2020 Presidential Election: The Second Democratic Debate: Night 1

By Rebecca Johnson

It’s true CNN has been criticized for their handling of the presidential debate in Detroit – and with good reason. CNN moderators Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon did not appear to be listening to what the candidates were saying and continually cut them off after a 30-to-60 second time limit that did not allow for any substantive discussion to take place. Questions were lobbed at candidates in an unorganized, and sometimes, confusing manner with the first question being asked after a half-hour of introductions, commercials, and candidate’s opening statements. The following two hours on night one of the debates included a lot of time spent asking candidates “What do you think about that?” and “Your response?” Most questions were phrased in a way to maximize the potential for conflict and invite more personal jabs and one-liners.

Caroline Framke wrote in Variety that CNN made it clear from the start what it wanted out of hosting the debates. She wrote, “It makes sense that a network would keep an eye out for likely outcomes going into a debate night and accordingly prepare to handle them. But it’s another thing entirely for CNN to nudge people into performing the roles it wants of them with leading questions aimed more at starting fights than shedding light.”

While CNN was seeking soundbites by formatting the second round of debates with conflict in mind, rather than on a more structured discussion of differing policies and plans, there were a few key points worth noting.

On Healthcare
Much of the first hour of the debate was spent on healthcare, the number one issue for Democrats, and an area where the candidates are not in agreement. Unfortunately, the format curtailed any serious policy discussion – candidates weren’t able to talk specifics in mere seconds. Most of the healthcare debate centered around Medicare For All and a fight over whether Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ plan to eliminate private insurance in favor of a universal government health plan is possible and practical or just political suicide.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke touted a plan called “Medicare for America” that would enroll uninsured Americans in Medicare, allow anyone dissatisfied with private insurance to opt into Medicare, and let anyone wishing to do so, retain their private insurance.

“Our plan ensures everyone is enrolled in Medicare or can keep their employer-sponsored insurance,” he said.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said he couldn’t support a plan that “rips away” insurance from Americans who already have it and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan called it “bad policy and bad politics”.

Sanders became agitated as he argued the coverage would actually be better.

“You don’t know that, Bernie, Ryan said.

“I do know,” Sanders growled back. “I wrote the damn bill!”

Racism and Trump
For all the back-and-forth about policy differences, candidates were unified in admonishing Donald Trump and his racist comments.

In recent weeks, Trump has told four congresswomen of color to “Go back” to the countries from where they come, even though each of them is a U.S. Citizen, and has criticized the Baltimore-area district of Rep. Elijah Cummings, calling it a “rat and rodent infested mess”.

I have had it with the racist attacks,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar in her opening statement.

Warren drew strong applause from the debate audience when she announced her administration would treat white supremacy as a form of domestic terrorism.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg also directed criticism to members of Congress he said are silent about or supportive of “naked racism” in the White House. He received some of the loudest applause of the night when he said, “If you are a Republican member of Congress, consider the fact that when the sun sets on your career, and they are writing your story of all the good and bad things you did in your life, the thing you will be remembered for is whether in this moment, with this president, you found the courage to stand up to him or you continued to put party over country.”

Daylight Between Warren and Sanders
There is very little, if any. The two top-polling progressives in the Democratic field were positioned on stage next to each other, but showed no appetite for fighting with each other.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, instead, mostly stood together and swatted off moderate critics all night. At one point, Warren actually rubbed her hands together in anticipation of implementing her 2% wealth tax on former Maryland Rep. John Delaney’s $65 million personal fortune.

It’s inevitable Warren and Sanders will take aim at each other later, as they are courting different voters right now. Eventually, they will need to consolidate progressive voters.

On Immigration
Like with healthcare, more moderate and progressive candidates are split on the question of whether to decriminalize crossing the border-making the illegal crossing of the border a civil offense, subject to detainment, a fine and in many cases deportation without burdening an otherwise law abiding person with a criminal record.

Sanders said he would decriminalize crossing the border and Warren said the current law is what’s “given Donald Trump the tool to break families apart.”

More moderate candidates said they would retain laws against crossing the border, keeping it criminally illegal.

“We can argue over the finer points of which parts should be handled by civil law and criminal law,” Buttigieg said. Adding, “If fraud is involved, that’s suitable for the criminal statute. If not, it should be handled under civil law.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said, “I agree that we need to secure borders. There is no question about that. The frustration with what’s going on in Washington is they are kicking the ball back and forth. Secure the borders and make sure whatever law we have doesn’t allow children to be snatched from parents and put in cages.”

O’Rourke said he would waive green card fees, give “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who were brought into the US as children) citizenship, ease the process of seeking asylum, and aid struggling Central American countries. “Then, I expect that people will come here, follow our laws, and we reserve the right to criminally prosecute them if they do not,” said O’Rourke.

Editor’s note: The next Democratic candidate debate will very likely see far fewer candidates on September 12 (and 13th if needed). The New York Times reports that only 8 of the twenty candidates that met during the CNN debate have qualified for the third debate hosted by ABC and Univision but perhaps most notably, the debate will be held 11 hours from El Paso, in Houston, TX.

Rebecca Johnson is a copywriter, content creator, and website developer. She is a married mother of one who serves as vice-president of a nonprofit board, dabbles in genealogy research, and fosters rescue pets.