With Night Two of the first Democratic primary debate officially in the record books, what lies ahead for each of the 20 candidates?
Thursday’s debate began in a similar fashion to the one from the previous night: a brief introduction from the moderators, applause from the audience and a head-first dive straight into the night’s first question.
The placement of the candidates onstage was similar as well, with the more popular candidates (Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg) in the center, while Sen. Michael Bennet, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Eric Swalwell and author Marianne Williamson were on the outskirts.
With the same trio of moderators from the other night’s debate manning the desk for the first hour, NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie directed her attention to Sanders, asking him whether or not taxes would increase for the middle-class in his administration in regards to his proposed policies of universal healthcare and free college tuition.
Sanders wasted no time with his response.
“…at a time where we have three people earning more wealth than the bottom half of America, while 500,000 people are sleeping out on the streets today, we think it is time for change—real change…healthcare—in my view—is a human right and we have got to pass a “Medicare for All” single-payer system…I believe that education is the future of this country and that is why I believe that we must make public colleges and universities tuition-free and eliminate student debt and we do that by placing a tax on Wall Street.”
Noticing that Sanders hadn’t commented about the possibility of increased taxes on the middle-class, Guthrie posed the question again, giving the senator thirty seconds to respond.
“People who have healthcare under “Medicare for All” will have no premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments, no out-of-pocket expenses—yes, they will pay in taxes, but less in healthcare for what they get,” Sanders stated.
Guthrie then called on Biden, bringing up the fact that during a speech that he gave to a group of wealthy donors that he said “We shouldn’t demonize the rich…nobody has to be punished, no one’s standard of living would change, nothing would fundamentally change.” She then asked what he meant by those comments.
Rather than explain his comments, the former vice president chose to evade and went into a seemingly pre-planned “Appeal to the Working Class” script by saying “Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary Americans built America…look, Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation. We do have enormous income inequality, and the one thing I agree on is that we can make massive cuts in the 1.6 trillion dollars in tax loopholes out there and I would be going about eliminating Donald Trump’s tax cut for the wealthy.”
Despite getting some cheers and applause for his otherwise blasé response, Biden’s night wasn’t an easy one, as two of the candidates sensed weakness and decided to hurl verbal molotovs.
The first was in the form of an underhanded compliment via Swalwell, in which the California Rep. said “I was six years old when the presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said ‘It’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.’ That candidate was then-senator Joe Biden.”
“Joe Biden was right when he said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago, he’s still right today. If we’re going to solve the issues of our nation—pass the torch. If we’re going to solve the issue of climate chaos—pass the torch. If we’re going to solve the issue of student loan debt—pass the torch. If we’re going to end gun violence for families who are fearful of sending their kids to school—pass the torch.”
Later on, Harris decided to turn up the heat on the Democratic primary front-runner as well, criticizing not only his past relationships with pro-segregationist senators, but also his opposition to forced busing.
Turning directly to Biden, with Sanders in between the two, Harris called him out on both his past and present comments.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said. “But I also believe—and it is personal and actually it was very hurtful—to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
With Biden looking straight ahead towards the crowd, making little eye contact with the California senator, Harris went on.
“You also worked with them to oppose busing…there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Harris’ comments drew huge cheers as Biden waited a moment to give his retort.
Without missing a beat, Biden came out swinging.
“This a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” the former vice president said. “I did not praise racists, that is not true, number one. Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender, not a prosecutor.”
Biden’s “I was a public defender, not a prosecutor” line was a dig at Harris’ background as California’s Attorney General, which many have noted for not being as “progressive” as she claims.
After a little more back and forth between Biden and Harris, moderator Chuck Todd moved on to the next topic.
Prior to that exchange, we saw another one involving Buttigieg and Swalwell.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow—alongside “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd—called on the South Bend Ind. Mayor to explain why the racial imbalance between the city’s 26% black population and 6% black police force hadn’t yet been solved under his current tenure as mayor, referencing the recent police shooting of a black man by a white officer in the city.
After replying that he simply “couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg offered a determination towards a day when “…a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle—when they see a police officer approaching feels like the exact same thing, a feeling not of fear—but of safety.”
Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Swalwell attacked the South Bend mayor, criticizing his lack of action.
“If the camera wasn’t on (referring to the officer’s claim of the bodycam being off during the shooting) and that was the policy, you should fire the chief,” Swalwell quipped.
After a brief pause and a subtle glare at Swalwell, Buttigieg responded.
“Under Indiana law, this will be investigated and there will be accountability for the officer involved.”
“But you’re the mayor and you should fire the chief if that’s the policy and someone died,” Swalwell fired back.
The rest of the night was a bit messy, with most of the candidates seemingly trying to slip in one-liners at every moment while Yang quickly became an afterthought, Hickenlooper droned, Gillibrand rambled, Williamson brought up notions of “love” and Bennet’s words acted as verbal horse tranquilizer.
The clear winner of the night was Harris. Sanders had some good rhetoric and stood his ground, but was noticeably off. Biden, despite the cheers he received, was nothing special, as his old “voice of the middle-class” cliches and reformist plans ran thin against the more fiery rhetoric of his combatants.
For now, there’s still a long road to 2020 and it’ll be interesting to see who will come out on top and get the nomination.