Night two of the second Democratic debate: Read our chat transcript

Jul 31, 2019

Five Post reporters took your questions as 10 more candidates took the stage on night two of the second Democratic presidential debate. Catch up on the transcript of the conversation here.

David Weigel, national political correspondent
Cleve R. Wootson Jr, national political reporter
Ashley Parker, White House reporter
Robert Costa, national political reporter
Seung Min Kim, White House reporter
Amanda Erickson, deputy campaign editor

Want more debate coverage from The Post? Check out: Live fact checks | Who talked the most during the debates? | Read the debate transcript | Winners and losers

Thanks for joining us these last two nights. We enjoyed hearing your insights and chatting with you.

Welcome back. Once again, Democrats are gathering under the bright lights in Motor City. Ten presidential candidates will be on stage on Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit for the second round of this week’s debates. CNN is hosting.

Here's what I'm watching.

Will the policy fights continue?

Tuesday’s debate was a substance-filled discussion about how Democrats hope to tackle health care, economic growth and trade. Moderates spoke forcefully about both their political and implementation concerns with Medicare-for-All, while liberals defended their positions with vigor.

Will the policy fights continue on Wednesday? Or, with former vice president Joe Biden at center stage, will the debate often revolve around his record? Without Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), it could lean toward the latter. And Biden has promised that he’s “not going to be as polite this time,” if attacked.

Divided into camps?

As Dave notes in The Trailer today, Tuesday’s debate ultimately became a “six-on-two brawl, with a gang of candidates polling at 1 percent warning” about the liberal positions of Warren and Sanders. Could Wednesday’s slate divide into camps as well?

It’s certainly possible. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have been critical of Biden’s record on race and criminal justice, and they could emerge as leaders of the night’s Biden-critique. An outsider camp of Andrew Yang and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is another possibility, with those contenders potentially following in the footsteps of Marianne Williamson.

Who’s under pressure?

One candidate I’m keeping an eye on is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is eager to bolster his profile and who will likely punch up. He has been the subject of derision in the tabloids for his struggling bid amid a tumultuous, blackout-filled summer in New York, as The Post’s Jada Yuan reports today.

What’s on your mind?

Do any of you think tonight might be something like a do-or-die moment for Cory Booker? He's received lots of coverage (much of it favorable or neutral, unlike Beto), but he still has not really come into focus as a candidate with a key idea, proposal, or even, attitude. In the last debate, Castro's performance brought him from obscurity into sharp focus as a candidate; with another strong performance from Castro tonight, could Booker be in trouble?

I'd lean into "do," but wouldn't go "die" quite yet.  Booker qualified for the fall debates on Monday. He's scheduled a "Detroit Rise" event, part of series that his campaign says will send him to places the Democratic candidate would need to win in 2020, and he's recently made a case that he's the most electable, particularly when it comes to energizing urban and African-American voters. He's skirmished with Joe Biden over the past month. And his campaign manager has repeatedly said their goal is not to win a poll in an early month.   But I understand the crux of your question: Booker still finds himself mired in the middle of the pack.  In the first debate, Sen. Kamala Harris showed that a frontal assault on Joe Biden can yield a polling and a fundraising bump, the question is, will Booker follow suit?  And would doing so conflict with his high-minded talk about elevating the national conversation?  

It is a big night for Senator Booker. He recently visited The Post and chatted with me for an hour. He was willing then to take on Biden on many issues, including criminal justice. His challenge tonight will be to both make his case against Biden in the small windows he's given while also making the case for himself. Look for him to potentially be criticized for his work with drug companies over the years (New Jersey is home to many of them). He has tried to take on that critique in recent months.

I don't get the Twitter lovefest for her, but either way, is Ms. Williamson likely to qualified for the fall debates? I read she supposedly has around 90,000 donors so far, so she'd need around 40,000 more and she has gotten 2% or more in any allowable national public poll so she have to have get to that in at least 4 public polls and she need to do this all within a month or so? Seems harder than some folks are making it out to be?

While Ms. Williamson will have to meet certain metrics to continue to be on stage, it's notable that some right-wing commentators and top Republicans are viewing her campaign as something that could be more than a fringe bid. From Donald Trump Jr. to Breitbart, Trump allies have been increasingly reflecting on her outsider campaign since Tuesday night. At times, it's mocking, but not entirely. 

Readers, you're political junkies. You watch every debate (or at least most of them). What do you like and dislike about the format of these televised forums, putting aside your views of the moderators? 

I wish the candidates would remind everyone that they can make all the promises they want but if the House or Senate decides to stall action on proposals, nothing will happen.

That's partly why you've seen several presidential candidates unveil proposals via executive action - acknowledging an adversarial Congress can really bottle up their agenda. (Some examples: Kamala Harris on gun control, Cory Booker on immigration, Beto O'Rourke on climate change). Trump has certainly pushed the legal boundaries of what is possible through his executive actions, but presidents long before him have tried to circumvent Congress - and whomever succeeds Trump will surely continue to do the same.

And remember that legislating is messy even when one party controls all levers of government! (case in point: Obamacare).

That frustration is also no wonder why the legislative filibuster - of all the nerdy, wonky things - has become such a hot topic in the 2020 Democratic primary season. (Warren has called for dumping the 60-vote threshold necessary to pass most legislation in the Senate, although the other senators in the race have been a bit more iffy on the issue).

You've also started to hear some grumbling from liberal columnists, like Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias, that Democrats keep agreeing to ideas that aren't going to get 51 votes in the Senate – much less 60. 

Buttigieg has won some elite opinion-maker support by speaking so much about structural change; Warren, too, by coming out to end the filibuster. But what you're probably going to see more of is what Kamala Harris has done: Sketching out what you'd do with executive orders if Congress does not act.

For years, the backlash to Obama's orders made Democrats a little antsy about that, but for many liberals, Trump has broken the seal. I asked Jay Inslee a few months ago if he'd use emergency orders to get climate policy done, and he said, well, if the courts let Trump's immigration emergency through, he would consider it. And so far, the courts have been signing off.

Divided government can stymie presidents in both parties. Think back to President Obama in 2011, following the GOP takeover of the House. It was very difficult for him to pull together an agenda and votes with that new Republican majority. President Trump has struggled with the House Democratic majority on everything from trade to immigration. Moderate Democrats have raised questions about the viability of some rivals' proposals, but being a voice of caution is rarely the path to a surge in the polls.

Why hasn't the impeachment debate that's gripping Capitol Hill taken hold in the presidential race? Are you surprised the Mueller hearings didn't elevate the issue on the debate stage?

I think you answered your own question in your first sentence — "that's gripping Capitol Hill" (and the politeratti). As our colleagues out in the country have learned, this is not top of mind for just about any voter. And I think the Democratic candidates, too, understand there's a way to beat Trump, but it's not impeachment — it's more electoral votes on Election Day. So might they weigh in from time to time? Sure. But the smart candidates understand that their time is better spent introducing themselves to voters, telling their story, and telling voters how they're going to make THEIR (the voters) lives better. 

Ashley, I'm still waiting for a Democratic contender to appear with Chairman Nadler, or someone like him in the congressional ranks who is itching for impeachment, and trying to take the lead in directing Democrats on impeachment. It seems like an opening for someone to get traction on the left without making it about Medicare for All or another policy. For now, however, most candidates are like Senator Schumer: deferring to Speaker Pelosi.

Cleve, what have you learned about Senator Booker's prep and planning for this debate?

Publicly, it's all about pushups and bicep curls, a la Rocky Balboa.  And Team Booker has been extremely tight-lipped about debate prep, besides showing images of him working out in a suit.  But, a couple things.  Like other candidates who have been heavy on town halls, Booker's team says they are de facto debate prep.  What's better than taking random questions from people at the events you host?  And Booker has been increasingly skirmishing with Joe Biden over race and criminal justice -- all while trying to paint himself as a candidate who can appeal to a diverse electorate. I'm looking to see if those are signs that Booker will attempt to force those issues.    

