obama; in fact, he’s quite the opposite, and it seems that voters might finally be starting to realize that.
Kamala Harris’s strong performance at this debate cemented her at the top tier of the primary that she had been flirting with for the entirety of the campaign. Elizabeth Warren also made sure she stays at the forefront of voters’ minds, and Julián Castro raised his profile and introduced himself to a new national bloc of voters. Bernie Sanders had an unremarkable but decent performance, while Joe Biden had a disastrous collapse that will hopefully start to spell the end of his campaign. Now all we can do is wait until the end of this month, when all the candidates (except Eric Swalwell) will be onstage again, trying to make their case to voters.