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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes: First Democratic Presidential Debate Edition

If you watched the first Democratic presidential debates last night, you probably noticed that the excitement on the stage increased dramatically when the topic turned to health care reform. Cara Voght’s “We Just Got a Ton of Clarity on Where the Democrats Stand on Medicare for All” rolled it out at Mother Jones: “Twenty minutes into the first night of the first 2020 Democratic debate, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt asked a straightforwards yes or no question of the field: “Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government run plan?”…Elizabeth Warren’s hand shot up immediately from the center of the stage. It was a hand many progressives had been waiting to see. The Massachusetts senator has defined her run for the White House with a bevy of detailed plans, but her stance on health care had been a bit more elusive. “There are a lot of different ways to get there,” she told the New York Times without specifically naming the single-payer plan pushed by her 2020 rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders. “‘Medicare for All’ has a lot of different paths.”…But she couldn’t have been clearer when she explained her answer from the debate stage on Wednesday night. “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” she said. She added that the profit-driven private health care industry had left families rising premiums “rising premiums, rising copays, and fighting with insurance companies…Medicare for All solves that problem,” she explained from the stage.”

Voght continues, “But Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—the only other candidate to raise his hand in response to Holt’s question—were in the minority. Most of the rest of the candidates appeared to coalesce around Medicare for America instead, a universal health care plan authored by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). It would offer a comprehensive federal insurance option to uninsured Americans, while allowing those who have employer-provided insurance to keep it if they choose. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke voiced support for it, noting that it would allow anyone who needs insurance to easily obtain it. “But if you’re a member of a union, and you negotiated for a health care plan that you like because it works for you and your family, you’re able to keep it,” O’Rourke said.” All the candidates on stage appeared ready and eager to flesh out their views on the topic, and there were no gaffes.

Who got to talk the most? Erin Doherty has a chart for that at FiveThirtyEight:

Number of words spoken by each candidate during night one of the first Democratic debate

Cory Booker 2181
Beto O’Rourke 1932
Elizabeth Warren 1637
Chuck Todd (moderator) 1633
Amy Klobuchar 1614
Julián Castro 1588
Tim Ryan 1383
Tulsi Gabbard 1243
Rachel Maddow (moderator) 1163
John Delaney 1060
Lester Holt (moderator) 1001
Bill de Blasio 881
Jay Inslee 875
Savannah Guthrie (moderator) 748
Jose Diaz-Balart (moderator) 377

Word counts exclude words spoken in Spanish


Other nuggets from FiveThirtyeight’s “What Went Down On Night One Of The First Democratic Debates” include Clare Malone’s “Here are my final thoughts in terms of Booker’s performance: He definitely had a strong night. He spoke the most of anyone on the stage (and seemed to get a lot of google searches) and conveyed, I think, the kind of calm competence that is core to his brand. His closing statement told the same story that his presidential announcement did, about being given the opportunity to live in the neighborhood in which he grew up because of the work of activists fighting housing discrimination against black families. Will be very interested to see what kind of poll bump he might get for this.” Also Nate Silver’s “Looks like Gabbard edged out Booker in search traffic at the end there.” Amelia Thomson-Deveaux added “I’m inclined to think that Castro is the candidate who’s done the most for himself tonight. He did really well in the immigration segment, substantive without being too aggressive. But Booker did a good job as well. And they both needed to do well tonight.”

At Vox, Dara Lind, Dylan Matthews, Ella Nilsen, Alex Ward, and German Lopez picked four winners of the debate, including Elizabeth Warren, Jualian Castro, Bill de Blasio and Cory Booker. “Warren’s performance wasn’t a breakout, but it was solid. She stuck to her core message throughout the night: advocating for dramatic, structural change to eradicate corporate corruption and redistribute wealth from the top to America’s middle and lower classes…He [Castro] got the first question of the night on immigration, a subject on which he’s one of the only candidates to have released a full campaign plan. And he used it to his advantage by connecting the border crisis and the desperation of people trying to enter the United States to the most radical proposal in that plan: repealing Section 1325 of Title 8 of the US Code, which makes it a federal misdemeanor to cross into the US without papers…It is a daring strategy to run aggressively leftward in a field that includes Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but if anything, he [de Blasio] managed to position himself as more progressive than Warren on Wednesday night. This is supposed to be the party of working people,” he declared, in a moment that recalled Howard Dean’s promise to represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” in 2003.”…Booker got the most airtime of any candidate. If you look at the Google Trends data, Booker searches surged after his comments about gun violence…he has the rhetorical chops to express a pretty conventional version of the Democratic gun control platform in a way that feels vital and urgent.”