Why do the candidates accept the rules that don't work? One minute answers. Can someone not come up with a format that lets us hear from everyone on substance instead of the candidates have to elbow their way into other people's answers? Can't we do better?

The truth is, at least at the beginning, candidates have little choice but to accept the rules. Remember, a lot of them are just grateful to have even made the cut and be onstage. That said, I think we will see the real substance as we move farther into debate season and the field gets winnowed down. No matter how good a job the moderators do, and what sorts of thoughtful rules and parameters the networks set, there is only so much substance to be had with ten people, two hours, and multiple commercial breaks.

Well, the Post is working to bring every candidate to our office, on the record, for an hour. That length of time is almost necessary if you're going to have an in-depth discussion and shift away from talking points.

Robert Costa asked readers' opinions about debate formats. I would like to resurrect the nonpartisan League of Women Voters to moderate a debate aired on C-Span. Also on my wish list is limiting the issues covered in one debate to no more than three. We need more substance.

What do we expect from Senator Bennet, who would like to be taken more seriously as a moderate Democratic candidate? Will he go after Biden on Biden's Senate record? 

It was forgotten in the aftermath of the Biden-Harris scrap, but Bennet actually went after Biden in the first debate. It was, on points, maybe the most effective criticism of Biden: After the veep had talked about his deal-making abilities, Bennet pointed out that Biden signed off on a "fiscal cliff" deal that delivered most of what Republicans wanted, weeks after Obama had won a second term!

I would expect Bennet to make more arguments about his own theory of how to win and how to break Republican obstinance, and criticize Biden through that lens. On policy, he has more disagreements with Harris than Biden; I can see him trying to probe weaknesses in her defense of Medicare-for-all.

On paper (well really on Wikipedia), I liked Michael Bennet. Then saw him in New Hampshire and he was a jerk. I know that's totally anecdotal and doesn't mean he isn't a good public servant for Coloradoans, but still...

With all of the racist tweets directed at Elijah Cummings, among others, by the President, how big of a role will this play in the second night of the debate?

Some of the biggest skirmishes in the campaign so far have been over race -- and that was before Trump's comments about Cummings and the squad.  And Joe Biden is flanked by Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker, who've both criticized his stance on race-related issues -- and may look to force the issue tonight in an effort to peel black voters away from Biden and show that they're candidates who can be the best standard bearers for a diverse Democratic party.  

The question facing many candidates is this: In the limited time you might have to discuss race tonight, do you focus on Biden, who leads the polls, or on President Trump? That's a choice you have to make. There is no question it'll play a major role, but how it's engaged will say a lot about each candidate and their strategy. I'm going to be listening for a plan for Democrats on how to counter Trump on race, beyond just criticizing him?

Will the kind of agenda that the Progressives put forward win 90% of the vote in Brooklyn...and 48% of the vote in Wisconsin?

You know, Wisconsin is an interesting case to bring up. After Trump narrowly won the state, Republicans thought they could oust Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is arguably the most liberal member of the Senate on the "Trump map" – the only one of those senators who has co-sponsored Medicare-for-All.

Baldwin ended up winning easily, by 11 points. To be fair, her Republican opponent was under-funded and even her party thought she came across as overly cold. But she ran exactly the kind of ad that Democrats fear in 2020: A woman looking into the camera and warning that she would lose her private insurance if Baldwin got her way.

Baldwin's election, which combined a liberal agenda with a campaign focus on basic economic issues, cut against the idea that Democrats needed to moderate their positions to win the Midwest. She had advantages that 2020 Democrats won't (incumbency, mostly) but if you are a Republican, that should give you some pause about whether "left-wing" ideas will sink Democrats.

Wisconsin is one state I'm closely watching ahead of 2020. I spent months there in 2011-2012, covering then governor Scott Walker as he pursued controversial labor reforms along with GOP state lawmakers. (It was also a state Trump targeted in 2016.) Now, as Dave notes, Wisconsin has moved back toward its La Follette roots with Senator Baldwin's victory and a new Democratic governor.

I mean in parliamentary systems, there seem to have half-a-dozen or a maybe even a dozen of the various party leaders on the stage so non-Americans must be kind of used to it?

The debate is in Detroit. How competitive will Michigan be in 2020? 

From the Trumpworld perspective... very competitive. The Trump Team talks a big game about expanding the map (Oregon, anyone?) and making inroads with black and Hispanic voters. But when you talk to them privately, they often concede the real push is holding and recreating the 2016 map, and the states they're most worried about are the obvious ones — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Let's remember that Trump won Michigan by just over 10,000 votes — less than 1 percentage point — and that Hillary did not turn out as many, for instance, Detroit voters as she needed to. A different, more compelling Democratic candidate could absolutely give Trump a real challenge in Michigan, which is state his team is not taking for granted.

Which candidates have you seen in recent weeks? Any quick impressions, as either a reporter or simply a person who went to an event?

In the last month I saw every candidate, including several who are not actually onstage. My basic rundown...

- Biden has warm but not overwhelming crowds, and he can deliver a pretty staid speech or an energetic speech; it's hard to predict which shows up. He is at his best working the crowds after the events.

- Harris gets big crowds and has noticeably tightened up her stump speech, which used to be a little listless; she now gets big applause for emphasizing how she would "prosecute the case" against Trump.

- Booker is energetic and occasionally given to dad jokes, and has recently been more comfortable attacking Biden over his record, though it has not been a huge applause line.

- Castro is low-key, and sometimes acknowledges that; like Booker he really focuses on how electing him would bring someone with youth and executive experience to the White House.

- Gabbard can be the most negative when it comes to discussing other Democrats, matter-of-factly saying they're not qualified to be president. She has a devoted fanbase that hasn't been growing.

- Gillibrand also gets smallish crowds, and actually spends a lot of time emphasizing how she has gotten bipartisan support for her big Senate bills; at the left-wing Netroots conference, for example, she said the Green New Deal could be passed in small pieces, because the parties agree on the pieces.

- Jay Inslee is perhaps as old-school, jokey, and back-slappy as Biden, but not many people show up to see him.

What do I like and dislike about the format of these televised forums, putting aside my views of the moderators? I think 10 candidates per night is unwieldy - 7 or 8 per night max. If the DNC wanted 20 why not expand to 21 and do 3 nights? It seems like the candidates and the press are having a comfortable few days in Detroit, and another night wouldn't have been a big deal. I enjoy debate back & forth, with candidates getting to respond to each other. I *really* liked when Harris jumped in during the first debates to put herself into a general discussion about race. Why shouldn't she have a voice regarding race among white candidates, just because it wasn't technically her turn? Anyone who will face Trump in debates absolutely needs to be able to jump in & assert his/her points.

Given his self-described role as a champion for serious criminal justice reform, any chance/what is the likelihood that Booker tries to hit Harris on her background as California's AG or prior prosecutorial experience?

It would be risky. Booker, as Biden relished in pointing out last week, had his own issues with stop-and-frisk and police-community relations in his seven years as mayor of Newark. He might emphasize that he wrote much of the criminal justice reform bill (the First Step Act) that Trump is planning to use to win over black voters next year, which would be more of a contrast with Biden.

I saw Andrew Yang's live Recode Decode podcast taping with Kara Swisher a couple of weeks ago, and he was light years better than the first debate. He's quick & funny on Twitter, and with her excellent interviewing style and deep understanding of tech culture, it was very illuminating, especially his points supporting a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which he wants to call a Freedom Dividend. Rooting for him to at least get more points across tonight than in the first debate.

I'm watching tonight to see if Yang can focus and drive home his message on universal basic income. He has spoken with passion about it on the trail, but it doesn't always come across during low-key TV interviews, as we saw on Sunday with Chris Wallace.

Although Andrew Yang has been steadily growing his presence on Twitter through the constant exposure afforded by his #YangGang, he appears to perform best in scripted situations where he finds himself in complete control of the message he is trying to convey. In this ever-changing debate environment, how do you expect Yang to stand out from the crowd while also taking care to keep his base interested and trying to attract the additional supporters that he needs to guarantee a spot in the Fall debates?​

Yang basically disappeared during the first debate. In the run-up he'd talked about doing math to maximize his time at the microphone, but when he got it, he only got one long chance to describe universal basic income.

