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 Ann WarrenHarris weighing Biden endorsement: report Biden, Sanders contend for top place in new national poll Biden leads Democratic primary field nationally: poll MORE (D-Mass.), who received generous early airtime and predictably attacked big corporations and the wealthy, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation 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 McConnellSenate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems to present case on abuse of power on trial's third day The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' MORE (R-Ky.) as an obstructionist while ignoring the passage earlier that day of a border aid bill, 84-8. 


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 Kevin DelaneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules Elizabeth Warren moves 'bigly' to out-trump Trump DNC goof: Bloomberg should be on debate stage 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 GabbardHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti defends Tulsi Gabbard's lawsuit against Hillary Clinton Twitter CEO declined to host Tulsi Gabbard fundraiser: report 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 TrumpSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation MORE.


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 MaddowCitizens United put out a welcome mat for Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman Giuliani says he was 'misled' by Parnas Parnas attorney asks William Barr to recuse himself from investigation MORE as a moderator, discussion of this topic was short and largely muted compared to the daily speeches of Reps. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerSusan Collins asked Justice Roberts to intervene after Nadler late-night 'cover-up' accusation Nadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on MORE (D-N.Y.) and Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Democrats hammer abuse of power charge, allege Trump put self over country Female impeachment managers say American public know a 'rigged' trial when they see one 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 PutinThe need for clear thinking about Russia German president expresses 'sorrow' for Holocaust, warns 'spirits of evil' are rising A new era in Russia will allow America to rethink its policy 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 PennEnd impeachment's government shutdown Poll: Majority say IG report revealed pattern of misjudgment by FBI Poll: Biden holds double-digit lead over 2020 Democratic rivals 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.