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Democrats' debate: a calmer, gentler move to the left

Democrats' debate: a calmer, gentler move to the left
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Compared to the Roman gladiator debates of recent Democratic and Republican presidential campaign cycles, the first 2020 primary debate was an exercise in civility, probity and policy.

The questions were mild and the answers, milder — no one’s hands or other body parts were attacked. The winners were clearly Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Georgia senator mocks Harris's name before Trump rally: 'Kamala-mala-mala, I don't know' Warren, Porter to headline progressive fundraiser supporting seven swing state candidates MORE (D-Mass.), who received generous early airtime and predictably attacked big corporations and the wealthy, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus Rally crowd chants 'lock him up' as Trump calls Biden family 'a criminal enterprise' Undecided voters in Arizona wary of Trump, crave stability MORE, who was not in the debate but, in comparison, will likely seem more experienced and ready for the job. It’s his to lose in the next round.

It’s clear that NBC was following a careful script in this debate, for the most part avoiding the typical gotcha questions and placing hot topics like impeachment near the end while placing the economy, health care and immigration up top. Its moderators probed for some issue differences among the debaters but didn’t confront Warren with her claims of Native American heritage and generally displayed their pro-Democratic bias in labeling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Schumer labels McConnell's scheduled coronavirus stimulus vote as 'a stunt' Pelosi gives White House 48-hour deadline for coronavirus stimulus deal MORE (R-Ky.) as an obstructionist while ignoring the passage earlier that day of a border aid bill, 84-8. 

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Overall, though, one wishes all of the political debates were served up this way, as it enabled the candidates to look serious — and that’s a good thing for our politics and our democracy, even if most of the viewers were asleep by the end.

Unfortunately, these moderators would never treat candidates from the other parties in the same manner nor allow them to repeat “facts” and ignore questions with only slight pushbacks. Just about all of the candidates repeated the mantra about how the economy is benefiting only the few and all the benefits are going to big corporations or the wealthy. They danced around the fact that millions of new jobs have been created — by definition, benefitting those millions — or that the Gini coefficient that measures inequality hasn’t moved in years, or that wages have been rising.

The party’s much-discussed shift to the left was largely on view, though it was somewhat toned down as most of the candidates supported continuing to allow private health insurance alongside new government options including “Medicare for All.” While at points former congressman John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.) sounded a moderate horn, he largely avoided direct confrontation with the more left-leaning candidates. There were no “Sister Souljah moments” — no direct confrontations of extremist positions, or calling out of recent anti-Semitic comments by Democratic representatives. The candidates largely split hairs while calling for more health care, more compassionate immigration policy, new taxes, more subsidies for green energy and free college tuition.

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio gave the second-most impassioned defense of the leftward shift after Warren, and he probably did himself some good in the debate by striking an authentic tone about his beliefs.

If Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardHarris faces biggest moment in spotlight yet Ocasio-Cortez slams Tulsi Gabbard for amplifying ballot harvesting video Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Netflix over 'Cuties' film MORE (D-Hawaii) ever was a moderate that was hard to detect in this debate. The most dangerous moments for the party came in the discussion of Iran, during which Gabbard seemed out of step with the country and Iranian leaders were treated with kid gloves. It’s easy to forget that the Iran nuclear deal had the support of only about 35 percent of Americans when it was negotiated and signed by President Obama, or that most Americans completely distrust Iran even more than President TrumpDonald John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus MORE.

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Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) seemed out of his depth in this debate. It was hard to understand why he was ever hyped as a top-tier candidate, given his lack of a record and that he did not display a great understanding of people or policy as he shifted back and forth between English and Spanish. He does best when he is center-stage, and so this format didn’t allow him show off his magic on the stump. He likely needs to wait a few more cycles. 

While O’Rourke seemed to ignore the findings of the Mueller report on Russia collusion, and Delaney called Trump “lawless,” most of the candidates stayed away from impeachment, suggesting it is a dead issue right now. Delaney gave a prolonged answer on how the constituents he meets want to talk about national issues, not Russia. Even with Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowLast hurrah for the establishment media Biden seeks contrast with Trump after aide tests positive for COVID-19 NYT columnist: Pressure mounting on NBC to make town hall a 'nightmare for Trump' MORE as a moderator, discussion of this topic was short and largely muted compared to the daily speeches of Reps. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerMarijuana stocks see boost after Harris debate comments Jewish lawmakers targeted by anti-Semitic tweets ahead of election: ADL Democrats shoot down talk of expanding Supreme Court MORE (D-N.Y.) and Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCensoring the Biden story: How social media becomes state media Porter raises .2 million in third quarter Schiff: If Trump wanted more infections 'would he be doing anything different?' MORE (D-Calif.).

As more and more of the candidates realize that they won’t be graduating to the top round of contenders, we can expect the field to become more desperate to take down the front runners. For now, though, this first debate gave us a sober introduction to a host of experienced candidates, in contrast to the topsy-turvy political world of the last few years. They presented a far more policy-oriented shift to the left, with talk of wealth and carbon taxes rather than the “concentration camp” language of the past few days. At the same time, no one really stood out as ready to take down both Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBlessing for Trump: a campaign devoid of foreign policy Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict adds to Putin's headaches, West's worries Trump's hunt for foreign policy wins hits Russian wall MORE and Donald Trump.

And that’s why the nominee probably won’t come from this group of Democrats — although Elizabeth Warren has become the second-tier candidate to watch, and she likely improved her position as a possible upset-in-Iowa contender.

Mark PennMark PennSwing-state polls suggest a narrowed path for Trump's reelection Exclusive poll: Biden up in Mich., Pa., tied with Trump in Fla. Biden holds 5-point lead over Trump in Pennsylvania: poll MORE is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.