Ten Democrats took to a stage Wednesday night in Miami for the first debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, but they struggled to connect with the voting viewers as they competed with each other and a debate format that didn’t allow anyone to significantly break away from their competitors.
For the most part, the candidates agreed with each other on some of the biggest issues of the day, ranging from the economy, immigration policy, gun control, and reproductive rights. But in an effort to draw favorable distinctions to their respective campaigns, the candidates delivered their answers — often with practiced passion — by frequently over-talking and interrupting each other. It was the only way for some of them, especially several of the poll-trailing candidates, to seize face-and-voice time and make a rare public impression during a helter-skelter two hours of rapid-fire questioning by two sets of moderators from NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo.
In the first of two back-to-back debates, half of the qualifying Democrats faced off, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.
The debate resumes Thursday night with another set of candidates: spiritualist author and lecturer Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend, IndIana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.
An early clash between the two Texans — Castro and O’Rourke — best illustrated the awkward dynamic. During the first hour, Castro turned to all the candidates standing with him, but looked directly at O’Rourke, to demand that they join his call for the repeal of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes it a crime to enter the United States illegally, as a means to end the separation of children from their families at the border.
“Some of us have called to end that and terminate it, some like Congressman O’Rourke have not, and I want to challenge all of the candidates to do that,” Castro said. “I think it’s a mistake, Beto, and if you truly want to change the system, it might as well be the same.”
O’Rourke immediately rose to the challenge. “Let me respond briefly,” he said interrupting Castro, who didn’t stop talking. “As a member of Congress, I helped introduce legislation that would ensure we don’t criminalize those seeking asylum.”
For a brief few, subsequent seconds the two Texans talked over each other, trying to make points but failing to be clearly heard or understood.
Overall, the candidates on Wednesday avoided personal attacks on each other or the absent Democrats in the race, and frequently trained their fire on President Donald Trump. And, notably, none of the candidates targeted Biden, who leads in most polls.
But there were moments of combative drama, such as when Delaney, who was the first Democrat to announce a run for the White House but has been largely overshadowed by the front-running candidates, pressed himself into a colloquy on Medicare for All between De Blasio and O’Rourke.
“Americans, we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” Delaney said to rousing applause in the auditorium. “We should give everyone in this country health care as a basic right for free. Full stop.”
As might have been expected, the debate opened with a question on the economy, posed to Warren, who argued that despite the positive news from the White House, the economy isn’t working for every American. “We need to make structural changes in our government and our economy,” she said.
Indeed, for the early part of the debate, it appeared as if it Warren was the headline act with nine back-up singers. Through the first half of the debate, Warren spoke for roughly 25% of the time, according to an immediate analysis by CNN.
But that advantage evaporated as the debate rumbled on. At the end, CNN announced, Warren spoke the third-most — 9 minutes and 17 seconds — trailing Booker at 10 minutes, 55 seconds and O’Rourke at 10 minutes, 39 seconds.
To be sure, the debate format didn’t help any of the candidates, forcing each of them to grandstand against the tight timeframe for responding to questions or to elbow fellow Democrats to score points and claim success.
What’s more, after taking a break at the midway point, the debate resumed with a technical glitch that had off-camera voices broadcasting into the auditorium and over the cable network. The interruption forced NBC’s Chuck Todd to curtail his question on gun control and go to an unexpected commercial break. That move added to the appearance that the debate wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
Of course, the format and broadcast miscues weren’t the fault of the Democratic hopefuls, who seemed nonplussed and undeterred in making their pitches for the first time before a national audience.