He has been doing more serious debate prep since then, and I'd bet part of that was figuring out how to find moments for the goofy, endearing stuff that he does at rallies. He is not much for attacking other candidates, which, given debate rules, means he may get less time; if he grabs time it will be to argue that Biden or someone else totally misreads why Trump won. (His answer is the stress of mass job displacement in the Midwest.)

What will it take to beat Donald Trump?

Simply, more electoral votes. Which is frustrating for Democrats, who are facing the very real prospect of—if they lose—doing so while yet again winning the popular vote.

Put slightly less simply... As we learned from Hillary Clinton in 2016, any Democrat who beats Trump will have to be an affirmatively compelling candidate, not just a Not Trump Democrat. Now, "compelling" means different things to different people—and there's a real debate (which we saw onstage last night and will likely see again) about whether Democrats should try to harness the boiling energy of the party's progressive wing or nominate a more moderate candidate who can win back those Blue Dog Democrats who Trump appealed to in 2016. 

That said, I do think a compelling candidate will have to have some of Trump's authenticity—though it can manifest itself in a different form. They will have to have a specific vision and explanation of how they will tangibly improve the lives of voters. And they can't simply run on pointing out that Trump often says and tweets crude and controversial things about women, blacks, Hispanics, [insert other group here]. That is already baked into the cake about Trump. When people walked into the voting booth in 2016, they knew that already, and they chose him anyway. So calling him a racist or a misogynist is not, alone, a winning campaign strategy. 

There are a crucial sliver of, for instance, moderate suburban voters who readily say they don't like everything Trump says or tweets or does. BUT any winning Democratic will have to give them an affirmative reason to choose him or her over the current president. 

It is very clear that whoever wins several key counties in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (maybe Florida, N Carolina, and Ohio) wins the election in 2020. Looking at the Electoral College, Trump could lose by 5 million popular votes, yet retain the Presidency. This cannot be emphasized enough.

Many of the questions from last night's debate were framed in a progressive vs moderate way, with the moderators giving space for other candidates to attack Warren and Sanders from the right. How will that work tonight? No candidate tonight shares the same vision as Warren and Sanders. Will moderators frame their questions differently and allow candidates to come at Biden from the left? (Is Harris far enough to the left of Biden for this to be possible?)

Kamala Harris - who released her health care plan in full this week - has tried to straddle the area between a true "Medicare for All" system and something along the lines of what Biden proposes (essentially shoring up Obamacare and adding a public option). After tripping up on the question of private insurance, her proposal does retain a role for it by offering consumers the choice to purchase Medicare plans from private companies

So there are certainly policy differences between Harris and Biden on health care that I'm sure will be explored tonight. But Biden's campaign has already signaled they will attack Harris' proposal in another way: Calling it a "have-it-every-which-way approach" that is not forthcoming on whether it increases taxes for the middle class or not. 

What have these debates revealed about how Democrats see the Obama legacy?  And how has that dynamic affected the Biden campaign?

We'll know a lot more tonight. Depending on how you look at it, Biden has either portrayed Medicare-for-all as an attack on Obama out of desperation, or, as a clever way to bait opponents into sounding like they want to scrap Obama's legacy.

It was telling, I thought, when Harris's spokesman Ian Sams went on TV today to point out that Obama himself had called Medicare-for-all a "good idea." They are ready for a fight about this particular issue. But that Biden is even trying it illustrates that Democrats love and miss Obama and it is taking more work than the left expected to argue that he didn't do enough.

Cleve, what is Senator Harris's campaign expecting, in terms of attacks on her prosecutorial record in California? 

Probably more of the same.  Joe Biden's counter to Harris's attacks have essentially been "I chose to become a public defender, you became a prosecutor."  Those kinds of attacks resonate with a certain swath of the electorate, particularly those who think Harris is wrong on the thorny issue of jailing parents of truant students.  I remember one African-American activist that I interviewed in Philly who said 'we pretty much see her as a cop' because she was a prosecutor.  On the stump, Harris has talked about becoming an agent for change within the system, but  there are some voters who just don't buy that answer.  

It appears Vice President Biden just referred to Senator Harris as "kid" as they shook hands. It seemed as if he was making a joke, asking her to "go easy on me, kid." Any thoughts? An early, unnecessary stumble by Biden? 

On the one hand, it's Biden being Biden. On the other hand ... not a great look to dismiss a strong female candidate, particularly your most formidable challenger on the stage, as a "kid." Whooo boy. 

It'll depend on what happens next. If in two hours, people are saying that Biden didn't come off as particularly strong against Harris, it'll metastasize the problems he had after the first debate. 

The question for me is whether Biden's swagger and pride in his record leads him into a mistake, and if so, that's how we'll read "kid."

On calling Kamala "kid": I agree with Seung Min. It is, at its core, a classic Bidenism. I don't know that it's an epic, irrecoverable stumble. BUT! Intention aside — and Biden may well have had the best of intentions — it is also inherently dismissive and diminutive, especially to a woman, and also a woman of color. The two also already have a slightly tense relationship based on their previous debate exchange, and the comment will likely be viewed through that lens. And, for any voter wondering if Biden's time has come and gone, it's the sort of quip that drives home the idea that he's from a previous, antiquated era.  

Oh, please. How ridiculous if this becomes a thing. This is why people get annoyed with the media....

I missed that, but geez, if it gets picked up.... And knowing Kamala, her first line out of the gate might be "I'm not a kid, Mr. Vice-President, but I was when I rode that bus..."

Could de Blasio get a bounce? He's a big-city mayor who has a liberal record. Or, is that space in the race just too crowded for the New Yorker, especially with Warren and Sanders holding strong and even gaining? 

I was skeptical that Delaney would get a bounce from attacking Warren and Sanders and am skeptical that de Blasio can benefit personally from attacking Biden. The basic fact is that is Biden is very popular with Democrats and de Blasio isn't. 

Here's the twist: de Blasio certainly would like to be president but he would be happy if his actions hurt Joe Biden and create a path for Sanders or Warren to win.

He's possibly got just one chance, and it's tonight.. He has never hit 2 percent in a poll, which he needs to do to make the September debates. 

While Biden frequently gets knocked on the '94 crime bill, could Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) pose a problem for him regarding Iraq? She's a vocal non-interventionist and critic of hawks in both parties. 

She could, but she's been unpredictable; she's recently spent more time criticizing Harris! And the arc of her career, as Amy B Wang wrote last week, is curious. She emerged in 2012 as a rising Democratic star, and then she became a critic of the Obama administration, often from conservative stances – for example, saying it should call out "radical Islamic terrorism."

So, there'd be a lot for Biden to throw back at her if she attacked. No one on this stage was more critical of the Obama-Biden administration.

The timbre of the candidates on stage tonight is different than last. Last night, there was a real lean in on issues of the left (healthcare, immigration). Neither Harris nor (to a lesser extent Booker) are of the left like Sanders and Warren. de Blasio sort of fits but he doesn't have the numbers. Feels like we're missing out on Harris pushing back on Warren - Sanders & Sanders - Warren pushing back on Biden.

What are they shouting in the crowd? It's hard to hear on the CNN feed.

They are shouting "fire Pantaleo," urging Mayor de Blasio to fire Daniel Pantaleo, the officer in the scuffle that killed Eric Garner five years ago. The Trump DOJ decided not to pursue charges, and it doesn't seem that de Blasio actually has the power to fire him. 

Why do we have to have an audience? How does having an audience help me as a voter? Even putting aside the disruptive behavior of some audience members in tonight's debate, the audience seems just a distraction. Thoughts?

Opening statements are over. Who stood out? 

I'd go with Booker, who went straight to President Trump's comments about Baltimore, a majority minority city.  I think it dovetails with his core message about elevating the conversation.  

Honorable mention to De Blasio, who might be foreshadowing that he's taking the fight right to the folks with the best poll numbers.  

I thought it was interesting that Cory Booker mentioned Trump's attack on Elijah Cummings's district in his opening statement.

