The format failed the process. Elizabeth Warren should have been debating the other front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday night. Instead, she was locked into a Wednesday evening forum with a bunch of likely candidates for vice president—or perhaps the US Senate.
That’s the honest takeaway from the initial debate between half of the 20 2020 Democratic prospects who made the Democratic National Committee’s convoluted cut. This frame points to the three signals that the Wednesday night debate sent Democrats:
First, the debate confirmed that Warren is not just on a roll—with strong poll numbers and momentum—she’s absolutely prepared to participate in a top-tier presidential debate. The senator from Massachusetts got the first question Wednesday night, laid out her argument for “structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country,” and secured a wild round of applause from the crowd in Miami. It was better still when she ripped into giant corporations that are loyal only to profits, and made a case for an industrial policy that prioritizes green jobs. Her issues dominated the first debate; even when she was not talking, the other candidates were echoing her messaging regarding the need to challenge corporate power and corruption—while constantly avoiding opportunities to take shots at her. Warren entered the debate as a front-runner and left with status enhanced. Go back and listen to the clip of her explaining gun violence as “a national health emergency in this country,” and her line: “We need to treat this like the virus that is killing our children.” She’s is ready. She has a plan for that. And, as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in her debate wrap-up: “I think she knocked it out of the park.”
Second, the debate confirmed that New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is skilled at making the connections between issues that too many politicians and pundits attempt to silo. Again and again, the former mayor of Newark brought the debate back to the neighborhood level. He was right to say that health care “is also an education, employment, and retirement issue.” And he was spot-on when he declared, with appropriate anger, that “There are too many people profiteering off the pain of others.” Equally impressive was former housing secretary Julián Castro, who came off as a skilled communicator who knows his stuff. Castro was superb on immigration policy, going into detail, outlining comprehensive and humane reforms and proposing “a Marshall Plan” to stabilize circumstances on the ground in the Central American countries people are fleeing. Castro scored a lot of points on Wednesday night. It’s also worth noting that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio helped himself with a display of ardent populism; addressing Americans who feel economically battered with a message that: “Immigrants didn’t do that to you. The corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you.” And Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was strikingly fast on her feet and quick with a zinger. When Washington Governor Jay Inslee hailed himself as a great champion of abortion rights, Klobuchar replied, “I want to say there’s three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” Nailed it!
Third, the debate confirmed that most of these candidates are, whether they know it or not, running for something else. For instance, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke turned in a solid performance, especially when he made his call for “a new democracy”—no gerrymandering, money out of politics, a renewal of voting rights—in English and Spanish. But it was hard to shake the notion that he would be an even more solid candidate for the Texas US Senate seat that Republican John Cornyn will be defending next year. Or even as the vice presidential running mate to one of the people who might actually secure the nomination. The same might be said of his fellow Texan, former San Antonio mayor Castro. And it wasn’t just the Texans. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s argument that the Democratic Party must be “a working-class party” that connects with voters in swing states such as Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania sounded like nothing so much as an appeal for vice presidential consideration. That, and his declaration that, “I’m ready to play some offense.”
Is it too early, in June of 2019, to be assessing presidential candidates as 2020 vice presidential prospects? Perhaps. But here’s the thing: This presidential race started way early and it is going to continue on a fast track. The top-tier Democratic competition is already reasonably well defined, with former vice president Joe Biden as the tenuous front-runner, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Warren jostling for second place (with particular bases of strength in particular regions, demographics and focus groups), and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Senator Kamala Harris noting, graciously, that the party might want to consider heightening the level of contradiction with Donald Trump by nominating someone who was born after the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960.
A top-five debate, which will eventually happen, might alter the direction of the presidential contest—in Warren’s direction or away from it. But that wasn’t what Democrats got Wednesday night. What they got was Warren and several serious prospects for the vice presidency.
This doesn’t mean that Democrats must rush to tune out the likely also-rans. From a small-“d” democratic standpoint, it is still important at this early stage to hear from the contenders who are polling in the low, sometimes very low, single digits. This is true because the pundits and the pollsters could be missing something. It’s also true because what the candidates are saying is instructive. There is no harm in hearing O’Rourke and Castro go into granular detail regarding their immigration policy differences. It’s good that Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is spelling out a distinctive vision on foreign policy and ripping into “this president and his chickenhawk cabinet.” It’s great that Inslee is making sure climate change—an issue that was so neglected in the debates of 2016—will not be neglected in 2020.
We should all be open to the prospect that a lower-tier contender could catch fire. We should also be open to the prospect that a candidate who will never pose a threat to Joe Biden could end up running with Biden, or that a candidate who will never catch up with Kamala Harris might make a fine ticket mate for Harris. Remember that the last Democrat to be elected president, Barack Obama, plucked his running-mate from the 2007 debate stages where they both appeared. The same thing happened with John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004.
Seen from this perspective, the Wednesday night debate—which grouped so many back-of-the-pack contenders together—might well be understood as the first-ever Democratic vice presidential debate. If that is the measure, then it is fair to say that Klobuchar and Castro were winners, and so was Booker. There’s a case to be made that the candidate whom Hillary Clinton should have given more serious consideration as her 2016 running-mate (along with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown) came across as the contender who, after Warren, is best prepared for prime time.
Here’s how it might work: If Booker or Castro takes off as a presidential contender, terrific. If Booker and Castro do not make it to the top tier, then they’ve proven themselves ready for the vice presidential call. Should Booker get a call from Biden or Sanders in July of 2020, then perhaps we will all look back on Wednesday’s debate and recognize that it was really a vice presidential debate. Should Castro get a call from Warren, well, then it will be remembered as the night when the 2020 Democratic ticket started to take shape.