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4 Things We Learned From Last Night’s Democratic Debate

July 31, 2019, 5:03 PM UTC

Ten candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, including front runners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, took the debate stage in Detroit, Mich., last night to discuss their platforms. 

Here’s what we learned from the 2020 candidates during the first night of the second Democratic debate.   

1. Montana Governor Steve Bullock is a candidate 

It is understandable, in a crowded and early field of more than 20 Democratic candidates, to not know each of the players. On top of that, Bullock did not qualify under the Democratic National Convention (DNC) rules for the first round of debates in June. His performance was overall unremarkable, but the governor did make note he was the only one on that stage to have won a ‘red’ state which President Donald Trump had won in the 2016 election. The majority of Montana’s districts are red, which is perhaps why Bullock is seen as being a true centrist. Compared to Sanders, Warren, and other frontrunners at the moment, Bullock is the conservative in the field. Some see his ability to win over Republican voters as catering to Trump’s toxic rhetoric and rash decision-making supported by the top level of the GOP, rather than a willingness for bipartisanship. 

Bullock may be the canary in the coal mine with his polling data being used as a gauge of how “left” Democrats want their liberal candidates to be to win against Trump. 

2. There is still a push for a debate focused on climate change

With a large group of mostly young activists lining up outside the Motor City calling for a Green New Deal economic overhaul and a full climate change-focused debate to be held by the DNC, inside voters saw much of the same as always: one question on climate change with a few candidates showing a deeper understanding of the crisis at hand. 

Less than 10 minutes of the nearly three-hour debate were spent on the matter, as was the case each night in Miami. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was the first to bring it up in his opening statement—only four of the 10 candidates did so—saying his state “attacked climate change head on” but later called the proposed legislation to overhaul the economy to curb carbon emissions “disasters… you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.” Buttigieg appeared to have an understanding of the research on climate change, noting “science tells us we have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe when it comes to our climate.”

One thing was made clear, the Green New Deal is the issue that separates Democrats on tackling the climate crisis.

Former Congressman John Delaney of Maryland, who consistently touts his Wall Street experience, said the massive proposed legislation “ties progress to other things that are completely unrelated to climate, like universal health care and guaranteed jobs.” 

However, he misses the central point of the Green New Deal—all of those issues are related in the fight against climate change. Bullock went so far as saying the proposal was “demonizing coal workers.” He and the other centrists also missed another key point of the legislation: green jobs training for manufacturing and coal industry workers rather than allowing those existing jobs to be phased out by other countries’ advances in clean energy technology. 

Sanders and Warren were both bold in supporting the Green New Deal, which has yet to have a price tag assigned but was introduced in Congress in February. Both addressed how implementing it could transform cities and rural communities for the better. 

3. The Democrats will have to support one proposal for healthcare reform

It seemed the most time was spent on most Americans’ top concern: healthcare. If the Green New Deal was a divergent point in the field on climate change, the argument of taking away private insurance it on what candidate Marianne Williamson called the “the sickness care [system] rather than a healthcare system.” 

The nuances of the various bills drafted and complicated language made worse by insurance companies varying definitions were on full display during the debate. What was made clear is that the party as a whole has two camps: those who do not want private insurance like that of union workers to be declared illegal and those who do so it can be replaced by comprehensive government-sponsored care. Naturally, the arguments were heated as Warren and Klobuchar kept attempting to tell the stories of real people with healthcare finance issues. 

It was perhaps perfectly summed up in a terse exchange between Delaney and Sanders. Moderators repeatedly went to Delaney during the debate and on the question of reform he began his response saying he was the only candidate who “actually had experience in the health care business.” Sanders quickly and angrily interrupted: “It’s not a business,” and moments later pointed to the 500,000 Americans who go bankrupt from medical costs each year. 

What worries some Democrats is that other camps within the party will not rally behind the proposal of the presidential nominee during the election nor in Congress, but that will be key in not only signaling unity and clarity to voters, but to help pass real reform. 

4. Voters might benefit from different types of moderators and debate formats

While the American public has grown accustomed to the spectacle of all things presidential election, these debates are supposed to expose candidates to a wide audience on issues of national importance. If social media is any indication, voters might benefit from having longer response times from candidates and different types of moderators. 

Several thought the questions posed by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash were angled in a way to make fodder for the network’s programs airing after the debate and into the next day. For instance, when Tapper asked Sanders about the war in Afghanistan and said there was no difference between the senator and President Trump it left people all along the political spectrum confused. What did that add to the narrative of who Sanders or Trump are as candidates? The question also highlighted another key issue: depth of the moderators questions on topics like climate change and foreign policy are often lacking in these situations. 

This is nothing to say about the intelligence or credentials of the moderators, but the debate format and need to cater to a network audience do not encourage the question to candidates: we know your position, but what is next in Afghanistan?

The lack of in-depth answers also has to do with the crowded field. With 10 people onstage each night, combined with news anchors who are used to inflammatory comments from their programs’ guests, many found the limited response time and cut-offs take away from each of the candidates and the overall effectiveness of the debate. 

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—In a debate over differences, these are the topics not discussed on night one

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