Commentators: Who won the Democratic debate?

Updated 9:21 PM ET, Wed July 31, 2019
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10:10 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

Struggle for the soul of the Democratic party

By David Gergen

There were no break-outs, no serious stumbles, no ambushes like we saw in the first round of Democratic debates a few weeks ago. But Tuesday’s opener in the second round did have significance: the moderates of the Democratic Party finally found their collective voice.

After those first debates, there was an audible shudder among many Democratic strategists and activists who worried that the far left of the party was seizing control, that Trump was successfully undermining the party with his racist attacks, that Joe Biden’s halting performance raised questions about his age, and that there was no Plan B if Biden stumbled again. Despite polls to the contrary, many worried they were on the road to doom.

Thanks largely to the arrival of Montana Governor Steve Bullock on stage and a better performance by Maryland Congressman John Delaney, the moderates’ push for less revolutionary, more realistic policy changes sent a message to the broader public that the party hasn’t lost its way but is having a healthy debate about what that way should be. Bullock was an especially fresh voice of common sense that will appeal in large swaths of the country.

By the end of the evening, what emerged on stage was a coalition of five moderates: Bullock, Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, and John Hickenlooper. No doubt some will disappear before the third round and there will be fewer moderates among the debaters tomorrow night. But the struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party has now been joined for all to see. Some party chieftains may not like the struggle, but ultimately it could be exactly what the party needs to forge stronger bridges across the divide. 

David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. He was the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, where is a Professor of Public Service. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen

2:07 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

The night belonged to Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg

By Frida Ghitis

In a format that was endlessly frustrating, with so many candidates on stage that moderators had to cut them off just when you wanted to hear more, Democrats showed voters that they bring a host of different, well-thought-out ideas for them to choose from.

It was a pity that foreign policy was left out, but in the topics covered, the candidates offered a range of thoughts aimed at repairing the damage inflicted by the Trump administration, from immigration to climate to gun violence, fields where Trump has achieved less than nothing.

To much applause, Mayor Pete Buttigieg declared that no matter what Democrats say, Republicans will brand Democrats as socialists, so Democrats should ignore what Republicans think.

But that is electoral sophistry. Democrats need to choose a nominee who can beat Donald Trump, one who can appeal to moderates and disaffected Republicans.

As Buttigieg himself later said, none of the great ideas by the candidates on the stage will matter if Trump is reelected. Fortunately, for Democrats, and for the country, there are smart, thoughtful people opposing him.

The strongest showings came from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, with a reliably impressive performance from Buttigieg.

The young mayor is charismatic, articulate, and made resonant moral appeals, most notably his call to Republicans to examine their conscience as they support the current president. Buttigieg has a bright future. He will be a formidable candidate four or eight years from now.

Warren showed she is the standard-bearer and the more effective champion of the ideas that Bernie Sanders introduced in his first run for president. Sanders can take comfort that his views have been embraced by many in the party. But he should now step aside. (Surely, he won’t.) His overflowing, high-decibel style does not help his cause. Warren’s steady, secure performance takes command of the left wing of the too-crowded stage. And yet, I remain skeptical that those ideas can win a general election.

Amy Klobuchar came through as a thoughtful, smart, pragmatic, experienced prospect, with a moral core. “Immigrants don’t diminish America,” she said, “they are America.” She offered a solid proposal for a major infrastructure plan to prevent another crisis like Flint’s poisoned water. And she touted her strong track record of winning elections in the middle of the country, portraying herself as a candidate who can win a general election.

The first night belonged to Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg.

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGhitis

2:08 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

A genuine way to appeal to independent voters

By Alice Stewart

The battle of the far-left standard bearers versus their moderate rivals took center stage in the second round of Democratic presidential debates in Detroit. 

In the Motor City spotlight: the Democratic party’s political pendulum, swinging between bold solutions and political reality.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren came prepared to take the incoming fire that all frontrunners face.

Self-described "Democratic Socialist" Sanders defended the viability of his "Medicare-for-All" bill, defiantly saying “I wrote the damn bill.”

Sen. Warren pushed back on criticism of her policies by questioning why other candidates would run for president just to “talk about what we really can’t do and what we shouldn’t fight for.” 

Their lower-polling rivals took a more nuanced approach on policy. I view their more tough-love approach as a genuine way to appeal to independent voters. It’s important to tell voters what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigeig defended his more moderate views, saying it’s time to “stand up for the right policy… defend it.”

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney said Democrats should “run on real solutions, not impossible promises.”

Congressman Tim Ryan touted his center-left views by saying this is “not about left or right, it’s about new and better.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock ripped far left proposals as unsustainable “wish list economics.”

