Tuesday night in Detroit, Michigan began the two night war of words and policies among the top 20 leading Democratic presidential candidates. It was pretty much politics as usual, as they did battle for what was destined to be the delineating moment for many of the hopefuls. It did not disappoint.

Night One

The first question of the night on Tuesday was directed to Bernie Sanders. Naturally, the question was about health care. After his response, the other candidates jumped on Sanders and the topic, like a pride of lions who hadn’t eaten in weeks. It was immediately clear the tone of this debate was going to be much less reserved than the last one in June.

Sanders and Warren quickly come together, rebutting the more moderate candidates’ attacks on their “Medicare for All” plans. By design or default, their shared passion and belief in “Medicare for All” kept them unified throughout the night.

This idea is so divisive and, inexplicably, it’s seen as a zero sum game. The two countries most referenced with universal health care, Canada and Britain, both have private plans. Sanders and Warren made a strong case for its necessity and its plausibility while keeping the fervid attack of the others at bay.

Placing Sanders and Warren in the middle of the stage enabled the other candidates to go at them from both sides. And they did. Whether by design or accident, they worked in tandem to defend their shared beliefs.

Sanders and Warren were the only two who kept reminding Americans of all the inequalities that their respective plans and policies can help correct. When it comes to insurance reform, Sanders took it so far as to remind viewers that big insurance companies were going to advertise during the debate’s commercial breaks.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg played it cool. This seems to be his default setting. Given more than a few opportunities to go after Sanders and Warren, he wouldn’t take the bait. When prompted about the age difference between he (the youngest) and Bernie Sanders (the oldest), he simply said that age is not relevant when it comes to creating good policies. While he disagreed with Sanders and Warren, he didn’t attack or call their plans pointless, he simply stated his own.

After barely registering during the last debate, and still barely registering in the polls, former Representative John Delaney got a lot more time on Tuesday night. When not asked questions directly, he found ways to inject himself and remind everyone of his blue collar background and success as an entrepreneur. Delaney was the most dogged and determined to go after his more progressive colleagues – oddly, going so far as to reference Ronald Reagan.

Even though he was assertively, and repeatedly, rebutted by both Sanders and Warren, he persisted. John Delaney is nothing if not tenacious.

Making his debut Tuesday was Montana Governor Steve Bullock, a moderate. For a large part of the debate, he showed a fair amount of mettle. He was holding his own against the heavy hitters. He even showed evidence of being a younger (alternate) version of Joe Biden. And then, just like Biden, he fizzled out.

Both Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke needed stand out moments on Tuesday night. They didn’t get them. To be fair, it’s not that they didn’t get them, they just didn’t deliver them. Despite all of her efforts, Klobuchar just isn’t very likeable. She doesn’t galvanize people in a manner that a candidate on a national and international level needs to.

A few months ago, it seemed that Beto O’Rourke was the Democrats’ chosen one… for all of about two minutes. Beto O’Rourke is, in a word, vacuous. It’s also very clear he’s been studying the speaking rhythm of former President Barack Obama. He just doesn’t have the charm or substance to pull it off.

Marianne Williamson remains a breath of fresh air. Oh sure, she probably won’t win. But, if 2016 taught us one thing, it’s not to say that. She does continue to make some very relevant and cogent arguments, like her appeal for African American reparations. But yes, you can count on Williamson to derail into some sort of freeform hippy stylings.

In fact, it was Williamson who really crystallized what many were thinking about some of the candidates on stage. In particular, the testosterone trifecta of Ryan, Bullock and Delaney, she said, “I wonder why you’re Democrats. You think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people. That is what government should do.” She remains an original voice.

Ohio Senator Tim Ryan continues to look amazed that he’s still in the race. Unlike some of the other candidates, I have no recollection of him talking about his plans. Ryan spent a lot of time going after both Sanders and Warren, in the process proving he’s just not effective, and neither are his plans. I guess.

John Hickenlooper’s arm flailing battle with Bernie Sanders represents the exasperation felt watching Hickenlooper. He seems very low on substance, and doesn’t appear like he’s very good at articulating his message. Provided he has one. Frankly, you have to wonder how much longer he and Tim Ryan are going to stick around.

The top three candidates on Tuesday, Buttigieg, Warren and Sanders all had their one or two “sound bite” moments that stand out. Sanders with his “I wrote the damn bill” and arm throwing contest with former Colorado Governor John Hickenloper. Warren, after a solid one-two punch from Bullock and Delaney, quipped “Why would anyone go to the trouble of running for President just to talk about what can’t be done?” And Buttigeig with his heartfelt, and correct, address directly to Republicans:

“If you are watching at home and 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 continued to put party over country.”

