Ten Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Detroit Wednesday for a rowdy debate that underscored the party’s deep divisions. Here are 10 of the top takeaways:
1. This Was the Most Diverse Presidential Debate in American History
Wednesday night’s debate featured three women, two black candidates, one Latino, one Asian and a Pacific Islander. The conversation they had reflected this diversity, ranging from busing and immigration issues to criminal justice reform, pay inequality and white privilege.
The white candidates on stage were certainly aware of the dynamic. In his opening remarks, former Vice President Joe Biden nodded to the diversity around him. “This is America,” he said, “and we are strong and great because of this diversity.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spent time addressing her “responsibility to lift up those voices of color.” And Gov. Jay Inslee at one point acknowledged that he has never been “a black teenager pulled over [by] a white vehicle, I have never been a woman talked over in a meeting, I’ve never been an LGBTQ member subject to a slur.”
2. Biden Escapes a Pile-On
“Go easy on me, kid,” Biden told Harris as they shook hands at the outset—knowing, of course, that she wouldn’t. Harris renewed her attacks on the former Vice President’s collaboration with avowed segregationists and his positions on school desegregation. Booker took Biden to task for trying to have it both ways with Barack Obama—embracing the President for popular moves yet ducking questions about disagreements by claiming their discussions were confidential. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio demanded Biden disclose what he did to stop Obama-era immigration policies. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand trotted out a 1981 op-ed about childcare tax credits and asked Biden to explain himself.
Biden took the lashing and lives to fight on. Advisers had spent the month since the first debate bracing for impact. They knew the aura of inevitability was not going to protect them and told him to anticipate wallops far worse than what Harris offered in Miami. Biden had tweets drafted and ready to go for a number of anticipated attacks, including a thread about that 1981 op-ed. It wasn’t a command performance for the front-runner, but he took incoming from all over the stage and appeared to come away relatively undaunted.
3. Do Democrats Care About Judges?
On the campaign trail in 2016, President Trump prioritized putting conservative judges on the bench, which has turned into a legacy project for his presidency. Many Trump allies credit his promise to nominate conservative judges—and to take the unprecedented step during the campaign of publicly releasing a list of judges he would consider for the Supreme Court—with being a key factor in his victory. National exit polls after the 2016 election showed that 21% of voters said the Supreme Court appointment was “the most important factor” in their decision, and those voters favored Trump.
Yet federal judicial nominations and Supreme Court vacancies were never mentioned over the course of two Democratic debates in Detroit, despite the fact that Trump has already confirmed two Supreme Court justices and more than 100 lower court judges. The closest the candidates came to engaging on the issue was when Biden said he supports a constitutional right to an abortion during a discussion about the Hyde Amendment. It was a stark demonstration of how the right is better organized and more energized on abortion than the left. On Monday, liberal judicial advocacy group Alliance For Justice laid out the stakes this way in a statement: “As candidates prepare for the second debate, the Senate is preparing to confirm President Trump’s 150th judicial nominee to a lifetime seat on the federal bench. The harm Trump is inflicting on our federal courts is clear.” Still, there wasn’t a peep about the issue in five hours of substantive debate between 20 Democratic candidates.