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What’s at stake for 2020 Democrats during Detroit presidential debates

During the first night of the Democratic debates in Detroit, the ideological rift within the crowded field was on full display. Moderates challenged progressives as being unrealistic, while the more liberal candidates said the party should embrace “big ideas.” Amna Nawaz talks to Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Karine Jean-Pierre of MoveOn.org.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Almost half of the candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination faced off in Tuesday night's debate in Detroit.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, the ideological rift in the crowded field was on full display.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the 10 Democrats on stage last night, an existential question: How far left to go?

    More moderate candidates like former Maryland Congressman John Delaney set their sights on the party's left flank.

  • John Delaney:

    So, I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    From Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the party's two liberal leaders standing center stage, a united front.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    You know, I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a divide that played out for nearly every issue, as Democrats debated the best way to defeat President Trump.

  • South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg:

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Nominate me, and we will have a different conversation with American voters about why the president of the United States thinks you're a sucker.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On health care, the moderates, like Montana Governor Steve Bullock, in his first debate appearance, expressed doubts about the health care overhaul known as Medicare for all.

  • Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont.:

    At the end of the day, I'm not going to support any plan that rips away quality health care from individuals. This is an example of wish list economics. It used to be just Republicans who wanted to repeal and replace. Now many Democrats do as well.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Let's be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That's what the Republicans are trying to do.

    And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sanders also defended his signature proposal against attacks from Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    For senior citizens, it will finally include dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses.

  • Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio:

    But you don't know that — you don't know that, Bernie.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Second of all — second of all…

  • Jake Tapper:

    I will come to you in a second, Congressman.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren D-Mass.:

    I do know it. I wrote the damn bill.

  • John Hickenlooper:

    Think if we're going to force Americans to make these radical changes, they're not going to go along. Throw your hands up.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    All right.

  • John Hickenlooper:

    Oh-ho, I can do it. But you haven't implemented the plans.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Similar to the last debate, the debate around immigration centered on a plan to make crossing the U.S. border a civil offense, instead of criminal.

  • Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke:

  • Beo O’Rourke:

    And I expect that people who come here follow our laws, and we reserve the right to criminally prosecute them

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    The problem is that, right now, the criminalization statute is what gives Donald Trump the ability to take children away from their parents. We must be a country that every day lives our values.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In downtown Detroit, a city that's over 80 percent black, night one of the debate featured an all-white field of candidates.

    Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar responded to President Trump's recent attacks on Congressman Elijah Cummings and Baltimore.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:

    Little kids literally woke up this weekend, turned on the TV and saw their president calling their city, the town of Baltimore, nothing more than a home for rats. And I can tell you, as your president, that will stop.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While author and spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson focused on the water conditions in nearby Flint, Michigan.

  • Marianne Williamson:

    It's bigger than Flint. It's all over this country. It's particularly people of color. It's particularly people who do not have the money to fight back. And if the Democrats don't start saying it, then why would those people feel that they're there for us?

    And if those people don't feel it, they won't vote for us, and Donald Trump will win.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Expect race to come up again tonight, as 10 more candidates prepare to take the stage, among them, former Vice President Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris, who clashed over desegregating schools during the first debate last month.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Do you agree today — do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?

  • Joseph Biden:

    No, I didn't oppose busing in America.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Biden said last week he was — quote — "overly polite" last time. Heading into tonight, Harris signaled she will once again set her sights on the candidate leading in the polls.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    My mother raised me to be polite, and I intend to be polite. I will express differences and articulate them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    They will share the stage with eight other candidates hoping for their own standout moments, before the polling and fund-raising thresholds double for the next round of debates in September.

    For analysis of last night's debate and what to look for tonight, I'm joined by Stuart Rothenberg, senior editor of Inside Elections, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of "Politics With Amy Walter" on WNYC Radio, and Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser to MoveOn.org.

    Welcome to you all.

    Let's jump right in.

    Stu, let me start with you.

    Last night, one of the central themes was all about the moderate vs. progressive candidates. Did one side do better than other at making the case?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    No, I think both sides did very well.

    And you're right. That was the context. It was created by the question from CNN folks, but also it's an honest division within the party.

    And you saw the two obvious progressives, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, energize, articulate, you know, about their positions. And you saw the pragmatists, who I think did a really good job, a number of them, whether it was Delaney or Ryan or whatever, trying to poke holes in their arguments.

    So I think both sides did quite well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Karine, you noted there from Stu some of the lower polling candidates were taking aim frequently at Senator Warren, at Senator Sanders. Medicare for all was one of the big topics last night.

    How do you think they did in defending their turf?

  • Karine Jean-Pierre:

    I think they did a pretty good job.

    Look, last night — what I saw last night was a debate about policies and just substantive issues, which is incredibly important. It's part of the process. It's part of having a primary, and I think they did well for themselves.

    And I think now we move on to tonight and see how that goes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, let's take a look at how people are deciding who it is they actually want to vote for.

    I want to point you to something that always stands out to me. This is from our "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll. When you ask likely Democratic voters, have they made up their minds, 82 percent say, no, they have not. That is a lot of people.

    So if you're a Democratic voter out there watching the debates, are you — what are you gleaning from this kind of format right now?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, what you're really looking for right now, Amna, I think, when I talk to voters, what they're telling me is, they are hoping that this field gets narrowed, because there are just too many choices for them.

    They just get kind of intimidated by the number that are on the stage. So I think, even though we saw some new names in the mix — Stu mentioned John Delaney and Steve Bullock, who it was literally his first time on the stage, the governor of Montana — I think this race really still is consolidating around four, maybe five candidates.

