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A Democratic Debate Report Card

It's not a list based on preference, but an assessment of how they performed over the last two nights

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News,

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

How do we make sense of 20 candidates and four hours of debate? Some key take-aways, then a report card.

First, the format is crazy, making it difficult for any candidate to say much, but some candidates made the most of a bad situation. Second, it is really, really early. We’re eight months away from the first primaries. Perhaps half the candidates are likely to drop out before that, which would be good to eliminate lots of the clutter of going-nowhere candidates. Third, the Democrats have moved significantly to the left since the 2016 election, on health care, criminal justice reform, the environment, gun control, the minimum wage, and other issues. But it turns out that, according to polls, a majority of Americans agree with them.

Ideas that once seemed radical now sound like common sense. For that we can thank Bernie, Trump, and the amazing resistance movement, including Planned Parenthood, the Fight for 15, Indivisible, Black Lives Matter, and the impressive mosaic of grassroots activists who protested in the streets in 2017 and knocked on doors registering and bringing out voters in 2018. One of the real winners of the debates were the activist students from Parkland, Florida, who helped change the political climate on gun control.

I'm a professor, so I have a responsibility to assign grades. Here's my debate report card in terms of their performance this week, not who I want to win the nomination. I support Warren, and could see Castro, Harris, or Mayor Pete as her VP running mate (although Harris would be more effective staying in the Senate).

Harris: A

Her discussion of immigration—why a mother would make the dangerous trek to the U.S. with a child, what she’d do about immigration once she was elected—was very effective. Her clever slice-and-dice attack on Biden—including her story of her own experience with busing as a child compared with Biden's opposition to busing - was memorable. So was the moment when she interrupted the cacophony of voices and said that Americans don’t want to see a “food fight,” they want to know how to put food on the table. The way she explained the need for Medicare for All—describing a parent taking her children to an emergency room and then having thousands of dollars in bills—was powerful. She was on fire. She and Warren would destroy Trump in a one-on-one debate.

Warren: A-

She didn't have any we'll-never-forget-this one liners, but she was folksy, forceful, and explained her policy ideas in simple but not simplistic terms. She has a great personal story about her Oklahoma roots and rising from adversity, which she is able to explain quickly and convincingly. Her attacks on big business, and her explanation of her plan for a wealth tax on the richest 75,000 Americans, sounded more substantive than similar remarks about the super-rich by other candidates, including Bernie’s the following night. She made a serious mistake in raising her hand in favor of prohibiting private insurance. She'll need to walk that back. Most Americans, even if they support Medicare for All, think people should have an option of buying private insurance. Even in England, where the government runs the National Health Service, people can buy supplemental private insurance.

Mayor Pete: A-

His attack on Republicans for their religious hypocrisy was fantastic. His comments about the police shooting of a Black man last week in South Bend, where he’s mayor, were excellent, taking on both police racism and our gun culture. He’s a great public speaker. He’s very likeable, a “nice young man”—respectful, articulate, a military veteran. He looks like he’s auditioning to be vice president.

Castro: B+

He really lifted up his profile. His attack on fellow Texan Beto around immigration—“You haven’t done your homework”—was impressive. He shocked the crowd by saying that a photo of a drowned father and 23-month old daughter trying to gain asylum in the U.S. should “piss us all off.” It showed spirit and gumption. His comment about his first stop on his campaign—Puerto Rico—reminded America of Trump’s disastrous rescue after the hurricane and made a strong point about the reality of climate change. He was a so-so HUD secretary, but the former San Antonio mayor sounded smart and nimble.

Sanders: B+

Every Democratic candidate is echoing some version of what Bernie was saying in 2016. He set the agenda. But he's no longer the only one talking about wealth inequality and the power of big corporations. His major point—that some version of Medicare for All works in other countries at half the cost—is important. He ducked answering a specific question about race, making it look like he's still not comfortable talking about the subject, even though his policy agenda would help redress racial injustices in many ways.

Gillibrand: B+

Her comments about abortion and women’s reproductive freedom, and about fixing the corrupt campaign finance system, were excellent. She’s been almost invisible since the day she announced her candidacy. I doubt that this debate performance will revive it, but she was at her best Thursday night.

