Democratic Presidential Candidates Take The Stage In First Debate

The Democratic presidential candidates field questions during the primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo)
The Democratic presidential candidates field questions during the primary debate hosted by NBC News on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo)

With host Meghna Chakrabarti

The first of two Democratic presidential debates took place Wednesday night, with ten hopeful candidates. New York Times reporter Lisa Lerer is here to recap last night's standouts and to discuss what to expect in Thursday night's second debate, with a roster of ten different Democratic candidates.


Lisa Lerer is a New York Times reporter who covers campaigns, elections, and political power. (@LLerer).

Additional Reading

New York Times: Debate Night 1: The 'On Politics' Breakdown

"Before the first Democratic primary debate, there were a lot of comparisons to the Republican circus from last cycle. Then, like now, the stage was crowded with candidates. One in particular used the face-offs to his advantage: Donald J. Trump, whose debate performances catapulted him to the front of the race."

"Last night’s debate was definitely not that. There were no fireworks. No personal insults. And certainly no taunting. This was policy heavy. Platitude heavy. And, perhaps, a touch plodding."

"The roughest response came from Mr. Trump himself, an avid cable news watcher, who reviewed the whole event as 'BORING!'”

"Even though the president may have changed the channel, we certainly learned a few things about the candidates.

A spotlight on the people reshaping our politics. A conversation with voters across the country. And a guiding hand through the endless news cycle, telling you what you really need to know."

"So what can we take away from the first debate of the Democratic primary cycle?

• When it comes to policy, the game is being played on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s turf. Ms. Warren took a chance by adopting a policy-first strategy. It seems to have paid off: The first section of the debate underscored how much she has set the tone, with other candidates being asked whether they agree with her positions on issues like taxing the rich or breaking up big technology companies. She, meanwhile, made a notable switch to fully embrace Senator Bernie Sanders’s position on 'Medicare for all.'

• I don’t believe in debate winners and losers. But if I had to crown someone, it would be Julián Castro. There wasn’t a lot of room for a second-tier candidate to break out, but he seemed to have accomplished that goal. Mr. Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, hit his stride during the second section of the debate, speaking passionately about immigration and going after his fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke. Google reported that searches for his name spiked 2,400 percent during the debate, giving him a much-needed boost."

"• At a time when some primary voters worry that the country won’t elect a woman or candidate of color, the stage — with a Latino candidate, three female candidates and an African-American candidate — displayed the historic diversity of the race. A trio of candidates, Mr. Castro, Mr. O’Rourke and Senator Cory Booker, dipped into Spanish. (Though some were better than others.) How those performances shape voters’ perceptions will be interesting to watch.

• The format was hard. With 10 candidates on the stage, answers had to be crisp to make an impact. That wasn’t ideal for storytelling candidates like Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Booker, but they may need to find a way to adjust to a crowded stage — next month’s debate will feature 20 candidates. And at least eight are expected to qualify for the third debate, in September."

"• America has never seen a doubleheader presidential debate. I’m curious whether they actually want to. Asking voters to tune in for four hours of debate, six months before the first round of voting, seems like a lot. And NBC’s technical difficulties heading into hour two may have prompted some to turn off their televisions. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but it definitely went past my bedtime. (I have little kids! They wake up early!) I suspect I’m not the only one yawning at 10 p.m."

Washington Post: Winners and losers from the Democratic presidential debate’s first night

"The first night of the first debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is over, with the first 10 candidates jousting Wednesday night in Miami.

Below are our winners and losers.

Elizabeth Warren: The Massachusetts senator went into the debate with the biggest target on her back as the highest-polling candidate onstage. But she largely skated. Other candidates didn’t seem to have the appetite to put her on the spot. After the first question, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) all got a chance to offer differences with Warren on her proposals — free college, a huge tax increase on the wealthy, and breaking up big companies, respectively. None of them took the bait, with only Klobuchar offering a quibble — the idea that taxpayers pay for rich kids’ tuition — and even she didn’t actually tie that to Warren’s proposal. From that point on, Warren got a pass. And she used her platform to do what she has done to great effect on the campaign trail: talk about her bold, liberal policy ideas. It’s about the best she could have hoped for after being slotted onto the Joe Biden- and Bernie Sanders-free debate stage."

"Julián Castro: For someone on the periphery of much of the 2020 debate, he made a splash. He made a strong statement about the father and daughter who drowned earlier this week in the Rio Grande, saying everyone should be 'pissed off' about it. Later, after a joust with O’Rourke on immigration, other candidates emphasized their agreement with Castro. It’s a great sign when other candidates are straining to show they agree with you."