From “Democrats need a better answer to the Mitch McConnell question: The debate Democrats need to have: How do you win back the Senate?” by Ezra Klein, also at Vox: “In a more sensible system, the presidential candidates would be quizzed on how they would lead their party to down-ballot victory if nominated. They’d release detailed plans for organizing in purple states and crafting a message designed to carry coattails. They’d be discussing statehood for Puerto Rico and DC — which is both the right thing to do on the merits and would strengthen Democrats’ Senate competitiveness in the future. It’d be all hands on deck to take back the Senate…The reality is closer to the opposite. Part of Democrats’ Senate problem was evident onstage. Democrats would have a better chance in Texas if Beto O’Rourke or Julián Castro had chosen to take on John Cornyn. Thursday’s presidential debate will feature John Hickenlooper, the strongest candidate Democrats could have fielded in Colorado. Steve Bullock, the only Democrat with a shot in Montana, didn’t qualify for the debates, but he’s still running for president rather than Senate. Stacey Abrams passed on the race in Georgia. Some of these candidates could drop out and file for Senate, but running back to your state after flaming out nationally isn’t the strongest way to start a tough campaign.”

But I thought former Senator Claire McCaskill offered a salient observation in her post-debate comments at MSNBC, when she noted that many of the Democratic pick-ups in the 2018 midterms were achieved by ‘outsiders,’ rather than establishment politicans. She argues that the ‘outsider/insider dynamic’ is still very strong and might also provide the key to winning a Democratic majority of the U.S. Senate in 2020. Democratic head-hunters, therefore would be smart to recruit some passionate, compelling outsiders to run in key races, rather than complain about presidential candidates who have declined to run for senate.

And Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has some perceptive insights about Warren’s political agility: “Warren showed early in the debate what everyone knows — that she has a keen mind and a passion for restraining corporate power and plutocracy. But what Democrats wonder about Warren is whether she’s a winner, especially when she has to play outside her comfort zone of business regulation…Wednesday night, she did that — addressing a core worry of Bernie Sanders supporters, elegantly sidestepping an intraparty spat over immigration, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, refusing to go far left on guns even when doing so would have been an easy applause line. Warren skillfully hewed to a moderate course while still sounding like a solid progressive. It’s not easy to pull that off. And it’s what it takes to win a presidential election…Nobody doubts Warren’s passion or her intelligence. But while there’s a role in the Senate for smart policy thinkers who are fortunate to live in a safe state, to be elected president, Warren needs to convince Democrats that she’s also a smart political thinker who knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold ’em…Wednesday night, she showed she’s ready for primetime.”

Emily Atkin explains why “The First Democratic Debate Failed The Planet: At a debate held in a sinking city, only four candidates were directly asked about the climate crisis” at The New Republic: “The climate-related questions that were finally asked of the candidates, well into the second hour of the debate, were dismal…It was, to put it lightly, a disgrace—and not just because climate change was the number one issue that Democratic voters wanted to see discussed at the debate. The debate itself was held in Miami, Florida, a city that’s literally being swallowed by the rising ocean. As the New York Times pointed out on Tuesday, “New water pumps and tidal valves worth millions of dollars are needed to keep the streets from flooding even on sunny days. Septic tanks compromised by rising groundwater leak unfiltered waste that threatens the water supply. Developers are often buying out residents of established communities, hoping to acquire buildable property on higher ground…To respond to that reality, the debate’s organizers chose to devote seven minutes to climate change, 70 minutes into a 120-minute debate, as if it were a fifth-tier issue. Similar to humanity’s overall response to climate change, it was far too little and far too late.”

One comment on “Political Strategy Notes: First Democratic Presidential Debate Edition

  1. Victor on

    Warren is so far the only candidate that can unite the different factions of the party.

    Her stances on the economy, healthcare, immigration, climate change and cultural issues manage to be principled while flexible.

    She still has some way to go in explaining her narrative and strategy for change, specially in the context of a stable economy, but she has credibility with both progressives and more moderate liberals.


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