In the first two hours of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates, there wasn’t a single moment that could change the course of the race. And, along those lines, no one candidate so obviously crushed the evening, at least compared to the others.
That said, some White House hopefuls did better than their competition, and so the letter grades below are based on two criteria. First is the candidate’s debate performance, including the substance of their answer and ability to captivate a television audience under pressure. The second is whether they accomplished what they needed in the context of the campaign. (So, for example, a front-runner might have wanted a boring debate, where as longshots needed to take risks in order to shake up the campaign.)
Here’s the scorecard:
Former US housing secretary Julián Castro
Coming into the debate, Castro had good company — about half of the field — in that if things didn’t start to go upward soon, he wouldn’t meet the criteria to get into the next round of debates in September. (He has already qualified for a July debate, as have all others in these two nights.)
He punched well above his weight on Wednesday night. He inserted himself into the discussion on a number of issues, but particularly immigration, where he had the best exchange of the night with former US representative Beto O’Rourke. He showed his policy chops on this issue by calling out his fellow Texan in one of the first shows of daylight between any of the candidates on stage.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
The mayor of the nation’s largest city had become something of a punchline in the 2020 contest. Indeed, a poll last week showed de Blasio was less popular than Donald Trump… in New York City. But it is important to remember that a primary voter in, say, Colorado, doesn’t take that into account. And if they tuned into the race for the first time tonight, they would see a guy making the case that he was progressive before it was cool — a mayor who can boast about his initiatives on universal pre-Kindergarten and combating climate change.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii
Like de Blasio, the expectations for Gabbard were pretty low, but she used the time she had well and likely improved her standing as a result. Those Bernie Sanders supporters who might be looking for another home could be comfortable with Gabbard (a backer of the Vermonter in 2016) and her positions on Medicare for All and taxes. And while the Castro/O’Rourke exchange on immigration was the most notable of the night, the second best was Gabbard’s answer on Afghanistan and taking on Tim Ryan.
Former representative John Delaney of Maryland
Delaney may have made the debate stage by the skin of his teeth, but he forcefully inserted himself into the debate tonight in a way few might have expected. Delaney was serious on policy and straight-forward about where he disagreed with others on stage. In many ways, he was able to strike the pragmatic, “but really?” tone that Senator Amy Klobuchar perhaps wishes she would have delivered.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Warren had strong but uneven night — not much of which was due to her own doing. In the first hour of the debate, she dominated the time largely because she got the most questions. She looked and sounded like the one to beat on stage.
But in the second half of the debate, she disappeared, allowing others, such as Booker, to dominate the conversation. As the front-runner on that stage, she took zero risks. As a result, this performance didn’t prove without a doubt that she could go the next level above Biden and Sanders.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey
Booker got the most airtime of any candidate on stage, and yet he didn’t seem to move the ball forward in terms of differentiating himself from the large field. He will have a few moments that his campaign can push on social media, but there wasn’t the kind of knock-out monologue that he needed to boost himself into the top tier.
Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio
Ryan gets the same grade as Booker but for different reasons. Ryan’s prospects in the race are not great, but unlike Booker, he presented “the point” of his campaign in a much crisper way. We got the message: He’s the guy who wants to bridge the gap between red and blue America, and he believes Democrats can do it by listening to working-class and blue collar voters. (Also: Isn’t this Biden’s argument, too?)
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
Klobuchar was no doubt staying true to her persona and politics as a more moderate Midwesterner, and she landed a few catchy one-liners — notably her response that women on the stage had worked for abortion rights. But, overall, her performance didn’t pack the punch that she needed to get ahead in this field. Delaney, who is also on the more moderate side of the field, did a better job of making the case for realism in legislating.
Washington state Governor Jay Inslee
Inslee delivered a few good lines, particularly when he talked about what progressive reforms he oversaw in his state. But a wide-ranging debate is a struggle for a single-issue candidate such as Inslee, who is focused on climate change. He needed a break-out moment on this or any other issue. Instead, his most memorable line was when he called Trump the country’s greatest geo-political threat (applause followed). Then later, other candidates replied with climate change. D’oh!
Former representative Beto O’Rourke
Over the last several months, O’Rourke went from being the buzziest candidate to one of the pack. And Wednesday’s performance on stage presents a new low for the Texan in this race.
He needed to show at least a spark as to why he became a sensation last year. He not only didn’t do that, but he also ceded that battle of the Texans to Castro on one of the most important issues — immigration.
From his first answer in Spanish (that earned a meme-worthy look from Booker) to him quoting George Washington, most of O’Rourke’s answers came across as too cliche for prime time.