BLOG: The first Democratic debates


The 2020 presidential election will be my first as a voter. Like many of my generation (not-so-lovingly referred to as 'Gen Z' by some), I'm perhaps more politically and socially conscious than many of the 'named' generations that preceded us. 

Having watched the 2016 campaign with interest and then dismay as many candidates shifted from debate on policy and philosophy to an 'attack and respond' approach, I've been interested to see how this election's crop of presidential candidates would approach things with Donald Trump in office and appearing to ride high among his base of voters. 

The June 26 debates presented two nights of candidates, a format I'm not entirely happy about, but it's what we have - for now. 

Here are my thoughts: 


Elizabeth Warren—polling third going into the June 26 debate and the perceivced frontrunner of the night, all eyes were on Warren to deliver. While other candidates fought for hook-lines, Warren was policy-specific, shining in the propensity to call out corporations and address her policy plans in specificity. But where Warren shined in the first half of the night, she receded into the background in the second. When questions stopped coming her way, she avoided chime-ins and played by the rules. It's an unfortunate sign of the age we're in that playing by the rules in a debate has become a weakness, but that's where we are in this campaign.

Bill de Blasio—benefiting from a record of progressive campaigning and centrist governing, de Blasio became the aggressive force that Warren was not... quick to push and test the center-leaning contenders. With a consistently strong performance throughout the debate, his unrelenting vocalization against the underselling of political ideals, de Blasio stood out among the many candidates vying for prospective voters' attention.


Beto O’Rourke—among the highest polling of those present at the June 26 debate, Beto O'Rourke went into the night needing to appear made of the same stuff that helped him become a nationally-recognized name during the 2018 Senate race. Ultimately, though, O'Rourke flunked this test. Instead of the brutally honest, off-the-cuff candidate who ran against Ted Cruz, I saw a rehearsed politician delivering his lines and blending in with the rest of the contenders. His failure to address Section 1325 clearly and his tendency to meander around direct questions even when pressed made him seem nervous and vulnerable – exactly the opposite of his inspiring, if unsuccessful, 2018 run for the Senate. 

Tim Ryan—like many of his contenders on stage, Tim Ryan needed to bolster his numbers significantly from this debate to be seen as a long-term opponent. And he stood out, but not in the way he probably hoped; after the scathing encounter with Gabbard, his adoption of the Afghan occupation as an indefinite necessity. "We’ve got to be completely engaged,” he said. And then his penultimate shutdown after stumbling into mistakenly blaming the Taliban for 9/11 as a justification for endless war, Ryan seemed to reach for a base in the Democratic party that has long diminished.


Repealing Section 1325—with Julian Castro’s insistency on the specific repeal of 1325, many in my age group were left pondering what that actually means and how it would work. Section 1325, which defines undocumented immigration as a misdemeanor, permits the separation of families and convicted detainment of offenders. Yet many have rightly pointed to the fact that it was already a crime to be an undocumented immigrant within the USA — merely, though, a civil violation, which is meant to allow undocumented immigrants protection against legal punishment. Immigrants could be deported, but not detained and punished within the country, which is only made possible and prioritized with the use of Section 1325.

The Afghanistan Occupation—with Tim Ryan in support of perpetuating an occupation with no definitive end, and Tulsi Gabbard strongly emphasizing her plan to push for an end to the American military presence in the country, the topic calls to mind the fact that modern polls overwhelmingly show only a cripplingly low minority of Americans support staying in Afghanistan, with a majority strongly supporting pulling out entirely. And this brings to mind, what are we still doing in Afghanistan? With soldiers’ boots still on the ground, I cannot remember a time when my country wasn’t sending its troops across the world to fight an unjustified war in Afghanistan. The war is now old enough to vote in this coming election, and even while Republicans like Donald Trump promise to pull out of Afghanistan (despite going back on that as an incumbent) we still have Democrats arguing for war. The question for politicians like Tim Ryan is, when do we leave? Because with no answer, and damaging rhetoric like being “completely engaged” indefinitely, it appears their answer might be, though they won’t directly say it: never.