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 WarrenKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Katie Pavlich: The Democrats' desperate do-overs MORE (D-Mass.), who received generous early airtime and predictably attacked big corporations and the wealthy, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? 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 McConnellDemocrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Democrats press for action on election security Hillicon Valley: Election security looms over funding talks | Antitrust enforcers in turf war | Facebook details new oversight board | Apple fights EU tax bill 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 Delaney2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Bennet launches first TV ads in Iowa Trump campaign mocks Democratic debate: 'Another informercial for President Trump' 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 Gabbard2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Biden leads in new national poll, Warren close behind in second place Gabbard drives coverage in push to qualify for October debate 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 TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border 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 MaddowConservative network files defamation lawsuit against Rachel Maddow, MSNBC Meteorologists call out Trump after Alabama hurricane map How the media can save itself, before Donald Trump destroys it MORE as a moderator, discussion of this topic was short and largely muted compared to the daily speeches of Reps. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerLewandowski says he's under no obligation to speak truthfully to the media Katie Pavlich: The Democrats' desperate do-overs Lewandowski refuses to say whether Trump has offered him a pardon MORE (D-N.Y.) and Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff says Trump intel chief won't comply with subpoena over whistleblower Sunday shows - Guns dominate after Democratic debate Schiff: Diplomacy with Iran 'only way out of this situation' 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 PutinFeehery: Impeachment fever bad for Democratic governing vision Taliban travels to Moscow after Trump declares talks dead Russians tune out Vladimir Putin 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 Penn Poll: Trump's approval steady despite deepening economic fears Poll: Gun violence turning into top issue for voters in 2020 Poll: Voters want US to confront China over trade 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.