Both Kamala Harris and Joe Biden couched their opening statements in contrast to Trump, both raising the question that Harris asked directly: As a nation, who are we?

And I am just generally intrigued by Andrew Yang, and find him interesting to watch in a debate. I think of him as the technocratic Marianne Williamson. 

OK, I laughed out loud at this line from Yang's opening statement: "The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math." 


It's probably his most popular line on the trail, and that's something when he is also promising people $12,000 per year!

Trying to get them to go after each other....just ask the question ....wording it negatively does not make this viewer happy. And making Harris and Biden pitted against each other. Yuck.

HARRIS and Biden seem to be in a one on one debate...what’s up with this?

We're only 30 minutes in, and I think we'll hear from all the candidates — though, you're right, some more than others.

But I interviewed Jake Tapper a few weeks ago for a different debate story, and he said something that stuck with me: A debate should be, well...a debate. It can be serious, it can be substantive, it can be civil, it can be combative. But the goal is to draw out actual differences between the various candidates, and what we're seeing here is: 1) Real policy disagreements between Harris and Biden, and 2) something of a re-match from their very visceral face-off last debate, which I think is valuable for voters to witness.

What do you make of the first exchange between Biden and Harris on health care?

This is playing out how we expected, as I laid out above. But in his first rebuttal to Harris, Biden could've gone after her more sharply on the specifics of her plan. And maybe I missed a reference to it, but Biden could've hammered more strongly the question of whether taxes will be raised on the middle class under Harris' proposal. 

It was exactly what single-payer advocates worried about when this stage was set. Sanders is never more comfortable  than when defending every detail of Medicare for All, especially the "you'll rip people off private insurance" attack.

Harris is not as comfortable, hence her creation of an ambitious but less risky 10-year phase-in. (The House Medicare-for-all plan has a two-year phase in!) And Biden has a work-shopped plan that he prefers to use to pivot to defending the work of the Obama years.

So the result is a much less detailed health care debate.

Here's The Washington Post's look at Sen. Harris's healthcare plan, unveiled this week.

Assuming this trend continues, it seems to me a bit unfair that moderators on this night would allow more back & forth and not interrupt candidates answers, when that is what they were doing, constantly, on night 1. I mean, this is a better format, but as far as fairness goes? No bueno.

I get what both Gillibrand and Booker were trying to do with their answers - arguing essentially, that Democrats were risking losing the forest for the trees by fighting over their policy differences on health care, rather than pointing out how Trump/GOP are dismantling the existing system - but this is a primary debate! You're trying to differentiate for Democratic voters how your positions vary from one another.  Not very helpful for the public when you don't do that (and don't do much beyond criticize the existing system)

Here's where the candidates on stage right now stand on health care.

First things first, you guys are the best! OK, now an honest question. Yesterday there were a half dozen pieces analyzing the run-up to night one. Then today there were another half dozen pieces analyzing what happened last night. But except for David Weigel's (always excellent) Trailer, WaPo has gone completely dark about tonight's debate. What's the deal? My theory is that everyone who's plugged in knows that tonight might be Biden's Waterloo, and they're just waiting to see if it happens...

Completely dark? Believe me, the lights are on here in the newsroom and this place is busy. We'll keep doing our best to provide sharp and informative political coverage. 

Not at all! I'd recommend Michael Scherer's preview of what people were planning for tonight. And to be honest, not a lot of the chatter before today's debate got beyond "Biden and Harris could tangle."

I am getting confused by the various cost figures and plan designs...this discussion of health care is lost on me and I don’t think it is helping any of the candidates

It did feel a bit like an ink blot test; neither Biden nor Harris is as comfortable as Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were, four years ago. If Tuesday felt like an advanced class in single-payer and its downsides, tonight felt like people skimmed the reading.

This is stupid, they are pitching logistics when they haven't sold us on the concept of why we should want this.

My husband and I, not old enough for Medicare, are also not eligible for the ACA rates, but the premiums, deductibles, and co-pays are slaying us. If health care reform doesn’t include “middle class” like us, how is this even helpful?

Harris keeps taking criticism from the smaller name candidates but shifting her responses to attack Biden. Keeps scoring points of the front-runner and avoids getting into a back and forth with others. Good strategy?

It's certainly her strategy. She knows that she lifted her campaign last time by taking on Biden, so why not keep chipping away? Plus, she scores points with some left-leaning Democrats by criticizing Biden's plan, which essentially adds a public option to President Obama's health-care law, as not going far enough. 

We're 45 minutes in. What have we learned about Biden-Harris so far? 

It seems like they're both trying to distinguish themselves from each other, even using questions from other as an opportunity to make the spotlight about the two candidates in the center of the stage. Between that and Biden's "Go easy on me, kid," it seems clear they see each other as foils.  

Who would you consider the biggest advocate for Medicare-for-All with Warren and Biden absent from the stage tonight?

Mayor de Blasio is attempting to elevate himself into the Warren-Biden sphere on the left side of this race  by championing Medicare for All and proudly pledging to "restructure society."

Am I the only one who is observing the contentious and divisive nature of the questions being asked? Is CNN interested in a bonafide debate? Or is it more interested in some kind of "reality TV-like" RATINGS? Just seems to me that the questions are geared to create contention among the candidates, which of course, makes for "a better show". I hope CNN hosts no further debates.

Who has spoken most so far tonight? Follow our real-time clock.

VP Biden, around 8:48 p.m. Eastern tonight, got feisty and railed against "malarkey" as he defended his health-care plan. Is this the Biden the Biden campaign promised? Was Biden effective?

Yes, the focus on a single issue for a long period of time prevented something that misdirected Biden last month — laundry list answers. He's gotten multiple chances to return to the basics of his plan and iteratively explain the more popular aspects; it helped that he eventually stopped saying $3 trillion and said $30 trillion.

How effective is the cost talk? Unclear; "I don't know what kind of math you do in New York" assumes a lot of Democratic worry about costly plans, and I think Trump's big spending has ameliorated that. But as pure style and theater, the "here's the deal, the deal is" version of Biden is the one that voters like and recognize on the trail.

Biden appears very tentative and almost withdrawn to me at this point. Do you agree?

He turned up the volume, and his defense of his own record, a little before 9 p.m. It took him a bit of time to get there, but he got there.

Sen Harris seems to be a lot harsher and borderline aggressive, especially towards Biden. It isn't a plus in my opinion, I think it tarnishes her ability to be on point, fact driven, and assertive and comes off a bit arrogant. What are your thoughts?

What I’m observing is that he is still not pushing his points past the allotted time as the others are. Shouldn’t he be more forceful?

Interesting that Biden called Harris "kid," but seemed to actively correct himself when he started calling Castro by his first name — Julian — and then corrected himself to "Secretary." Deeper meaning, or am I being a conspiracy theorist? 

It reminds me of this episode, when Biden used the word "boy." His allies tell me that he uses words like "boy" and "kid" without malice, yet words that few others in national politics use them that way. 

Seung Min, is Senator Bennet in the mainstream of his party on immigration? Or an outlier? What's your read on this part of the debate?

As someone who schlepped the entire copy of the Gang of Eight bill every day for weeks to work in early 2013, I have some thoughts on this. 

Much like how the party has shifted to the left on health care, so have Democrats on immigration. While the Gang of Eight bill was certainly backed by more Democrats than Rs, it also included a litany of provisions that I can't imagine some liberal Democrats supporting Democrats nowadays, even as part of a broader compromise that includes a pathway to citizenship. 

The final bill written by Bennet and seven others had a massive "border surge" amendment that included (I think, this is off the top of my head) 20,000 new border agents and 700 miles of new fencing, and lots of new surveillance technology, for $46 billion. Can a Castro or Harris endorse that these days? 

Biden knocked Castro on immigration as people heckled. What were the heckles about?

It's hard to hear clearly in the media room, but it was clearly about deportation; activist anger at the Obama-Biden era deportation policies has never fully faded.

