Images from Public Domain
The first Democratic primary debates are in the books, and the field of candidates is so vast that NBC needed two full primetime slots to fit all 20 candidates on a stage in Miami. I’m going to break each debate down individually, then think of them together in the context of their importance, both generally and for students. Buckle up everybody.
Wednesday’s debate showcased 10 of the Democratic candidates, with the only high-tier contender being Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren has campaigned largely on extremely progressive policies such as Medicare for all and corporate breakups. The first debate saw Warren employ turbo-liberal economic populism and blame directed at, among many other entities, large pharmaceutical companies and multi-billion dollar corporations early, and there was no moderate of a high enough caliber to turn the conversation away from Warren’s message. This allowed Warren to steer clear of any gritty battles lower-tiered candidates got into throughout the night. She did not need to scramble for each soundbite because her message was the backbone of all of them. Warren flew above the field and solidified herself as not only a problem for moderates like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg in this primary, but also for the poster-boy of progressiveness, Bernie Sanders.
To the surprise of many, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro put on a breakout performance on Wednesday night. Castro came into the night trailing severely in the polls, and the sheer volume of ground he had to make up on Wednesday contributed to his fearless challenging of other candidates on immigration, particularly Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Castro took O’Rourke to the mat on the specificity of their respective immigration plans, and Castro appeared much more prepared to deal with the details of each candidate’s plans than his colleagues on stage.
Overall, the first night of the Democratic debate showed Warren maintaining her position as a platform-setter for the party, while Castro made up some serious ground needed to stay even remotely competitive in this packed field. Behind another podium, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker did not excel or fall short at any one thing but kept his head above water just enough to stay competitive as the candidates race towards Iowa.
Thursday nights debate was much less issue-oriented than its predecessor on Wednesday, but rather featured passionate personal anecdotes, outright assaults on character, and the rise of a new potential frontrunner in the Democratic party: California Senator Kamala Harris.
Harris allowed her background as a ruthless prosecutor to shine Thursday and was able to effectively overpower former Vice President Joe Biden at one pivotal moment, who many believed going into the night was the clear favorite to win the nomination. Harris used a personal story from her childhood to attack Biden’s comments regarding his ability to work with segregationists early in his career and held an indisputable moral high ground as Biden refused to apologize, even invoking a state’s rights argument, rhetoric that was often used against civil rights movements throughout American history. Harris’ overt dismantlement of Biden on such a grand stage put the fire she was famous for during her career as a prosecutor on full display and propelled her forward into the toptier of candidates. However, Harris was lucky in that her record as a prosecutor was never seriously called into question on Thursday, and her ability to defend that record will be pivotal if she hopes to seriously contend with the high polling Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
A striking division in age was present among the candidates on Thursday. The divide was most obvious between 70-year-olds Biden and Sanders and 37-year-old Mayor of South Bend Indiana Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg looked young and vital as he spoke clearly about issues such as gun violence and immigration. Buttigieg was also able to highlight issues in the specificity of Sanders’ plans for America.
In contrast, Sanders failed to provide specific answers on how his ambitious plans would be implemented for a nation of 330 million people. Sanders, along with Biden, was repeatedly asked to “pass the torch” to the next generation by California Congressman Eric Swalwell.
However, despite Buttigieg’s strides, Swalwell’s reminders that he is still in his 30s, and Biden’s untimely unraveling, the night belonged to Harris. She showed composure, a willingness to argue with frontrunners, and youthful energy that both Sanders and Biden were unable to provide to the TV audience of several million Americans.
The essential argument among the 20 candidates across the two nights was between moderate liberal reform to American capitalism and sweeping progressive Democratic socialism. The candidates argued endlessly about which should be their platform as they barrel towards a general election against an extremely conservative and nationalist candidate in President Donald Trump. During Wednesday’s debate, Warren was able to shape the conversation and stay on message while never losing control of the discussion. Sanders, her progressive parallel in night two, was labeled a “socialist” early on and was unable to grab hold of the agenda in the same way Warren did, which allowed for more moderate ideas to take root on Thursday.
For students at the high school, voting in 2020 is a reality that is quickly approaching. Rising juniors born before November will be able to vote in the general election, and rising seniors born before March 3 will be eligible to vote in not only the general election but the Massachusetts primary as well. Brookline is a Democratic stronghold, so the conversation regarding these candidates should be fierce and frequent at the high school.
It is much too early to tell who the favorite among young voters is, but these debates provided insight into how the candidates plan to deal with student debt and the rising cost of college, issues that are of serious concern to high school students. Sanders and Warren affirmed their commitment to free college, while Buttigieg laid out his plan to provide pathways to refinancing student loans but would not support free college for all on the basis that the richest families should still be required to contribute to tuition as the plan would not be viable otherwise.
Whatever the platform and whoever the candidate, the Democratic Party will need to flesh out a serious plan for education finance reform if they hope to be the party of the next generation of voters.
These debates showed the mettle of Warren and Harris while displaying a disappointing performance for Biden and Sanders. However, the Iowa Caucuses are not until the winter, and the race cannot be determined based on the slim individual speaking time of two debates. Above all else, these debates were the last hurrah for the vast majority of the candidates that failed to make a splash on either night, and the field will start to thin as the race progresses. Once more unto the breach, dear friends! Or… a few times more unto it.