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10 takeaways from the first Democratic 2020 debate

Donald Trump draws surprisingly little fire; Texan Julián Castro has breakout performance

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MIAMI (CFP) — The first 10 Democrats took the stage in Miami Wednesday night for the first of two nights of debate among the more than two dozen candidates running for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Here’s a recap of some of the key takeaways from the proceedings.

1. Life at the Top: U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was the only one of the candidates in the top five in national polling to take the stage in the first debate, and she got pride of place to both open and close the proceedings. She made the most of her moments and avoided taking shots from the other candidates, although there was long stretches in the second half of two-hour debate where she faded out of the conversation. Her best moment came when she was asked if she had a plan as president to deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and she responded, “I do” — then made a few fiery comments about energizing Democrats “to make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro has breakout performance at first Democratic debate (From MSNBC)

2. Breakout Performance: Among the candidates further back in the pack, the breakout performance of the night may have come from former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, one of two Southerns in the race, who got quite a bit of screen time and dominated the immigration portion of the debate, on a day when the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border dominated the news cycle. As the only Latino in the 2020 race, Castro spoke with authority that other candidates were hard pressed to match.

3. Private Insurance Fault Line: When the candidates were asked if they supported creating a Medicare-for-all system that would abolish private insurance that employees receive from their employers, only two candidates — Warren and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio — raised their hands, although both former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey indicated they supported versions of Medicare-for-all that stopped short of ending private insurance. The greatest pushback on the idea came from former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland: “I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken.”

4. Texas Immigration Tangle: Castro called for repeal of the section of federal law that makes it a crime to illegally cross the U.S. border, which he said had been used by the Trump administration to target migrants. Then he tried repeatedly to get O’Rourke and the other candidates on the stage to follow his lead — and interrupted O’Rourke as he tried to explain his immigration policy without taking a position on repeal, in what proved to be one of the few direct confrontations of the evening.

5. Personal Touch: In discussing issues brought up by the moderators, O’Rouke tried to set himself apart from his competitors by inserting personal stories of Americans whom he has met on the campaign trail and other anecdotes into his responses. This approach perhaps reached its nadir when he was asked if his Justice Department would pursue charges against President Donald Trump once he left office — and he launched into a non sequitur about a painting in the U.S. Capitol that shows George Washington resigning his commission as head of the army.

6. Biggest Threat? When candidates were asked who or what they thought presented the biggest threat to the United States, most said China or climate change. Only one —  DeBlasio — said Russia “because they’re trying to undermine our democracy.” But Washington Governor Jay Inslee triggered a cascade of applause with his answer: “Donald Trump.”

7. A Different Kind of Democrat? Three of the candidates mired near the bottom in national polls tried to set themselves apart by portraying themselves as a different kind of Democrat. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio called for the party to pay more attention to blue collar voters in the Midwest, saying its center of gravity needed to shift away from coastal elites. Delaney issued a call for pragmatism, saying Democrats needed to adopt “real solutions, not impossible promises.” And U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran and major in the Army National Guard, called for a complete U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, saying “we are no better off in Afghanistan today than we were when we began.”

8. Mayor Pushy: DeBlasio did his best to live up to the stereotype of New Yorkers as loud and obnoxious, frequently interrupting the proceedings and interjecting himself at high volume. He gave several lectures on how Democrats need to represent working people and invoked his biracial son to make a point about police reform. True, he got noticed among the flash mob on the stage, but probably not for the right reasons.

9. Where’s The Donald?: With the notable exception of Inslee’s line about Trump being the nation’s biggest existential threat, the Democrats spent surprisingly little time during the debate directly castigating the president — despite the fact that the 2020 election is shaping up as a referendum on the incumbent and the Democratic base sees the president in a slightly less favorable light than Satan.

10. Winners and Losers: Among the evening’s winners were Warren, who needed to get through the debate without stumbling and made a case that she can take on Trump, and Castro, who perhaps put himself back in the national conversation. The losers included DeBlasio, who came off as wild, goofy and unlikable, and O’Rourke, whose vague and often rambling responses couldn’t disguise the fact that he generally wasn’t answering the moderators’ questions. If his ardent supporters were looking for the debate to push him to the front ranks of the race, they’re probably going to be disappointed.

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