In a contest between Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tim Ryan, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Marianne Williamson, Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, and John Hickenlooper, there was a lot of talking, a lot of responding, and a lot of… actual debating. These ten candidates met on the stage for the first of two nights of debating, and with CNN as host, it was quite the show.
The expected match-up of the night was Bernie Sanders versus Elizabeth Warren, but it turned into a free-for-all as Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon did their best to put candidates on the record not just on their own statements, but in response to the statements of other candidates. CNN’s panel did a good job of getting the candidates to confront their differences with each other, making it good television and a good policy debate.
But, with all the debating and the arguing and the questioning, there were some candidates who set themselves apart. Both in good ways and in bad.
As a reminder, this is not a “Winners And Losers” analysis based on
The Winners: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson
This was billed as Comrade Sanders against Chief Grand Cherokee, but Sanders and Warren instead spent their time tag-teaming against the lesser creatures sharing the stage with them. Warren, for her part, struggled to begin with. She tried to shoehorn in an anecdote in two separate questions, resulting in the audience laughing and her snapping at them in response, saying “It’s not funny!” However, she regained our footing but didn’t really explore any new ground here. She played it pretty safe with her usual talking points without being incredibly controversial.
Sanders, however, didn’t care about taking swings and offending people. He defended Medicare For All to the death against Tim Ryan and John Delaney (the latter getting murdered in the process), and hit back against several other candidates with ferocity. Also unlike Warren, Sanders wasn’t a one-note guy. Warren went back to the trough again and again on the “The Rich Run The Country” mantra. Sanders, for what it’s worth, did talk actual policy at times and had actual ideas (whether we agree with them or not).
However, there is no doubt in my mind that Marianne Williamson is the clear winner of the night. Her job as a lower-tier candidate was to get herself recognized. She had to fight the odds and the lack of screen time that the other two winners had, and she had to stand out. She got legitimate applause, she had the most memorable lines, and she was in every way the charismatic candidate Donald Trump was in the Republican primary. Saying that what happened in Flint wouldn’t happen in Grosse Pointe and that the country is suffering from a “dark psychic force” resonated more than any other line during the debate. As of right now, I fully expect her to see a surge from this debate and make it to the next one.
The Losers: John Delaney, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg
John Delaney was murdered on stage tonight. Bernie Sanders beat the living hell out of him, and Elizabeth Warren went in for the kill. If the Democratic Party would listen to John Delaney and Tim Ryan, they would have a better shot against Trump in 2020, but he spoke far too much sense and the progressive wing of the candidates will have none of it.
Pete Buttigieg had the most potential going into the debate, but he just hasn’t lived up to it. He ducked and dodged conflict and did not really seem to stand up for anything when challenged. It was a major letdown if you were a Buttigieg fan, because he was eclipsed by others – especially Marianne Williamson.
Beto O’Rourke? Honestly, I wasn’t sure he was still running, and after this debate I still don’t know if he’s still running. He talked an awful lot about his time spent traveling Texas to be a U.S. Senate, completely ignoring the fact that he lost that race to someone who, frankly, is nowhere near as popular as he used to be. O’Rourke still seems to think that all the press he got in that race will translate over to this race. It hasn’t, and it won’t.
The Also-Rans: Steve Bullock, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper
Of the four who were also on the stage, the only one who had a great performance was Tim Ryan. However, like Delaney, Ryan is far too moderate and far too critical of the progressive left to ever get a shot at the nomination. He was smart on the right issues and, if I were a Democrat, I’d take a closer look at him. He is probably the most effective moderate the primary has, which makes him all the more likely to get nowhere close to the nomination.
Of the remaining three, none of them did anything special. Worse than losing was not being recognizable, which is exactly what they were. Steve Bullock fought his way to this debate, only to ensure it would be his only one. Hickenlooper is somewhere between Ryan and Sanders, but is so awkward about it that I half-expected him to look off-stage during an answer and shout “LINE!” because he’d forgotten what to say. Klobuchar was worse than bad – she was forgettable. She had stale answers, a boring demeanor, and tried to force a depressing anecdote into her closing statement. It did nothing to boost her already low profile. At one point, she had to pay herself a compliment because no one else (especially her staff?) would be giving her one.
One thing I do want to say is that, despite how we normally discuss CNN here, I have got to hand it to them for the way they handled the rules of the debate. The time limits were well-moderated and the politicians were asked repeatedly to clarify answers they dodged. It was a better production than the NBC-run debates, and there was a lot more substance to be had.