While "Medicare-for-All" and de-criminalizing illegal border crossings may be popular among Democratic primary voters, the party needs to recognize how it plays outside the base. That’s the beauty of the primary process.

It will take more than an Etch-a-Sketch for a far left candidate -- to shake free of socialist-like policies or fear of not withstanding the test of time -- to be viable in a general election, even against President Donald Trump.


Alice Stewart is a CNN Political Commentator, Resident Fellow at Harvard University in the Kennedy Institute of Politics and former Communications Director for Ted Cruz for President. Follow her on Twitter: @alicetweet

2:00 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

What happened to "Yes We Can?"

By Errol Louis

Whatever happened to “Yes We Can?” Three centrist Democratic candidates -- John Delaney, John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock -- launched a full-out attack on Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for promoting sweeping measures like Medicare for All and decriminalizing undocumented border crossings.

“You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” Bullock said to Warren on the issue of decriminalizing illegal entry at the borders. “A sane immigration system needs a sane leader.”

On Medicare for all, Delaney called for “real solutions, not impossible promises,” and groused: “I’m starting to think this isn’t a heath care strategy; this is an anti-private sector strategy.” Later on, he directly challenged Warren’s health care plan by saying “That’s not a big idea. That’s an idea that’s dead on arrival.”

Hickenlooper explicitly called for “an evolution, not a revolution” on health care.

The naysayers all sounded reasonable and practical. But Democratic primary voters, like other Americans, cherish extraordinary dreams, deep optimism and wild hopes for the future. That is why Sanders and Warren are consistently polling near the front of the pack of 20 Democratic candidates.

“I get a little tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” Sanders said. “Please don’t tell me we can’t take on the fossil fuel industry.”

And Warren drew applause by responding to Delaney’s attack with a touch of exasperation: "I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for."

The back-and-forth reminded me of the electrifying moment in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama -- who’d been accused of offering flowery speeches and dreams rather than practical policies -- used his victory speech after the South Carolina primary to push back.

“Don't tell me we can't change. Yes, we can,” Obama said. “Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can seize our future….where we are met with cynicism and doubt and fear and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words -- yes, we can.”

It was a lofty, optimistic message that ended up carrying Obama to the White House. Sanders and Warren are betting they can do the same.

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

1:17 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

A good night for Warren and Buttigieg

By Jen Psaki

If debates alone determined the outcome of a presidential primary, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg would be celebrating their one-two finish.  But it is unlikely the first night of the Detroit face-offs will have the impact of shaking up this field.  

Sen. Warren was strong.  She used her time to go big and bold with policy ideas and some effective hits on President Trump, as well as easy targets, like banks and insurance companies.  And she effectively punched back when warranted, delivering the line of the night in response to Rep. John Delaney: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

My bet is her supporters, and maybe some of Bernie Sanders’, will love her more, but the skepticism among many Democrats that she is the candidate who can defeat Donald Trump won’t have dissipated.

As for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, while he reminded viewers why he has had such a meteoric rise in the polls, it is unlikely his performance changed his lagging support among African Americans.

On his first night on the debate stage, Steve Bullock accomplished what John Hickenlooper,  Amy Klobuchar and John Delaney fell short on: he offered a different approach to the Sanders and Warren vision.  But he may be arriving too late to gain enough movement in the polls and traction among grassroots supporters to make the next debate in September.

Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her on Twitter: @jrpsaki.

2:00 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

Steve Bullock: an appealing alternative to Biden?

By Patti Solis Doyle

Governor Steve Bullock is presenting himself as the progressive who can win in red states (like he did in his home state of Montana). It is smart framing given the fact that he is embracing more moderate policies such as building on the Affordable Care Act rather than providing Medicare for All  -- and NOT decriminalizing illegal border crossings. He managed to do both by tying himself to former President Barack Obama’s administration. 

Most of us have not seen Governor Bullock on a national stage until tonight. But, with a strong performance in the debate and an embrace of more moderate policies, he is providing a viable alternative to the other more moderate candidate who calls himself a progressive and cloaks himself with the Obama administration – former Vice President Joe Biden. For those Democratic voters who viewed Biden’s debate performance last month as lackluster, Bullock will be appealing. 

Patti Solis Doyle, a CNN commentator, was an assistant to the President and senior adviser to then-first lady Hillary Clinton, was chief of staff on Clinton's 2000 and 2006 Senate campaigns, and Clinton's presidential campaign manager in 2007 and early 2008. She is president of Solis Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm that specializes in serving nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and corporations. Follow her @pattisolisdoyle

1:31 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

Democrats are heading for a repeat of 2016

By Carrie Sheffield

Tuesday’s Democratic debate highlighted how the left’s divide between socialism and pragmatism in 2016 is still alive and well in the 2020 presidential primary. This policy schism -- as Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emanuel have noted -- empowers President Donald Trump, who enjoys the stability of a unified Republican Party and the power of incumbency.