"Bill de Blasio: Since making a late entry into the 2020 field, the New York mayor has been the butt of more than a few jokes in D.C. and New York media. He’s also by far the most unpopular candidate in the field. But he was on his game: He cut in to get more time. He talked about having hard conversations with his black son. He talked about his dad’s PTSD, which eventually led to suicide. And he made perhaps the most far-reaching case for government activism outside of Warren — exactly as he wanted.

Raise-your-hand questions: Candidates hate having to answer questions with yes-or-no answers, but sometimes moderators must make them. Good news: You can get all of them to do it at once! The NBC moderators asked the 10 candidates onstage whether their health care plans would get rid of private insurance in favor of single-payer health care. Only Warren and de Blasio raised their hand. Then they all discussed the details. It worked — and it can continue to for the right kind of question."

"Klobuchar’s one-liners: The overall picture wasn’t a resounding success for her, but a couple of lines landed well: one well-improvised and one clearly planned. When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talked about being the only candidate to sign into law a reproductive rights bill, Klobuchar shot back, “I just want to say that there are three women here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” The audience erupted in applause. Then later, while talking about Iran, Klouchar had maybe the line of the night on Trump: 'I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 o’clock in the morning.'”

"Former vice president Joe Biden: Did you know he is the leading Democratic candidate? You wouldn’t from this debate. There was some worry that he might be attacked in absentia and not have a chance to respond immediately, but it didn’t really happen.

Spanish: It was probably inevitable that some candidates would speak it on the stage, and O’Rourke was quick to do so, followed by Booker. Even Castro, whose lack of fluency in Spanish as the only Latino candidate has been much-discussed, offered a brief bit of bilingualism. “I need to learn Spanish by tomorrow night at 9,” tweeted Marianne Williamson, who will debate Thursday night. “My Spanish is terrible,” her fellow Thursday-nighter Andrew Yang admitted in his own tweet."

O’Rourke: I wrote before the debate that O’Rourke was one of the candidates that needed the most out of it. He didn’t get it. Off the bat, he was asked a question about marginal tax rates and declined to offer a specific answer — instead offering an apparently pre-rehearsed Spanish monologue — and again didn’t really answer after being offered a narrower question about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) 70 percent rate. Later, he was asked why he wasn’t willing to get rid of private health insurance, and he was challenged on it by de Blasio. Rather than offer a forceful defense, he was rescued by former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.), who offered a much more studied answer. Later, when Castro hit him for not supporting a specific change to asylum rules, O’Rourke offered a broader rebuttal about his favored reforms. He righted the ship somewhat when talking about gun control later in the debate, but the whole thing reinforced the narrative that O’Rourke is somewhat out of his depth on policy."

"Tulsi Gabbard: Gabbard was lost for much of the debate. That may not have been her fault — she wasn’t asked many questions — but fellow cellar-dwellers Delaney and de Blasio were able to work their way in by piggybacking on others’ answers. Toward the end, Gabbard was asked a question: About her past opposition to gay rights, which she has apologized for. Her answer about personal evolution and coming from a socially conservative family was perfectly fine. But then Booker swooped in and argued she should have also talked about transgender rights, making her answer suddenly seem insufficient."

"Trump’s mission to “save the Free World”: Before the debate, Trump tweeted that he wouldn’t be watching. “Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” But about 40 minutes in, he tweeted, “BORING!” One problem: It came right after a particularly heavy portion about that tragic image of the father and daughter.

A political plan of action: The liberal candidates, including Warren, were asked about the practicality of their proposals, and they said you need to fight for things. Candidates including Warren were asked how they would bend Mitch McConnell to their will, if he remains Senate majority leader, and they didn’t have much of a plan. Tim Ryan offered a compelling case for Democrats’ need to appeal to working-class voters, and it got some tepid applause and little buy-in from other candidates. It wasn’t exactly a lesson on how you enact actual policies."

"Russia and impeachment: The first mention of either of these came more than 100 minutes into the debate. De Blasio said Russia was one of his top issues. Then Delaney was asked about whether a president should be immune from prosecution, and he said it wasn’t really what voters cared about. Then Klobuchar suggested the important issue was election security, not necessarily what to do with Trump. For all the talk about Robert S. Mueller III and impeachment in recent weeks and months, it would have been an easy applause line Wednesday night to bring this up early and often. Somehow, Democrats resisted the urge — in a way House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will surely appreciate.

Smooth production: Upon returning from the first hour and handing things off to moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow, the NBC News proceedings were marred by a hot mic — somewhere? — and they had to cut to commercial to fix things."

Allison Pohle produced this show for broadcast.

This segment aired on June 27, 2019. The audio for this segment is not available.



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