The Road to 2020: The First Democratic Debates

In just under 500 days, the American people will go to the ballot box to vote in the 59th presidential election. First, however, they will have to pick which democrat they want representing them on the ballot. 

Related: A Seat at the Table: The (Female) Road to 2020

With just over 200 days to go until the Iowa caucus, the 25 (and counting!) Democrats with their names thrown in the hat have been itching for an opportunity to connect with the electorate nationally -- and hopefully trip up some of their opponents in the process. Twenty candidates met the requirements, leading to a two-night extravaganza of “Democrats robustly arguing amongst themselves,” in the words of moderator Rachel Maddow. The result was equal parts exhilarating and exacerbating. 

If you didn’t happen to have around four hours to kill on June 26 and 27, Her Campus George Mason has got you covered. While we can’t hit everything, we’re here to go over a few of the moments that will dominate both the headlines and your twitter feed. 

Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker have been doing their time on Duolingo.

Early in the debate, O’Rourke burst out into Spanish, while the other candidates looked on. Booker looked absolutely flabbergasted (don’t worry, we all looked the same), but it became clear why later on in the debate when -- wait for it -- he also decided to answer a question in Spanish. While it was likely an attempt to win favor with Latinx voters by very explicitly including them in the conversation on the national stage, it came across as disingenuous pandering, especially when the candidate on stage who was *actually* Latinx, Julián Castro, wasn’t participating.

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Julián Castro is ready to say “Adiós to Donald Trump.”

Speaking of Julián Castro, he had a breakout performance on night one of the debates. The former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration has had difficulties breaking into the mainstream and having a big impact in the polls. However, on a night when many others floundered, Castro was able to demonstrate his command of immigration policy and his personal connection to the issues on the same day that the headlines were dominated by the image of an asylum seeker and his 23-month old daughter who died while crossing the border. "Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking," Castro said, "It should also piss us all off." 

In his final statements of the night, when each candidate was given time to directly address the American people, his cry that, “On January 21, 2021, we’ll say adiós to Donald Trump,” was met with roaring applause. (It is also worth noting that Castro is the only candidate on the stage to mention the trans community in the discussion around reproductive rights, and we couldn’t be more here for it.)

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Elizabeth Warren proved her moxie, sort of.

Warren was undoubtedly the candidate to watch on night one, she was the only one on the stage with double-digit poll numbers and she had a plan to show America that there’s no one she can’t go up against without coming out on top. She was unequivocally and unapologetically Elizabeth Warren. She didn’t back down on any issue, she didn’t water down her stances to make them more palatable to the general population and that’s what people love most about her. 

Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker all got a chance to go toe-to-toe with Warren on her proposals (including free college, a tax increase on the wealthy and breaking up big companies) and none of them took the bait, instead choosing not to directly challenge her. However, both of the candidates that poll higher than her, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, were not on the same stage, so it’s unclear how big of an impact that her performance will have on her numbers. 

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Healthcare dominated and divided the field. 

This should come as no surprise, with the path to universal healthcare having been at the forefront of politics for more than a decade. The moderators were very direct in their questioning to all 20 candidates: Do you support, “Abolishing private health insurance in favor of a single, government-run plan, with a show of hands.” Over the course of both nights, a total of four candidates raised their hands: Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Kamala Harris (who later claimed to misunderstand the question and stated that private coverage will continue to exist for supplemental insurance for things like cosmetic procedures) and Bernie Sanders (while three candidates who kept their hands down have signed on bills to allow the government to do precisely that). 

While the Democrats effectively wielded their vow to protect Obamacare as a tool to recapture the House of Representatives during the midterm elections, it has proven to be far more difficult for the 2020 Presidential hopefuls to quantify their position on the future of healthcare in America. While they all agree that healthcare is a fundamental human right that has been neglected in America, the discussion is far from over and you can expect to see many changing and shifting positions as the race continues. 

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Biden and Buttigieg remind America that Undocumented Immigrants pay taxes.

One of the few points that every candidate agreed on was that undocumented immigrants would be included in whatever future healthcare plan they put forward. When pressed on why, Pete Buttigieg responded that, “We are talking about something people are given a chance to buy into. In the same way there are undocumented immigrants in my community who pay sales taxes and pay property taxes directly or indirectly. This is not about a handout. This is an insurance program.” Biden followed up by stating that, “Number one, they contribute to the well-being of the country and also, for example, increased the lifespan of Social Security. That’s what they’re doing.”

The myth that undocumented immigrants are a drain on taxpayer-funded programs has prospered under Trump’s administration. However, this is unequivocally false. The 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in America pump billions of dollars into Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- which they will never be able to withdraw from without being granted citizenship or legal status -- and pay billions in sales tax and property tax. 

It was a brief moment, but it was an important one. 

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Marianne Williamson will “harness love,” apparently.

Despite the fact that she did not speak for the first 27 minutes of the debate, Marianne Williamson’s comments were both puzzling and hilarious. When asked about the first thing she would do while in office, it was a quick phone call to pick a fight with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. Ardern famously stated that while in office, her goal was to make New Zealand the best place for a child to grow up and Williamson has taken up the mantle and plans to challenge her for that honor. Williamson, an author, has a long history of eccentrism (seriously, check out her Twitter) but not a lot of political experience. While her presence in the race is questionable, she certainly helped ease the tension for all of the viewers -- and we hope Kate McKinnon was taking notes for a future SNL skit! 

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Kamala Harris forced Joe Biden to answer for his past.

Mere weeks ago, Biden infamously touted his work with segregationists as an example for Washington to follow today, stating that they, “Didn’t call me boy, they called me son.” While it’s true that gridlock in Congress has been infuriating -- to say the least -- in recent years, the comments were not taken positively, with the public and politicians alike questioning how wise it is to hold segregationists as a model for honorable conduct and judgment. It was inevitable that the controversy would make the debate in some way, shape or form and oh boy did it!

Related: Joe Biden is Not the Answer

During a heated discussion about race, Kamala Harris spoke up as candidates were arguing across her, stating that, “As the only black person on this stage I would like to speak on the issue of race.” When the moderators granted her 30 seconds, she turned to Biden and addressed him personally, "I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But," she added, "I also believe and it's personal and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senator who is built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. It was not only that... there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day, that little girl was me. So, I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly."

While Biden denied her characterization of his position, the damage was done. In one of the most memorable moments of the night, Harris managed to pivot the discourse away from Biden’s statements and towards the greater impact of his positions. She reminded America that while Joe Biden is not racist, it does not mean that his decisions did not cause harm and are not still carried in the hearts of millions of Americans. 

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The big takeaway? 

As always, there were winners, losers and people too forgettable to be either one. However, the biggest thing that Americans should take from the first debate is that we have a *very* long way to go before we hit the polls. Candidates that had been waning shined brighter than some of the biggest frontrunners and others appeared so uncharacteristically lifeless that they’ve likely done irreparable damage. Today’s leader in the polls could turn largely comatose tomorrow. Everything can change with one line on one night. It’s never been more important to have your eyes and ears open, don’t let anyone glide their way to the nomination. Be attentive, be educated, and don’t be complacent. After all, the party is just getting started.