Trump also benefits from most Americans’ staunch opposition to liberal policies like free health insurance for immigrants with no legal right to be here  and eliminating private health insurance. 

More practical candidates on the stage, like Gov. Steve Bullock, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Tim Ryan tried to be voices of reason on issues like health care, immigration, student loans and the “Green New Deal,” but the aggressive pushback from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren shows how the 2020 Democratic primary could easily become just as bruising as it was in 2016.   

Moderates like Rep. John Delaney called for consumer choice. He warned against pursuing an “anti-private sector strategy” in health care that could bankrupt rural providers and making “impossible promises that will turn off independent voters.” Yet he was knocked back by leftists onstage like Marianne Williamson who dismissed the more centrist candidates: “I almost wonder why you’re Democrats.”

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the US economy has added over 500,000 manufacturing jobs since President Trump took office and wage gains on an annual basis have been above 3% for 16 of the past 18 months. Ryan correctly noted that the far left often bashes petro-and coal-based industries, yet workers in these fields are the backbone of America’s economy -- which has added more than 47,000 auto manufacturing jobs since Trump was elected.

It’s no wonder that Middle America rejected liberal policies like those of Hillary Clinton, who declared, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” While she -- and others tonight -- quickly tried to amend her statement by saying she would re-train those coal workers, the damage was already done. It’s no surprise that Clinton said that statement was the one she regretted the most in 2016. 

It appears the 2020 Democrats have learned nothing, allowing conservatives to step into this leadership void to offer market-based solutions for reducing emissions and lowering energy costs. 

In his remarks Tuesday, Hickenlooper called for "evolution, not revolution,” however, the Democratic base doesn’t seem to agree with him. They are likely in for a bitter surprise when America’s common-sense voters reject policies that would expand government at unsustainable levels. 

Carrie Sheffield, a conservative commentator, is the founder of Bold, a digital news network committed to bipartisan dialogue. She is also national editor for Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog organization, and a visiting fellow at Independent Women's Forum. Follow her on Twitter: @carriesheffield

2:01 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

Revenge of the moderates

By Joe Lockhart

Tuesday’s debate felt a lot like the Democrats were trying to clean up after last month's first round of debates. In those first two debates, Democratic candidates seemed intent on outbidding themselves for who could be the most progressive. Hands shot up on who was for Medicare for All, who wanted to decriminalize undocumented immigrants' crossing the border and who would provide health care to those who are undocumented.

This debate should be called the revenge of the moderates. From the outset in opening statements, most of the candidates directly took on the policies of Senator Sanders and Warren as “wish-list politics” and unworkable political promises. 

The good news is Democrats have a much clearer view now of the choice they have. Sanders and Warren are offering revolutionary change, and the rest of the field is offering progressive, but more incremental change. When it comes to public polls on issues like Medicare for All, the Democratic party and the public at large tend to side with the moderates, not Sanders or Warren. There is very little support for eliminating the private health insurance option. The irony for Democratic voters is Sanders and Warren are much more effective in advocating for an unpopular position than the rest of the field is for promoting the more popular policy.

The big winner tonight is Joe Biden. The moderates had two hours to attack the policy ideas of Warren and Sanders underscoring polls that show the party has not lurched to the left as is so frequently repeated. And while doing it, none of them particularly distinguished themselves as a powerful candidate for the nomination. That leaves the voter-rich center left wide open for Biden. That is if he can deliver a stronger debate performance Wednesday night than he did last month.

Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton's administration. He co-hosts the podcast "Words Matter."

12:42 a.m. ET, July 31, 2019

Debaters let Trump off easy

By Paul Begala

Donald Trump has proposed deep cuts in Medicaid and Medicare. He is in court right now, trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its protections for folks with pre-existing conditions. You would think the mission of the opposition party is to, well, oppose those things. But no Democrat mentioned them at Tuesday's debate. They were too busy accusing each other of being donkeys in elephants’ clothing.

Elizabeth Warren was on fire. Her blazing rhetorical skills outshone Bernie Sanders without ever attacking him. It was impressive, and, for me, maddening. More than once she turned to her fellow Democrats -- good, strong, loyal progressive Democrats; Democrats whose support she will desperately need if she is the nominee -- and accused them of repeating Republican talking points. 

Montana Governor Steve Bullock and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney did a good job of challenging the more, umm, fanciful proposals from Warren and Sanders: free college, free health care, single-payer weed. (Okay, I made that last one up, but stay tuned; it will be canon by the end of this primary). 

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. Follow him on Twitter: @PaulBegala