The moderators went to a lot of trouble to force the candidates against one another. They repeatedly pressured them by asking “Yes” or “No” questions. For example, on the question “Would you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for ‘Medicare for all? Yes or No?” asked to both Warren and Sanders, they correctly deflected. They said the middle class would save more money by not having to pay premiums and deductibles.

Reading between the lines, that’s a “yes.” Anyone with a basic education knows taxes would go up to pay for that. The moderators tactic was effective in that it did show that there are chasms within the party.

Much to many of the candidates credit, they noted that the differences in policies that exist between them are not as wide as they may seem.

The big winner on Tuesday night was really the American public watching. For the first time, the candidates actually discussed substantive issues. Once the Las Vegas style preamble ended and the candidates got into it, it became a spirited, and necessary, conversation.

With that said, the shared principles of Tuesday night’s progressive front runners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were able to hold the others off. Most of the candidates got some good punches in, but the two held their own. Emerging from Tuesday night’s debate, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders remain where they were going into it, the progressive front runners. Following them is Pete Buttigieg… and then everyone else. In short, no seismic shift occurred.

Night Two

Once CNN finished their imperious preamble and the debate began, all eyes were on Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Even Biden felt the heat as he condescendingly quipped to Harris, “Go easy on me kid.” While America’s eyes were on Biden and Harris, up on the stage, those two were in the cross-hairs of their fellow candidates.

The two words that could best describe Wednesday night’s debate are disunity and uneven. While Tuesday night’s debate was spirited and combative at times, there was a general esprit de corps among the candidates. This was not true on Wednesday. The tension from the candidates flew from the television.

No one candidate on Wednesday maintained a similar energy level to what we saw on Tuesday from Sanders and Warren. With the exception of Cory Booker, the others energy level vacillated from charged to tepid. In fact, on more than one occasion, Joe Biden simply stopped himself before his allotted time was up. Something no other candidate did on either night.

The debate was interrupted twice early on, which may explain the dark tone that followed. First by protesters calling for the termination of New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was accused of fatally choking civilian Eric Garner. The Justice Department declined to file charges against the officer. When asked about this, NYC Mayor and candidate Bill de Blasio made a vow that within 30 days action would be taken by the city against Pantaleo.

A little later, Kamala Harris explained how the civil rights division of the Justice Department had their recommendation of prosecution usurped. Without naming him, she kept the running thread of Trump’s racism in play.

The second interruption took place when CNN moderator Don Lemon asked Joe Biden about the Obama administration’s deportation record. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly 800,000 immigrants were deported — far more than President Trump’s during the first two years.

As he began to answer, two women interrupted him from each side of the hall, shouting “three million deportations”.

Just as it was Tuesday, healthcare was the first topic. And also like Tuesday, it led to a lot of sparring between the candidates. However, it was Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard who got the best line in by saying that America doesn’t have a healthcare system but rather a sick care system.

Gabbard was the more decisive of the candidates on Wednesday night. When asked if her free college plan would include undocumented immigrants, she emphatically stated “no”. She delivered pointed attacks on Harris’ prosecutorial record. Gabbard, a veteran, was openly defiant, saying that Americans had been lied to about the war in Iraq and that “War mongering politicians in Washington have failed us.”

People are making a mistake by overlooking Tulsi Gabbard.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was uneven and, at times, it didn’t seem his heart was in it. It’s either that, or he’s loaded with confidence and thinks he’s got the nomination locked. Let me assure you, he does not.

Either way, the best thing that can be said was that he didn’t collapse. I don’t think “not bombing” can, or should, really be considered a success when you’re the front-runner. The Biden slide may have just begun.

Kamala Harris remained cool, calm and measured, but by the end of the debate, looked tired. Her performance on Wednesday wasn’t as strong as it was in June. While she was on her game when going after Biden, she seemed unprepared for the jabs by Gabbard. However, her performance wasn’t quite as bumpy as Biden’s.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, sporting business casual attire again, was around to remind Americans that his plan is all about universal basic income. Basically, giving everyone $1,000 a month. Yang’s focus is all about money and technology and that’s interesting. Wednesday, he was able to deliver marginally more of his vision. On universal health care, he pointed out that insurance is an enormous hassle and cost for business owners. Removing that burden would allow them to spend that money on employees and innovation.

On immigration, Yang’s background in technology came more into focus. When it came to manufacturing, and the future, Yang said that it wasn’t immigrants taking those jobs. In fact, it was artificial intelligence – robots. He was correct in pointing out that “immigrants are being held accountable for things they have no responsibility for.”