In less than an hour we've already had two interruptions by hecklers.  People screamed about the NYPD officer involved in Eric Garner's death and, just now, someone interrupted Joe Biden's comment with a chant on immigration.  It's becoming a thing.  There's an increased focus on cracking down on candidates interrupting each other, but apparently no one told the crowd.  

Yes, the Obama immigration enforcement policies remains a sore spot for many immigrant-rights activists. Despite his immigration efforts - endorsing Gang of Eight bill, DACA, and expanded DACA for parents of U.S. citizens/green card holders - Obama was famously labeled "deporter-in-chief" by the Latino community for the 2 million -plus deportations under his administration, even though he prioritized them by targeting first those with criminal records and recent arrivals.

This is a pattern Biden is presenting, and it's a potential problem.

I think you (Ashley) are a conspiracy theorist. I remember there were a lot of "analysis" of why Sarah Palin ask Joe Biden if she could call him by his first name in the running mate debate (i.e. more folksy, showing her youth, showing her disrespect) and it was finally relieved she did it because she kept saying, "O'Biden" in debate prep (and even in the TV debate itself) so it was a way to McCain team found around it.

While you're waiting for the debate to return ... here's where all the 2020 candidates stand on immigration!

I get that debates winnow the field (though money seems to do that more), but so much of these debates and how we talk about them afterwards seems to hinge on tearing the candidates down rather than really listening to what they have to say. Convince me that all this is worth it and doesn't benefit the other party.

Does it seem like everyone is...angry? I understand they all have positions to promote and/or defend and must do so assertively, but it feels like there's an edge to it all. Shouting, jabbing fingers, with a dash of condescension mixed in. It almost comes across as a dress rehearsal of sorts to show how indignant they can be towards Trump in a presidential debate.

A couple things.  First, of all, the biggest conflict so far has been between candidates standing right next to each other. I think telling someone they're wrong and you're right, basically to their face, is always going to make things heated.  Second, if a candidate fades as another attacks them or their stances, that fading narrative may endure for more than a month-and-a-half until the next debate.  Biden was still being asked questions about whether he was better prepared for this debate last week. Third, they're all trying to show how aggressive they'll be in taking on Trump.  

I don't hear anger. I hear a slate of candidates generally all drifting toward the left on issues like health care and immigration, but debating just how far to go. Vice President Biden is at the center of it all, but his presence is complicated because it brings up not only debates about his record but the Obama legacy. That's leading to some tensions and some veiled references since many candidates want to beat Biden but stay friendly with Obama and his supporters.

Secretary Castro said he's learned lessons from the past, a nod toward the Obama administration. Now, Vice President Biden is saying he gave President Obama advice, but didn't have final say over decisions. Is this a reckoning on the Obama legacy?

It is, and it is a big risk with big potential rewards. Cory Booker probably won a lot of liberal opinion-leaders by calling out Biden: He invokes Obama on popular policies and does not answer for the administration's blunders. 

Biden is an emotive politician, and it's one of his great strengths. You can tell that it bothers him deeply to hear Democrats that he knows and worked with attack the Obama legacy.

His advantage: The vast, vast majority of Democrats miss Obama and do not want to hear him attacked. Even if Biden did skip around the question, it's not obvious that voters want to hear that the Obama administration failed on something.

What happens if Democrats shift their thinking, and they begin to prefer a change from Obama to a return to Obama? That's the reward I'm talking about – if a candidate threads that needle it will badly damage Biden's rationale.

Wow. Unsurprisingly, Biden is taking incoming from all sides. So far, Harris, Castro and Booker have landed real punches against Biden, all in an intentional and deliberate way.

What do we make of this?

But it's not clear if anyone is breaking though with the many attacks coming at Biden. Biden is vulnerable, but still center stage. Whereas Senator Harris was the clear winner of the "who best took on Biden contest" at the first debate, it's a little more hazy tonight. Secretary Castro continues to make gains as a liberal favorite on immigration. The Harris-Biden exchange on health care was somewhat muddled.

Does it really help when the candidates bicker and fight in what is honestly Trumplike fashion? Are they seeing an uptick in their ratings when they squabble because, personally, I don't feel any desire to support a candidate who makes up alternative facts or just tries to pick a fight with other candidates or tries to push in a quick one liner with flash and little substance. Or have we just devolved as a nation due to our exposure to Trump?

This debate feels a lot less substantive and way more personal than last night. The candidates all feel a lot closer together in terms of policy and it feels like a lot of them would be more comfortable having a liberal foil like Sanders or Warren on stage. Instead we are getting a lot more minutia like phase in periods for public options or the differences between civil and criminal statutes. I feel like everyone on stage last night are winning now because they had a much more policy driven and substantive discussion.

Some times I just can't take the TV aspect of it. I love this coverage because it lets me step back from my gut reaction. Which, to be honest, is pretty negative when it comes to the structure, tone, and content of the debate

Thank you! We're glad you're here.

This Biden-Booker exchange is notable because it enabled Booker to get one memorable one-liners out there ("Kool-Aid") and talk about his time as Newark's mayor, which he loves to tout and has been the subject of a documentary. He's been seeking this chance to face down Biden and talk about the '94 crime bill while making is own points about marijuana laws and clemency. And he got that chance tonight. It reminds me a bit of Senator Harris's back and forth with Biden during the first debate.

It’s obvious. that Booker anticipated this attack by Biden and that he is prepared for a full throated response It’s unfortunate though that he couldn’t stifle the smirk.

Yes. Booker likely came out on top during that exchange — BUT his expression while Biden was talking was so gleeful that I was expecting a response that was a smidge more devastating. 

I dunno; Booker's "resting face" looks angry, so he often corrects it with a big bright smile. Lots of undecided Democrats view this through the prism of "who can punch Trump in the face?" So Booker's bounciness probably appeals more than it alienates.

Given Kamala Harris's attack on Joe Biden last time on busing (of all things), has she made herself fair game for similar attacks on her often-sketchy record as a prosecutor and AG? I find her to be too vague on many issues and hope someone pins her down. What say you?

Her record as prosecutor/CA attorney general is fair game regardless of whatever attack she levels on her opponents. I didn't think Gabbard would be the one that had the toughest, most detailed criticism of Harris' record, putting her clearly on the defensive. 

Did Booker do what he wanted to do on that criminal justice answer?

Simply, yes.  He painted Joe Biden as the architect of laws that have led to mass incarceration, an issue that matters to African-American voters.  This is something that Booker's team has been pushing over the last few weeks, and plays into the senator's attempts to show he's the candidate best qualified to represent African American people.   

He's also ripping off sound bites at Biden that we're almost guaranteed to see in tweets and campaign materials.  ("We have a system right now that’s broken.  And you want to compare records, quite frankly, I’m shocked that you do.")

I think he also effectively parried a question that Biden has been raising for weeks: that Mayor Booker's police force was involved in controversial practices like stop-and-frisk.)


Dave, do Democrats frequently talk about the Garner case on the campaign trail? It's a significant topic tonight, but I wonder if it is day to day in the early voting states.

I haven't heard as much about the Garner case specifically, but a ton about criminal justice reform and racial disparities. More than you might expect, even in extremely white, rural areas; it's some of the most compelling stuff in Warren's and Booker's stump speeches.

But have Iowans followed the Garner case? I'm skeptical, and confused as to why these candidates didn't turn it faster back onto the Trump DOJ. Just like the moderates yesterday probably missed chances to bring the conversation back to Trump, the anti-Biden squadron probably is spending too much time on the sins of other Democrats.

What's going to be super weird (maybe except for Beto who comes off as the nicest according to my grandmother) is when after the primaries and convention are over and they all suddenly love each other again and tell how great Joe Biden even if he isn't the nominee, but they want him as stumping around swing states. I get the primary to general switch is normal, but really off-putting or at least to me it is.

It's a very good question given what happened after 2016: Real anger from Sanders supporters that was hyped up by the Trump campaign (and everybody's favorite Russian bots).