    And as those candidates are getting challenged, or maybe challenging another candidate, you will see their numbers rise and follow, as other people challenge them. But I don't think we're going to see one of these candidates that right now is polling in the low 1's or 2's suddenly break out from the top.

    And just overall this fundamental debate about pragmatism and one that's more structural reform, sitting here in Michigan right now, this is a debate that happened in 2018 in the governor's race, and it happened in 2016 in the primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

    So folks in the state are pretty used to that conversation. In 2016, it was the more progressive candidate, Bernie Sanders, who won the primary. In 2018, it was the more pragmatic, who's now the governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who won her primary.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Karine, I got to ask you, when it comes to the issues, they covered a lot of ground last night, climate change, health care, immigration. Race came up as well, which is obviously going to be huge in the 2020 election and how we talk about it.

    It's unfortunate it was an all-white panel just based on the random draw of the way the candidates ended up. But how do you think they did at developing an overall message of how they're going to make the Democratic case to voters of color?

  • Karine Jean-Pierre:

    Yes, it was very unfortunate, Amna.

    We have a very diverse field. And, like you mentioned, it was a pretty much all-white — all white candidates on that stage. And, tonight, that will change.

    But I am — I'm actually really glad that they — the question of race was asked to the white candidates. And they took an opportunity to answer that. What we saw the past three weeks with Donald Trump and the way he's brought up race and how he's using it for his 2020 reelection is quite concerning.

    And so it's an important conversation to have. We need to bring it up. And you have people of color living in this country that is very worried as to where this country is going. And I think it's a good — it was great to see these candidates on this stage talk about it last night.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stu, Karine mentioned Donald Trump.

    I want to point you to another recent showing from our poll, that PBS/NPR/Marist poll. When it looks at what Democratic voters are looking for in their candidate, do they want someone who actually aligns with their values, or do they want someone who can actually beat Donald, the majority still say they're looking for someone who can beat Donald Trump.

    So did you see that messaging?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I think president didn't get as much attention last night as I expected he would get or that he will get tonight.

    But face it, Amna, voters want it all. They want somebody who can beat Donald Trump, and they want somebody who reflects their values and priorities and views. And they're going to — they're going to hold off deciding until much later in the year.

    I know we expect, we think that we have already had debates and there have been town halls and interviews. But we have got a long way to go before people actually make choices of who they're going to support and who they aren't.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, it's worth noting the Trump campaign put out a response after the debate last night. They said, it's the same radical Democrats, same big government socialist message.

    This issue of socialism comes up again and again.

    Pete Buttigieg, during the debate, actually kind of foreshadowed that. He said, look, whatever we do, they're going to call us socialists, so we should just do what we believe in and move forward.

    Is there some truth for that to the Democrats right now?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, we know what the playbook is going to be for Donald Trump and for Republicans.

    They have been using the socialist label now, really, since the 2018 campaign. It wasn't particularly effective in that race. But, again, that was a midterm election, where it was a referendum on the president. This is going to be a choice between the president and another Democratic candidate.

    But, look, I think that, when we're asking whether or not the candidate who appeals to the more left or the more center is going to win, we miss another fundamental question, which is, who's the candidate that has the vision, the message, who's able to connect, who has a narrative and a story?

    And so this is where I think some of the moderates didn't do — they were not as effective last night, in that they were able to sort of try and poke holes in what the progressive candidates were saying about a Medicare for all system, mentioning how difficult it was going to be to pass, how unworkable it was, but they're not offering, I didn't see last night, a real sort of vision or optimistic message to voters who are looking, as Stu says, for everything, but also who want to beat Donald Trump and see a candidate who has a realistic path to getting there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Amy, very briefly — I feel like one of the debate moderator — 30 seconds or less, if you can.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What are you looking for tonight, when 10 more candidates take the stage?

  • Amy Walter:


    Well, Joe Biden now becomes the face and the voice of that moderate, in a way that the candidates last night — yes, they tried to play that role, but the real role is going to be played by Joe Biden, and how he holds up under what I think is going to be pretty aggressive, I don't know I would use the word attack, but they're definitely going to aggressively challenge Joe Biden tonight.

    Can he hold up? He didn't do particularly well in the first debate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Karine, what about you? What are you looking for?

  • Karine Jean-Pierre:

    What I want to see, which is — we didn't see last night, was, I really want to see the contrasts from — with Donald Trump.

    I mean, we talked about health care. More than 35 minutes was on Medicare for all, which is great. But nobody mentioned that, right now, the Trump administration is in the courts trying to take away health care from tens of millions of people.

    Like, that type of thing is what I want to hear tonight from these candidates. What's the contrast? How are we going to beat Donald Trump?

    And I agree with Amy. I think Biden is going to get a lot of the attention. People are going to be focusing on him tonight, especially after the last debate.

    But I also want to say that I don't think we're going to see much change after — after tonight. I think the third debate, the one in September in Houston, where the field will whittle down a bit, we won't — I don't think we will have more than one debate — I think that's where we will see some movement with numbers and how people are standing in this race.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stu, I will give you the last word here. What are you looking for?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Biden, Biden, Biden, and Biden.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    He's the leading progressive pragmatist. He is the — if he falters, which is certainly possible, it will create an opening for somebody else to take that place, because this is a party that's split, that wants to win, but wants to win with a certain agenda.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stu Rothenberg, Karine Jean-Pierre, and Amy Walter, thanks to you all.

  • Stu Rothenberg:


  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

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