Second democratic debates defined by conflict

Oliver Fox, Opinions Editor


Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Or… at least until the next time. The second round of Democratic debates are in the books and the spotlight shifted harshly from the last two debates. These debates came with much higher stakes than the previous two. Not every candidate will be invited back for the next round as the Democratic National Committee is enforcing much harsher polling and financial requirements to qualify for the third round. Just like last time, I will break down each debate individually then look at them together in a much broader light. These were a couple of street fights on a stage, so get ready for a ride.

Night one: Tuesday, July 30.

Stand-out Candidates: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Senators Sanders and Warren share many policy positions, and that agreement was on full display. Sanders and Warren could have chosen to pick fights with each other in attempts to claim the mantle of the far-left in the Democratic Party, but they instead chose to work together to neutralize any attacks that may have come from lower-tier candidates that had no other choice but to go on the offensive in a desperate final push to stay relevant. Warren and Sanders dug a trench of progressive values in the center of the stage and defended it dutifully from moderate attacks throughout the night. Despite valiant attacks from Congressman Tim Ryan, Governor Steve Bullock and Congressman John Delaney, the moderate Democrats were unable to uproot the basis of progressive values that took center stage. 

The only candidate who effectively navigated this debate centered on how far left the Democratic Party should lean was Mayor Buttigieg, who refused to fight the duo head on and focused instead on a discussion of each candidates vision that both Warren and Sanders had no choice but to agree with in many cases. In particular, Buttigieg declined to call out Sanders when asked about the issue of age, as a 40 year age gap divides the two men. Buttigieg answered by saying that he “doesn’t care how old you are,” but he instead cared about if you had the right vision for America, which Bernie Sanders was forced to wholeheartedly agree with.

What separated Warren from Sanders was the energy she showed on stage. Warren masterfully defended the numerous attacks she faced with total agility to jump from one policy to another. Warren showed that across the field of twenty candidates, she has the most complete understanding of the issues that are important to voters. 

Night two: Wednesday, Aug. 1

Stand-out candidates: Former Vice-President Joe Biden, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

Night two was the closest political equivalent to an all-out war. Once again, Vice President Joe Biden shared the stage with California Senator Kamala Harris. The two shared a memorable exchange in the last debate during which Harris dismantled Biden on his stances on racial integration of schools, and the two provided no shortage of fireworks on Wednesday. While New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand valiantly challenged Biden on several occasions, and the #YangGang got their moment in the sun, the true winners of Wednesday’s debate were Biden and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, while Harris looked weak in comparison to her previous performance. 

Biden smoked Harris on health care in the first interaction of the debate, highlighting her recent flip on Medicare for All earlier this week and showing that he is still a serious democratic authority on health care. Biden then worked to fend off attacks from virtually every candidate other than the wonderful Andrew Yang, who spent all of his speaking time reminding us that giving every American $1000 per month will fix America’s problems or talking about his unusual lack of a necktie. However, while Biden endured a damaging attack from Senator Booker on crime and took body blows all night on his record, he proved that he was willing to get serious about debating his fellow candidates, something that could not be said about his previous performance.

Harris was nowhere to be found coming off a strong showing last month, verbally stumbling many times early on and unsuccessfully attacking Biden on numerous issues, which only led to her looking more interested in attacking the frontrunner as opposed to highlighting her policy positions. After barely deflecting an attack from Biden, Harris endured a brutal assault from Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard about her prosecutorial record, specifically with the death penalty in California. Gabbard slammed Harris with hard evidence of her mistakes, and Harris could not recover from such a barrage.

Senator Booker enjoyed a successful debate night, mounting an attack on Biden that appeared skillful and fiery enough to force Biden to back down. However, Booker did not paint a fully accurate picture of his record on race relations in his time as mayor of Newark. Despite his claims that the American Civil Liberties Union praised his work in reforming the Newark Police Department, the ACLU actually sued Booker for his handling of the issue, even sending a 96-page letter of complaints. Visually, however, Booker appeared to win this argument handily, and Biden was left once again beaten on race.

Overarching themes

A recurring theme of both nights was the claim that Democrats should not be arguing with so-called “republican talking points.” When challenged with a position they were uncomfortable arguing against, many candidates invoked this line to delegitimize their opponent without having to address their attack. However, in many cases, the arguments being raised were facts, such as how the Obama administration deported record numbers of illegal immigrants, not simply conservative talking points. Whoever the nominee is, they will have to eventually debate a Republican in President Donald Trump, who will use these points as a message, not simply a talking point. Democrats must reckon with this reality and develop actual rebuttals to these arguments rather than dismissals.

Education, an issue central to young voters like the ones at the high school, took a backseat to other issues across these nights. However, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who is currently polling at less than 1%, took a stand on education and its relationship to crime in America. While Bennet will not be the democratic nominee, his passion for educational reform shows the Democratic Party is serious about it, and debate to hash out the various plans is necessary for the platform. 

Bottom Line: Biden and Warren

The end-all of the two nights comes down to the performance of frontrunners. Warren and Biden hold the most intrigue, as Biden did exactly what he had to do to stay the frontrunner in this crowded race and Warren showed she is the voice of the far-left. Biden benefited greatly from the low expectations stirred up by his poor performance in the previous debate, as well as confirmation bias from many moderate Democrats. The reality is that many Democrats want to support Biden. He seems safe and established in a political climate where most Democrats simply want to defeat President Trump. 

By contrast, Warren looked exciting and masterful, fending off attacks from all sides and staying on her message all night. However, Warren’s refusal to fight her progressive compatriot in Sanders showed that her strategy continues to be survival. If Sanders and Warren wish to have a progressive nominated, one of them will eventually have to fall on their sword and endorse the other. If not, they will fracture the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and leave room for a moderate such as Biden to win the nomination. As this campaign trudges on, the interaction between Warren and Sanders will be paramount to the fate of the democratic effort to unseat President Trump.