What really did the damage was the perception that Sanders never had a chance, even when the race got relatively close, and even after Clinton won a 4-million vote majority. If this boiled down to a similar two-person contest, I think you'd see a version of the same anger from 2016. And we already know that the Trump campaign would use the left's lack of enthusiasm to wage attacks on Biden, urging young voters to support Trump or stay home.

That would be tough given the reality of a Trump presidency that terrifies liberals. But Warren, Sanders, and others, have more fundamental problems with Biden than they ever did with Clinton, and it would take some doing for their endorsements to be anything but "suck it up and beat Trump."

That said, it can be done.

People forget, but the 2008 primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was extremely contentious. Yet, after he seized the nomination, a number of Clinton staffers moved over and, fairly earnestly, joined the Obama campaign. I wrote a story about the phenomenon in Aug. of that year — just two months after Clinton dropped out. 

I think there were hard feelings, but Clinton staffers — from senior aides to low level interns — really were able to put the primary behind them. And then, of course, Obama chose Clinton to be his Secretary of State.

Are criticisms of Harris by Biden and Gabbard true?

Here's a Washington Post article that answers that question.

We're 90 minutes in. What's the headline, if you had to file the story right now? Readers, what do you think? 

Everybody beats up on Biden 

(I know it's not snappy .... there is a reason why editors, not reporters, write the headlines. But you get the point I'm trying to make).

My suggested headlines: "Democrats target Biden, but confront a reckoning on Obama's legacy" or "Democrats debate Biden's record and spar over health care"

Two recommendations. 

Democrats explain why they think Joe Biden has been wrong for 40 years


'No, let's look at YOUR' record.'  

Eating our own and sound bites for Trump

Obama Presidency a Failure, Say Almost All Democrats During Debate

Not sure that Biden can pull this off. It will be even more difficult for him as the debates pare down to the top and toughest contenders

Any ideas about why Biden looks directly at Booker when Booker’s addressing him but looks straight ahead when Harris talks to him?

So. Much. Better. Than. Last. Night. 

Look, I wrote a book about progressive rock, so I am used to taking the unpopular position. I seriously preferred the level of debate and content last night! No spelunking into the pasts of candidates, all knife-fighting about the policies they want to implement in 2021!

Biden takes significant attacks on his record, but is still the candidate to beat.

Gabbard, not Biden, gives a litany of concerns about Harris's record. She makes a forceful argument, Harris responds, and then Gabbard does it again. Surprised?

Not really; I said at the beginning of this that, for whatever reason, Gabbard has spent more time attacking Harris than anyone else. There is a loud online chorus that despises Harris and considers her a cop and a phony, and Gabbard effectively channeled their concerns. 

Harris's response was intriguing because she declined to rebut Gabbard point by point – there was no way to do so in the time limit – and instead emphasized what really was the boldest stance of her career, opposing the death penalty. (She nearly lost her 2010 race over this.) That is not a winning position nationwide, and it's one of the things I've heard tonight that could be weaponized next year.

Does Joe Biden seem to be having trouble organizing and articulating his responses? That’s what I’m hearing.

Vice President Biden has never cast himself as a soaring orator. He's been pretty defensive of his record, at times upbeat. At times, when he does fumble with his words, he reminds of someone trying to remember a talking point from prep sessions. I say that as a former high school debater  who used to memorize lines of attack on various policy issues for weekend tournaments. 

Is it my imagination, or are the questions almost the same as last night? Doesn’t this give these candidates the opportunity to have a better honed response than last night’s candidates?

They're similar, but that's not surprising. Health care, immigration, race, and climate change are priorities for most Democratic voters. 

Joe better but not forceful. Kamala defensive. Booker making strong points. Yang sounds sane. Inslee not bad. Castro handling himself fine. Gabbard making good points, Bennett still not strong. Gilibrand stronger today. What do you think?

It's 9:45 p.m. and there's been little to no discussion (yet) of Mueller, impeachment, Speaker Pelosi's strategy, the debt deal, the Federal Reserve, and foreign policy. These are pressing issues here in Washington and for the nation. They are also areas where I'd like to hear more from these candidates. 

I noticed that Governor Inslee is pushing the climate issues again, but does he have any other positions than things on climate? None of these guys talked about how these plans are going to be paid for.

You've identified one of the effects of the Trump presidency: Democrats have watched, once again, a Republican president pass deficit-financed tax cuts, after years of fear-mongering about the debt. So none of them are really rattled in talking about expensive plans; it's easy to just say, look, Republicans spent $1 trillion on a tax cut and we will claw that back.

Inslee does have a comprehensive agenda, which resembles the other candidates', but he ties everything back to the "existential crisis," and if you think one crisis is bigger than any other, of course you talk about it.

This seems like a politically disastrous choice every candidate except for Biden is making tonight. Truly mad.

Maybe not as disastrous as it appears.  There are a lot of Democrats that I've talked to who love Obama, but feel like he didn't do enough to push liberal causes.  

I'm liking Gabbard from this group. She's parallel to Klobuchar. What do you think?

I'd respectfully disagree that she's like Klobuchar. Klobuchar is more of a traditional Democrat who isn't an avowed non-interventionist and gets along with party leaders. Gabbard is a defiant outsider who has problems with party leaders and the political establishment. Gabbard is also more willing than the senator to directly and sharply criticize rivals.

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I find that so many Democrats are simply looking at the polls and who can actually defeat Trump vs. who actually has plans and policies that will move the country forward. The Democratic field is by far the most talented it has been in many elections. Why do you think the electorate is simply looking at who is leading the head-to-head polls, Biden, vs. who has the best policy positions?

Pitting them against each other again with the way they worded the question....I AM SO OVER CNN and this debate. Done.

I am getting a very bad feeling that the circus occurring onstage in Detroit will alienate voters. The Dems are washing their dirty laundry in public instead of focusing on defeating Trump. Way too many cooks in the kitchen!

Feels more like Teflon Joe so far. Do you think he's getting seriously roughed up? I don't.

I'll stay away from the nicknames, but Biden appears more engaged, more assertive and as if he's holding his own.  He's also come armed with what appears to be significant research on the records of Harris and Booker.  Simply put, he seems more prepared for the fight.  I don't know if being more prepared is the same as coming out on top, but it's better than, as you said, getting seriously roughed up.  

Last night seemed exciting with new ideas. Tonight seems focused on mistakes of the past and gotchas, aimed mainly at Biden. Must less interesting.

The fact that eduction is not among the top issues for Democrats is outrageous. Same with cost of child care. Families are drowning in student loan debt and child care costs and no one cares....

Am I the only one who thinks that Bennet just had a shining moment? He is really the first one to talk about early childhood education as the root of inequality, with the exception with Warren's universal Pre-K, which is not nearly her most prominent policy idea.

I totally agree. It was Bennet's best moment of both of his debates so far. He was making a compelling point and, more importantly, he was clearly passionate about it. As the former Denver schools superintendent, it's also an issue about which he cares deeply and knows thoroughly.

That said, is Bennet's passion — which still doesn't seem to vibrate on as high a frequency as, say, a Warren or Sanders —enough to make him stand out in a crowded field?

I agree with Ashley. And education is one of those issues that rarely excites the horse race political press the way it does voters. Lots of people are going to like Bennet's answer even if you don't hear much about it from campaign strategists.

Senator Booker's taste in Kool-Aid aside, it doesn't feel like the blows that VP Biden is taking are serious. Do you see or hear anything from this debate (so far) that will seriously hurt his poll numbers? His much poorer first debate performance didn't seem to hurt him at all.

Biden's looming threats, on health care in particular, were on stage on Tuesday: Warren and Sanders, who are titans on the left and want to overhaul the federal government rather than tweak it or add a public option to health-care law. So, while Biden and Harris sparred on health care, it's unlikely that Harris ultimately is the candidate who causes him real headaches on that issue.

Given McConnell in the Senate - how much can actually be done?

An important question. If a Democrat wins the White House and the Republicans hold onto the Senate, McConnell will try to quash any big-ticket item on health care or taxes. Many Democrats say they'd pressure Republicans with grassroots activism, but more details on their plan for divided government would be welcome.

