2020 Democratic Primary Debates 1.1 & 1.2

Not who won or lost—when I watch debates, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for personality, honesty, ideas. There are some notes of strengths/weaknesses, below.

Climate Realism

During 1.1 there was a question whether Inslee’s plan would save Miami, which he basically had to say yes to. You can’t stand in front of a city and tell them their city is going to go bye-bye. At least not yet. But it’s likely to, as seas rise enough.

There was a little bit of acknowledgment of that in 1.2 with Buttigieg differentiating between mitigation and stopping further climate change, but the general attitude of politicians seems to be focused on limiting the future damage without pointing to preparedness for the damage that will surely come.

Broad Agreement on Healthcare

The question seems to be whether to shoot for Medicare for All or let a public option evolve into Medicare for All. The differences of all sizes are moot at that point—they are all smaller than the differences that would exist in actually passing any bill change the healthcare system.

There seemed to be some slight nods to the bureaucratic friction in healthcare—one of its worst features is the difficulty of selecting insurance, understanding it, etc. But even those nods seemed very slight, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Half the pain of health conditions for a lot of folks is jumping through all the damned hoops.

US-Middle-East Relations

Everyone seems to agree war sucks, which is nice. The broader question of how to move the Middle East toward a better place wasn’t addressed. Some talk, especially in 1.1 about the Iranian agreement and tensions there. Indirect references to the potential for a peace dividend from a few candidates, without much to say about how to get there.


It’s a healthy field, as my report last week indicated. It seemed like there were more policy differences during 1.1 than 1.2. 1.2 felt much more about positioning than positions. Whether that’s because they saw how 1.1 went and strategized more, because of the contenders present, hard to say.

It felt like climate change was still an afterthought, and although there are only 11 more primary debates, it seems like getting more into the issues of climate would be helpful.

Over the two nights the strongest performances seemed to be (in alphabetical order):

  • Booker
  • Castro
  • Harris
  • Warren

Booker held his own on 1.1, not a complete stand-out, but certainly a contender. Castro had a few stand-out moments (also 1.1) and certainly showed himself to be worth a closer look. Harris, the only one I note from 1.2, seemed well-prepared and personable, but also had more time to speak so that probably helped. Warren has that professorial poise about her, and she’s always well-prepared.

The weakest performances came in 1.2, which may have helped Harris by providing more contrast. Swalwell jumped in with “me, too!” at several points and has some thing about the youth taking over, and Williamson apparently falls into self-help dictation mode whenever she is given a chance to speak.

Sanders (1.2) did alright, but at this point he’s fairly repetitive (if on message). One of his strengths and weaknesses is the fact that he seeded the ground so well with his 2016 rhetoric. That same rhetoric has been broadly adopted by 2020 candidates, both because they want to appeal to Sanders’ 2016 supporters and because it’s become part of the vernacular of the party (itself an oddity—Sanders still isn’t a Democrat).

Biden’s approach (1.2) seems to focus more on his record than is useful at points (doesn’t help that others want to remind us of negative aspects of his record). Others point to their records, but since Biden was around for so long, some of it feels like ancient history (for both the good and the bad). Harris rightly called Biden out for his anti-busing stance, but the electorate back then was more racist and the issue more visible (in 1972 it was largely seen as toxic that George McGovern proudly stated his pro-busing stance).


As the next debate (2.1 and 2.2) is about a month away, there will be some time for everyone to regroup and practice. They all got a chance to see how everyone else did, so the second round should be more informative as to who’s ready to rock and who isn’t.