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 WarrenBiden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running Press: Another billionaire need not apply Saagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism MORE (D-Mass.), who received generous early airtime and predictably attacked big corporations and the wealthy, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment Biden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running 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 McConnellLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Biden not ruling out Senate voting to impeach Trump: 'It will depend on what their constituency says' Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate 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 Kevin DelaneyBloomberg run should push Warren to the center — but won't The Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment fight enters new stage Biden hits Warren over 'Medicare for All' plan 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 GabbardNew Quinnipiac poll finds Biden leading in New Hampshire Gabbard lawyers demand retraction of Clinton's 'defamation' Krystal Ball praises former McConnell aide's historic win in Kentucky 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 TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment 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 MaddowMaya Rockeymoore Cummings, Elijah Cummings's widow, will run for his House seat 'Anonymous' gets media frenzy without pesky scrutiny for new book New book by anonymous op-ed author details difficulties staff had in briefing 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 NadlerHouse to vote on bill to ensure citizenship for children of overseas service members As impeachment goes public, forget 'conventional wisdom' What this 'impeachment' is really about — and it's not the Constitution MORE (D-N.Y.) and Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats sharpen their message on impeachment White House struggles to get in sync on impeachment Hillicon Valley: Microsoft pushes for DACA fix ahead of court hearing | Twitter seeks feedback on 'deepfakes' | Trump officials unveil plan to notify public of 2020 interference 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 PutinBiden expresses shock that Trump considers attending Russia May Day event Harris swipes at Trump on Russia: 'Always nice to spend time with supporters on the campaign trail' Trump says he's considering attending Russia's May Day parade 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 PennPoll: Majority say Hunter Biden's role on Ukrainian energy board was bad judgment Majority of Americans see impeachment inquiry as fair: poll Poll: Trump approval steady at 46 percent 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.