If a Democrat wins the White House but McConnell remains majority leader (by the GOP retaining control of the Senate), he is going to relish that "Grim Reaper" label even more so than he does now. 

Has there been a breakthrough moment?

For me, not on the scale of the busing exchange between Harris and Biden during the first debate or Castro's breakout moment. But lots to chew on here tonight. Circle back with me at the end.

Booker has done what he wanted to do: tangle with Biden, swing the spotlight onto his record, and be seen as a top-tier Biden rival alongside Senator Harris. Biden's breakthrough might be just surviving the onslaught. He has taken a lot of hits, but hasn't fallen apart politically. He carries on. 

I'd say Booker. For the last 45 minutes, he's been one of the nation's most googled subjects, and for a candidate who's been mired in the middle on polling and fundraising, giving more people a reason to want to know who you are is a victory.  It's a breakout moment, I think, because it seems to be going according to the plan he's been laying the foundation for over the past few weeks.  

The debate has now turned to the economy. Seung Min, will the latest debt deal factor into this debate? Most Democrats seem generally supportive, even if they think it's imperfect. 

Yeah, the only real complaint that I've heard from some Democrats about this budget deal is that it doesn't have enough restrictions on how money can be transferred (i.e. Democrats don't want Trump to be able to shift around cash for his border wall). But it got 219 Democratic votes in the House, and when it comes up for a vote tomorrow in the Senate, I expect Democrats to carry the vote across the finish line. 

(By the way, lots of speculation on the Hill today that the budget vote is being held tomorrow because they need the Dem senators running for president to come back from it ... we shall see tomorrow starting at 11 a.m. whether that is true).


Fascinating. McConnell may need those Democratic candidates to muscle the bill through the Senate as some Republicans balk at the agreement. 

Free trade plays very well here in Michigan and other industrial states. Truth be told, after NAFTA there was a giant sucking sound...and those were our jobs. Trump plays that card well.

Julian Castro offering up that when he was Secretary of Housing during the Flint water crisis. Most people think the Federal Government response was ...nothing. People in Flint still don't have drinkable water. Wouldn't want to take credit for that.

Has Senator Gillibrand helped her cause?

Well, her profile has been so low and she's been struggling so much that anything that grabs attention would be good for her. Her sharp, crisp answer on how she would fire Officer Dan Pantaleo was one of her best moments. But she declined to give specifics on her health care question and there was one moment earlier where she was caught off-guard when called on by the moderators. 

I am also not a fan of the Clorox line. 

No, it's hard to see where she goes from here. Biden campaign researchers found out that her campaign was looking up his old column about women working outside the home. It was surprising that she continued with it; the effectiveness was entirely in the element of surprise, which was gone. And prior to that, her "white privilege" answer was unpromising. Given a choice between a non-white candidate and a white one who apologizes for privilege, Democratic voters have already shown they'll choose the former.

Biden's answer on TPP was an important moment. He has touted himself as the standard-bearer for the Obama administration's legacy and underscored his friendship with President Obama. Yet now he is attempting to pick and choose parts of that record. President Obama was an unapologetic advocate for TPP and Biden just said he'd like to renegotiate it. It's a nod toward his work with labor at the time and their concerns about it. But it's still a crack, a step away from the Obama record. 

Biden now says he'd renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership - the massive Pacific Rim trade deal reached during the Obama White House - though he was a leading voice in the administration advocating for it back then. 

To me, reminiscent of Hillary's touting the TPP as the "gold standard" when she was secretary of state - but then railing against it as a presidential candidate as the base of the party turned sharply against the trade deal.

It seems as if all the moderators want to do is set up one candidate against the other: "Candidate A, Candidate B said that your x approach is a failure because of y. What's your response." Umm, mighten it be a bit more enlightening for the viewers, since presumably the winning candidate will run against Trump, to ask what would be the most important things they would do to challenge Trump and his policies? Right now it seems as if the moderators are just trying to set up in-house squabbles.

I am so tired of people attacking Joe Biden for what he said 20, 30 or more years ago!

They need to attack Trump not Biden, this is ridiculous. Does anyone on your journalist panel believe that this will be effective in defeating Trump?

I think Mr. Costa might be overreading into it. Let's say next week the Twenty-Second Amendment is repealed and Obama ran and won another term, he'd probably say he'd continue to negotiate to the best deal possible for the American public. It's pretty standard way anybody running for higher office talks about trade deals, no?

That's a fair point. Maybe it'll pass and not be much remembered by Friday. But it is notable that a candidate so linked to President Obama is showing a little gap between him and a signature Obama policy.

Biden has used this phrase at least by my count three times. Will this work to distance him from positions of his past?

It's mixed. I followed Biden around for three weeks or so in July and put a similar question to a lot of voters at his events. Although there were people who said they think Biden has been (or still is) wrong on issues, there were a significant number who were willing to give him a pass for things that happened decades ago, including his treatment of Anita Hill and his working with segregationist senators.  One woman told me she felt anyone could find skeletons in four decades worth of closets.  

Second, many voters who don't particularly agree with Biden on all issues still have a sentiment that he might be the best candidate to take on Trump.  That makes them willing to forgive things, especially things that have happened "a long time ago."  

This Biden-Gillibrand exchange is raw, with Biden bringing up deeply personal parts of his past. Senator Gillibrand isn't backing down from her concerns about Biden's past statements about working women. Now Senator Harris is joining the discussion. Did Biden emerge unscathed? 

I will confess I'm not familiar with the op-ed of Biden's to which Gillibrand was referring.

But I actually don't think that exchange was too bad for Biden. He got off one of his only real zingers of the night — that the only thing that's changed is Gillibrand is running for president — and she clearly had come prepared to launch that attack. There's nothing wrong with that — both advance preparation or pressing an opponent on their record — but at a certain point, Gillibrand would not let her question drop, kept repeating the same lines, and it began to feel a bit disingenuous.

Though reasonable people can disagree. Do they? 

Yes, Ashley is right, it was painful to watch.

I don't see how it is possible to not experience some nicks and even deeper cuts. This is so painful. For the record though I've never felt this was Joe's time to run. While it is hard to watch he did choose to throw his hat into the ring

I would be curious to hear candidates tell us if they would pursue charges against the President for any wrongdoings identified prior to or during Presidency, and, support jail time, if indicated. What do you all think of that?

Mueller raised the topic during his hearings. Yet these issues routinely have faded to the background in the Democratic presidential race as the sparring has unfolded on health care and criminal justice.

Both last night and tonight, President Trump has been remarkably restrained when it comes to weighing in — or not — on the Democratic debate.

But he finally sent a tweet this evening, objecting to the blame his administration shoulders for the child separation policy, and instead blaming Obama.

There's something fascinating about how much this issue seems to be bother Trump — it was one of the key forces that impelled him to attack Cummings, as we wrote earlier this week — but I also have another question. Which is: How different do we think this week's debates would be, were Trump acting as the Twitter narrator of the whole show? 

I'm actually not surprised he's laying off the "tweet" button on his phone this week, at least about the debates. White House officials tell me he doesn't want these 20+ candidates to be the face of the party. He'd prefer to paint Democrats as a party defined by four liberal minority congresswomen and video footage of urban challenges in Baltimore. 

Is Gabbard tonight's Delaney? In the sense that she's the one with the pointed questions for the major candidates? 

Her style is obviously very different; she is not jumping on every chance to attack people. And as we predicted at the start, she is incredibly uninterested in attacking Biden, the only Democratic candidate. That's striking because she was very comfortable attacking Hillary Clinton, for casting the same vote.

Her lighter touch is probably an asset, though the question with Gabbard is why left-wing voters would switch their support to her once they dig into her record.

The debate is about to wrap up. Readers and reporters, what's your take?

Biden was sharper than June but not as dominant as Warren was last night. He was helped by Gillibrand's weak attack; he didn't come off as strongly against more adroit candidates like Booker and (really) de Blasio. Realistically, the story of this debate was always going to be Biden, and he powered through but probably didn't quiet the concerns that "his time has passed."