For most of the debate, Bill de Blasio made every attempt to be the voice for the working American. Unfortunately, no one really wanted to listen. Aside from his comment about Democrats fear mongering around health care, none of his messages resonated. He made a few charges at Biden, but was quickly rebuffed.

Senator Michael Bennett implored his colleagues on stage to pay closer attention to education. Again, I don’t think anyone was listening. When the issue of impeachment came up, he fumbled around for what to say. Basically landing on the opinion that unless Trump can be convicted of impeachment in the US Senate, it’s not worth it.

The Democrats seem to view far too many things as a zero sum game. Universal health care, free college and impeachment. None of those should be treated as such. It took Former HUD Secretary under President Obama, Julian Castro, to remind Bennett that some battles are worth fighting and losing in order to set the record straight. Bennett thanked Castro for saying what he had allegedly failed to articulate.

Castro delivered one of the more solid performances of the night. And much like Tulsi Gabbard, anyone underestimating Julian Castro is wrong to do so. He remains one of the stronger second tier candidates.

It was Castro and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker who were the most solid of the group. Booker’s preacher-like tendencies can be overwhelming, but this time it was less annoying. Especially when debating criminal justice reform, which was partially necessitated by Biden’s racially predatory drug and crime laws dating back to the 1980’s.

As Biden was calling into question the impact of Bookers record as Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Booker wasn’t having it. Booker sniped, “There’s a saying in my community that you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” which drew audible gasps from the audience.

Booker also called out Biden for a comment he made during the immigration discussion. Biden had said that anyone with a PhD should be let right in. That’s just the type of elitism that many of the Democrats are running against. As Booker pointed out, the hard truth is that the majority of people coming into America right now are not PhD students or degree holders.

Kirsten Gillibrand was there. But she suffered from the same problem as John Hickelooper – they both appear earnest, but lack substance. However, Gillibrand did say that her first act as President would be to “Clorox the oval office.” Which got some hearty laughs.

The biggest surprise of the night was Washington Governor Jay Inslee. This time around, he looked and sounded less like a drunk sociology professor and more like an actual candidate. Inslee was more articulate and was on his A-game. He went to painful lengths to highlight his accomplishments in his home state of Washington. However, he did present the state as a sort of progressive Shangri-La.

Once again, CNN moderators Jake Tapper, Don Lemon and Dana Bash appeared to go to great lengths to highlight the fissures within the party and the candidates. The difference between Tuesday and Wednesday night was that it had more impact on Wednesday. There was a noticeable change in the tenor from Tuesday to Wednesday. Again, perhaps it was the protesters early on or maybe it was the candidates’ response to the moderators. Regardless, it was darker on Wednesday.

If we consider these debates as a win/lose situation, it was CNN and the moderators who won both nights. WIth their ridiculous overblown beginning to the sharp charge of their moderators, the network helped pigeonhole the candidates into tired political tropes. The tropes that keep the American electorate divided, both from the inside and outside. Which is their job as a news and entertainment outlet. Even so, both the viewers and candidates would have been better served if they were less obvious and aggressive about it.

But as far as the candidates on Wednesday night? No one clear winner emerged like Tuesday night. Also like Tuesday night, there was no seismic shift.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, while both a little uneven, held their own and kept the enemies at bay. Corey Booker and Julian Castro rose to the challenge, while Tulsi Gabbard stealthily reminded everyone there is much more to her candidacy. Jay Inslee and Andrew Yang both stepped up their games. But as single issue candidates, it’s hard for them to speak outside of that. Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio and Michael Bennett were there but, at the end of the day, failed to deliver anything.

It’s worth noting that about 95%, maybe even 99%, of the policies and plans the candidates are braying about during these debates are not likely to ever come to fruition. Even if one of them does make it to the White House, what they’re pitching now will have morphed and ended up becoming watered down (at best) or simply ignored (at worst). Their talking points at this juncture serve only one purpose: to align and fire up the base of the party.

Conclusion

Of the two nights, there was more of that spark and fire on Tuesday with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren than there was on Wednesday with any of the candidates. As charged and spirited as Tuesday night was, there was less visible tension on the stage.

Wednesday night was full of tension. While the debating was equally as spirited, if a little more pointed, it did lack the esprit de corps of Tuesday night.

In the end, it’s evident that these debates haven’t changed anything. It’s politics as usual. They did help bring into focus some of the candidates’ plans and policies, but it’s still the top five of Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders and Warren leading the pack. And the second tier candidates will continue to jockey for position.

Now, it’s just a waiting game to see who leaves the race before the next round of debates. No one should be surprised to see it down to one night with ten candidates. America simply can’t handle another two day spread of this.

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