Swalwell: B

He found a 40-year old quote from Biden about “passing the torch” to a younger generation. That was a clever move, but also age-ist. He was good on guns, blah on everything else.

de Blasio: B

He made one of the best statements of any candidate about not scapegoating immigrants for the problems facing American workers, putting the blame correctly on big business. People in New York City know he has an African-American son, but now the rest of America does, and he drew on that to make a powerful point about addressing racial profiling by the police. He touted his accomplishments as mayor, which are real and deserve more praise than he gets from the NY and national media. At times, when interrupting other speakers, he came across as a bit of a big bully. He's so low in the polls that he probably needed to do that, but it is unlikely to work.

Booker: B

He showed lots of passion, but he didn’t say anything very memorable except about the bullets flying in his Newark neighborhood. Lots of sizzle, not much steak. His "bring us together" rhetoric sounds too rehearsed and preachy without substance. Because his poll numbers are not a threat to the top tier candidates, nobody bothered to mention his ties to Wall Street and his support for charter schools.

Inslee: B

His presence in the race is pushing the other candidates to focus more on global warming, so that’s a real plus. He had one of the best lines of both nights when, asked what’s the greatest danger facing the planet, he said, “Donald Trump.” He was the only candidate either night to talk forcefully about the importance of unions, which was surprising in a Democratic debate. But his other comments got lost in the shuffle.

Bennet: B-

He scored a few points with his story about his family's escape from the Holocaust and their immigration to the US. He's a member of my fraternity, Beta Theta Pi—him at Wesleyan, me at Syracuse a decade earlier—so he gets a few bonus points. He made no compelling case for why he’s in the race.

Klobuchar: B-

Her best moments were months ago, when she took on Brett Kavanagh during his Supreme Court hearings. She didn’t rise to that level on Wednesday night. In a crowded field of candidates mostly saying liberal and progressive things, she tried to come across as a practical doer and someone who outpolled Trump in Minnesota’s “red” areas. If Biden fades, she may pick up some of his moderate support, but she’s not very exciting or charismatic.

Biden: C+

He seemed old, tired, a bit confused, out of step, and defensive. His response to Harris' criticism was feeble. His attempt to wrap himself around Obama didn't work. In talking about the crisis of outrageous drug prices, he blamed the insurance industry when he meant the pharmaceutical industry. His best line was how he became a public defender while Harris became a prosecutor, but it didn't get much response. Every time he opened his mouth, I was thinking, “He’s going to lose Iowa and then drop out after he loses South Carolina”.

Ryan: C

He made some excellent points about the need for Democrats to win back white working class voters and not allowing the Republicans and big business to divide the working class along racial lines. He also pointed out, correctly, that Democrats need to win several states in the industrial Midwest to beat Trump. But he’s not the guy to do that. Too dull. Too moderate.

Hickenkooper: C

He scored a few points on his successes as governor, but his attack on "socialism" played into the Republicans’ red-baiting hands. He was the most business-friendly of all 20 candidates, especially on enviro issues, urging other candidates not to demonize the fossil fuel corporations. If he wants to be a real patriot, he should run for the Senate seat from Colorado and defeat the Republican incumbent, Cory Gardner.

Gabbard - C

Like several others, she got a big boost in name recognition. She made good use of her military service in Iraq, which gave credence to her attack on the military-industrial-complex. But her views on war and foreign policy sound too isolationist. Because she’s so low in the polls, no other candidates bothered to criticize some of her wacko cult views, although she tried to pre-empt those by saying she’s changed her mind on some matters, without being specific).

Delaney: C

Another Congress member whose candidacy makes no sense, but now more people know who he is. Like Hickenlooper, he was the most business-friendly. His explanation of the carbon tax was pretty clear. Was it just a coincidence that he was standing furthest to the right?

O’Rourke: C-

Beto seems to be fading and his debate performance didn’t revive his once-promising candidacy. Castro outmaneuvered his fellow Texan on criminalizing undocumented immigrants. He tells good stories about people he’s met on the campaign trail. I like that approach. It puts of human face on policy issues. But he seemed to be playing defense most of the night)

Yang: C-

He was almost invisible on Thursday night. I agree with his idea for a universal basic income, but he's not much of a salesman. Kudos to Yang for not wearing a tie.

Williamson: WTF?

As far as I can tell, she's running to increase her speaker fees.

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Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.

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