Harris was uneven; she was flawless in June, but tonight, showed flashes of the airy style that weakened her campaign in the spring. She stood her ground on health care but was clearly not as cozy with the issue as Sanders or Warren; she was helped because no one on the stage had a compelling position.

Cory Booker delivered what his campaign wanted to do last month; the question's whether it moves voters. The likeliest Booker voters are soft Biden supporters, if and when they have doubts about his electability.

Other candidates also attended the debate. I would be surprised if Gillibrand, Inslee, Bennet, and de Blasio make it to another one of these.

Watching this debate compared to last night’s feels like a I’m running a marathon.

Kind of meh — not about the candidates, but about the format. CNN shows it’s not willing to sacrifice the horse race idea (and ratings) for an informative debate.

Once again the Dems are wounding each other instead of making the case for their candidacies...I fear for the next election

Debate was part deriding Biden, sounding off on Trump but was there enough of giving the right candidate a leadership role and a smart voice to conquer Trump's horrible leadership.

I really disliked the contentious nature of many of the interchanges between candidates. I do hope future debates will be more civil and less personal.

Dems need to get the heavy hitters on one stage

As the Midwest Democrat, I thought Joe did better in tonight's debate than he did in the first one. I'm really concerned that there's not a balance representing the many of us who are called democratic moderates. I certainly don't want Trump and I'll vote for whoever runs against him but I really wish the party wouldn't be so much in love and bend to those on the extreme left. I don't think that represents the majority of democratic voters based on a poll i saw on one of mainstream networks.

Both CNN debates were rough due to restrictions and constant interruptions. Debates of this size are difficult when candidates can’t get enough time to expand their ideas. Finally, questions needed to be more about Trump, not beating up on each other.

The field is too large. The road to 2020 will be here before we know it, however in the interim period, my final thought is we have a long way to go.

Some thoughts: 

A lot of our focus has been on rifts between the candidates doing the best in the polls, but some of the people we've listened to over the last two nights will likely be having serious thoughts over the next few days about whether to continue at all, especially with the increased thresholds for making the next debate stage.  

For several folks over the last few nights, the biggest question was could they be heard above the din of a score of candidates.  Could they gain traction, attract attention or do whatever it takes to get people to take interest in their campaigns, and maybe even donate? 

Some other stray thoughts.  Biden looked more prepared and more assertive  this debate -- he gave as much as he got.  It'll be interesting to see which Biden comes to the third debate. 

Cory Booker was the most-googled candidate on the stage, I wanna see whether that translates to  the polls or to his fundraising efforts.  

Lastly, Biden and Harris seem to be cemented as foils to each other. We'll be seeing them going at each other for another few months.  

I realize as time passes, the number of candidates will dwindle. At this point, these debates are too stinking long. Tonight's was not as interesting as last night, so the process really dragged. I have my favorites; however, I think most of the candidates would better serve our democracy remaining in their current positions.

Here's what I liked about tonight's debate: There were so many memorable moments and exchanges, and nearly every candidate had at least a brief star-turn. If last night I wouldn't have been sure what to write for a lede-all, tonight I'd struggle with an abundance of nuggets.

Bennet's passion on education. Biden's ups and downs (though more downs than ups, me thinks). Castro and Booker's confident attacks on Biden. Gabbard's back and forth with Harris. (And worth mentioning here I thought Harris had a perfectly fine evening, but seemed to recede a bit, especially compared to her breakout first debate). Andrew Yang's unapologetic quirkiness. 

Thoroughly enjoyable night.

I completely agree Ashley - I still stand by my view from earlier that there was no *one* standout moment from tonight, like there was with previous debates, but so much to digest anyway. 

Castro and Booker certainly helped themselves tonight. Since everyone was piling on Biden, the former vice president handled (some of) the attacks pretty well. Harris, after having such a breakout performance last month, showed some signs of vulnerability tonight, especially when grilled on her prosecutorial record. And Gabbard had the most surprising performance, but seriously did no Democrat ask her about Assad? 


Also - I am still a bit miffed at the lack of a SCOTUS question either night. 

I appreciate your coverage very much and yes...democracy dies in darkness. When I was a kid we got the paper because that was part of how you got the news. And we would literally gather as a family and read the paper on Sunday morning. Seems so quaint and simple. Now it seems like a newspaper subscription is a mission statement!! So yes, I truly value the work you all our doing!!

Thanks so much for your comment, it means a lot to us!

Thank you to the Post reporters for everything that you do on a daily basis. For those of us who genuinely care about the future of our country, we appreciate the hard work you do each and everyday in delivering the real news.

Thank you for joining us, and for sending so many thoughtful questions and comments!

Thanks so much for joining us tonight. We really appreciate your time and comments. 

Here are my parting thoughts following the closing statements.


Bill de Blasio: A proudly liberal New Yorker who is trying to get into the Sanders-Warren tier of this presidential race. He probably helped his cause tonight and had some effective shots at Biden. But he’s dealing with a New York media market that’s deeply skeptical of his campaign and grousing daily about his time away from the city.

Michael Bennet: A moderate senator who comes from the key state of Colorado. He reminds me of Senator Klobuchar. He is offering a message of centrist change and insider knowledge of Washington. 

Jay Inslee: The candidate of climate change made repeated warnings on Wednesday that the fate of the world is on the line if the next U.S. president does not act. This message has made him popular on the left and could eventually give him a bounce. But it’s unclear how he’s going to expand his appeal.

Kirsten Gillibrand: A New York senator who argues that she is firmly grounded in the reality of being a working mother and can be a voice for working Americans. She took on Biden tonight, weaved in personal stories with anecdotes — and likely helped her effort to make the next debate stage. 

Tulsi Gabbard: The anti-hawk and anti-establishment Democrat made her points on foreign policy and offered a worldview that could perk the ears of Democrats who have problems with Biden’s Obama record on war and national security. She also gave a detailed critique of Harris’s record in California, which caused the senator to have to grapple with tricky issues not related to Biden. 

Julian Castro: Saying “adios” to Trump, Castro said at the end, should be the goal of Democrats. He had a winning presentation and once again a focus on immigration. No missteps, but no significant breakthrough beyond his exchange with Biden on immigration and the Obama legacy, where Castro noted he has learned lessons from the past.

Andrew Yang: A better turn this time for Yang, who brought more of the energy he showcases on the campaign trail as he talks through issues like universal basic income. 

Cory Booker: Passionate and eager to clash with Biden, Booker also got to touch on many of his key themes. He likely emerges in a stronger position. 

Kamala Harris: She defended her work in California again and again. While the night was expected to be a barrage on Biden, it was at times about Harris and her decisions and positions. She was sharp in explaining her views, but emerged with a few political nicks on her armor as well. 

Joe Biden: His closing statement summed up his argument: He believes he’s best positioned to beat President Trump. He acknowledged that he hasn’t always been a favorite of liberals, and even drifted a bit from the Obama administration on trade tonight. But he carries on, remaining a target and vulnerable, but at center stage.

Good night everyone, and thanks for watching the debates with us! If you're looking for more analysis, check out winners and losers, by our colleagues on The Fix! 

In This Chat
Robert Costa
Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post. He joined The Post in January 2014 and covers the White House, Congress, and campaigns. He is also the moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS and a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. He holds a bachelor's degree in American studies from the University of Notre Dame and a master's degree from the University of Cambridge.
Ashley Parker
Ashley Parker is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2017, after 11 years at the New York Times, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns and Congress, among other things. Parker is also an on-air contributor to NBC News and MSNBC.
David Weigel
David Weigel is a national political correspondent covering Congress and grass-roots political movements.
Cleve R. Wootson Jr
Cleve R. Wootson Jr. is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, covering the 2020 campaign for president. He previously worked on The Post's General Assignment team. Before that, he was a reporter for the Charlotte Observer.
Seung Min Kim
Seung Min Kim is a White House reporter for The Washington Post, covering the Trump administration through the lens of Capitol Hill. Before joining The Washington Post in 2018, she spent more than eight years at Politico, primarily covering the Senate and immigration policy. Kim is also an on-air contributor to CNN.
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