Thoughts on the First Round of 2020 Democratic Debates

After many months of anticipation, it’s finally time for the 2020 presidential debates. Since every Democrat and their mom is running for President to challenge Donald Trump (and the DNC doesn’t want face accusations of playing favorites like they faced in 2016), 20 different candidates met the debate criteria to make it into the first round of Democratic primary debates, set across two nights. I watched both debates, and I’ve decided that I’ll give my thoughts while it’s still relevant.

¡Hablamos Español! Several candidates “spontaneously” decided to speak Spanish – most infamously, Beto O’Rourke decided to answer a question about a possible 70% tax rate with 50% Spanish, spawning a meme from the other candidate’s reactions. Cory Booker also spoke Spanish during Night 1, Pete Buttigieg on Night 2, and Julian Castro spoke a little Spanish during his Night 1 closing statement (which implied to me that he has nothing to prove about his Spanish fluency). I can’t fault a person saying that Democrats are pandering to Hispanics, because it sure looks that way.

There are too many candidates. With 20 candidates, and 10 candidates in each debate, it can be challenging just to keep track of who each candidate is, let alone their proposed policies. Even at a length of two hours per debate, it’s difficult for a candidate to fully describe what they believe. The most successful candidates were either those willing to interrupt others, or were able to use the subject at hand to manufacture a moment where they could speak longer than 60 seconds (more on that later). The least successful candidates were those who were polite, those who had complex ideas that take longer than 60 seconds to explain, and anyone who couldn’t find a way to jump into the conversation (more on that later too).

There are several zombie candidates. Not literal zombies though (that would have been more entertaining). The reason a record 20 candidates qualified for this first round of debates is because the DNC set relatively low debate qualifications – 65,000 unique donors OR 1% in three qualifying polls. Even with those lowish standards, several legitimate candidates (Steve Bullock, Mike Gravel, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, and Joe Sestak) still didn’t qualify – meaning their campaigns are pretty much dead in the water. If you couldn’t even make it into the first debate, what are the chances that you’ll make it into later debates, let alone become the nominee? While this is bad news for all of them, this is especially bad news for Governor Bullock of Montana – he’s one of a handful of Democratic governors of red states, who has a case to make for how Democrats can win in red states (and win back blue/purple states that were essential to Donald Trump winning).

Several candidates have better alternatives. Disregarding the candidates who didn’t make it into the debates, there are several candidates who are most likely not going to make it past the second debate next month. Michael Bennet, John Delaney, and John Hickenlooper are some form of centrist or moderate who probably would have made good candidates 20 years ago – in 2020 they have no chance. If you’re looking for a centrist or a moderate, you’re probably already supporting Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden. Frankly, Bennet and Delaney aren’t very interesting compared to the other cast of characters, and Hickenlooper is interesting in ways that don’t help him.

Eric Swalwell had a somewhat memorable moment where he quoted Joe Biden at the 1988 DNC about “passing the torch” to a new generation – but I don’t know how much that will help him. Swalwell is trying to make himself out as the face of that inspiring new generation, but Pete Buttigieg is a year younger than Swalwell, has a more interesting background, and is polling much better than him.

O’Rourke and Ryan are both going to suffer in the polls. Beto O’Rourke got pummeled. First he was challenged by Bill de Blasio about whether it’s worth keeping the private health insurance system in *any* form when it doesn’t work for millions of people. Then, he was challenged by Julian Castro on immigration law, and came out looking like he hadn’t done his homework (literally a phrase from Castro). Commentary I saw after the debate suggested that Castro specifically went after his fellow-Texan in order to try to improve his chance of winning the Texas primary, while de Blasio was just trying to get airtime from what I can tell.

Tim Ryan was challenged by Tulsi Gabbard about the idea that America needs to be “engaged” in Afghanistan, and during the argument Ryan accidentally said (or looked like he said) that the Taliban attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Commentary I saw afterward suggested that this played very well with the anti-war crowd. Time will tell whether Gabbard’s star will rise while Ryan’s falls.

The candidates I wanted to hear from the most ending up speaking the least. Gov. Jay Inslee – my home state governor – has dedicated his entire career to fighting climate change, and is running a campaign dedicated to the same. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running for President to enact Universal Basic Income and prepare the U.S. for the ongoing effects of automation/A.I. (and several other futuristic problems). Unfortunately, Inslee only spoke for 5 minutes, and Yang for 3 minutes, making them the least heard from candidates in both nights. Some of that comes from temperament – Washingtonians are what you’d call “laid back,” and Yang is probably the most introverted guy up there – but there’s also a brewing conspiracy that Yang’s microphone was off for much of the debate.

“That little girl was me.” I think it’s undeniable that the biggest moment of either debate came from Kamala Harris’ indictment of Joe Biden. Whether you thought it was a vulnerable and emotional moment from Harris (which it sure sounded like), or a calculated move on Harris’ part to steal black voters from Biden (which it probably also was), it received the biggest reaction both during and after the debate. This will probably go down in presidential debate history, even if neither Harris or Biden become president.

Who won the debate(s)? Elizabeth Warren had the best performance on Night 1, with Cory Booker and Julian Castro also performing well. Pete Buttigieg on Night 2 had a few memorable moments that will either improve or maintain his place in the polls. Clearly the candidate who will gain the most is Kamala Harris for challenging Biden on race – this isn’t the death of Biden’s campaign like some commenters have exclaimed, but the general consensus is that Harris hurt him. Early polls suggest that Harris drew blood and has nearly doubled her support.

A meme icon is born. Oh my God. I was not going to write something about this debate without talking about Marianne Williamson. Everything about her is incredible. The inexplicable mid-Atlantic accent. The tirade against plans. Calling the Prime Minister of New Zealand. The closing statement about the power of love that sounds like something out of Sailor Moon. The jokes write themselves. Of course, there are those who say that the more you make fun a candidate, the more likely they are to become president.

It’s going to be an interesting 12 months.