The 2nd Democratic Debates: Night 1 Takeaways : The NPR Politics Podcast CNN hosted the second Democratic presidential debates, which was split into two nights because the sheer number of candidates running. In the first night, the moderates took on the more progressive candidates, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political correspondent Asma Khalid, political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and political editor Domenico Montanaro. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.

The 2nd Democratic Debates: Night 1 Takeaways

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the presidential campaign.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

KEITH: And the time now is 12:12 a.m. on Wednesday, the 31 of July. And the first night of the second Democratic debate just wrapped up on CNN. Danielle, you and I are here in Washington, D.C. Domenico and Asma, you're in Detroit.

KHALID: That's right.

KEITH: And where are you right now?

MONTANARO: We are in a hotel room trying to get away from very loud air conditioners in the filing center, which, you know, had lots of hustle and bustle. So we hustled and bustled our way back to the hotel to try to have a quieter spot.

KEITH: So in a grand tradition of this podcast - it is becoming truly a grand tradition - Danielle, we are hoping that you can list the names of all 10 candidates who were on the debate stage and do so in the order of their speaking time.

KURTZLEBEN: Senior list correspondent. OK. Here we go. The person who spoke the most tonight was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at 17 minutes, 41 seconds. Very close to her was Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Then after that, No. 3, was South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 14:36. After that, there was a steep drop off. After this, everybody's under 11 minutes. It goes Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke, former Maryland Representative John Delaney, Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, author Marianne Williamson and, last but not least, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper at just under nine minutes.

KEITH: OK. That is who was talking by order. Guys, what stood out to you as sort of the main themes of this debate?

KHALID: Well, what stood out to me is - the overarching theme of the night was the clear divide between the more moderate centrist candidates in the field and the two progressive icons, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And there were clearly so many moments, whether it was health care or immigration, where we saw Sanders and Warren kind of tag team and defend each other while we had more moderate candidates attacking their ideas as being kind of fantasy wish lists and just unrealistic ideas.

KEITH: There was one moment that sort of encapsulated that pretty perfectly. It was former Maryland Congressman John Delaney talking about fantasy ideas and then Senator Elizabeth Warren came in.

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JOHN DELANEY: We need to encourage collaboration between the government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector and focus on those kitchen table pocketbook issues that matter to hardworking Americans - building infrastructure, creating jobs, improving their pay...

JAKE TAPPER: Thank you, Congressman.

DELANEY: ...Creating universal health care...

TAPPER: Thank you, Congressman.

DELANEY: ...Lowering drug prices.

TAPPER: Senator Warren.

DELANEY: We can do it.

ELIZABETH WARREN: 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.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: I don't get it.

MONTANARO: And that was certainly a line of the night. And even in the filing center, that caused a lot of attention gasps.

KHALID: I think it was the most tweeted moment, they said, of the debate.

MONTANARO: Right. And, you know, clearly, I mean - look; a debate broke out, you know? There was actually, like, a reasoned, you know, discussion of clear disagreements from these candidates on health care in particular, on immigration as well.

KEITH: And we're going to get to some of those sort of conflicts on policy in more detail. Danielle, what stood out to you?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, I would agree with what Asma and Domenico both said. I think one other thing that I would get at is that, yes, there were some disagreements, but the disagreements were very much on these really big, blunt divisive questions that are very much going to be flashpoints going forward. For example, the debate over "Medicare for All" was not so much over some of the finer points of it, not so much about how do you pass it politically, not so much about how do you implement it, the window of implementing it, how big of a change it would really be - I mean, not necessarily about how that would work.

Instead, what you got was, well, will this raise taxes on the middle class, which, by the way, is not the most helpful frame for that because it's really about total costs for people. Also, you know, will this get rid of people's private insurance? The questions were very much framed in a way to get people fighting with each other. And you saw this on other topics as well, like decriminalizing the border. There are other immigration topics, but that took up the lion's share of the discussion.

KEITH: Yeah. I would say that that was sort of my take home is that the way the debate was moderated was really designed to set up these conflicts where it was like, hey, John Delaney, so-and-so has said this and you've said that. What do you say about it now?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

KHALID: To that point, Tamara, one of the things I found interesting is, you know, Pete Buttigieg at times felt like he - this is the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who has tried to kind of stake out, I would say, a more moderate position between the moderates and the progressives. At times, it felt like he just wasn't as visible on stage because he was the classic middle child trying to figure out a position between the two. And this debate just wasn't really set up for that.

MONTANARO: But, honestly, you want to draw distinctions for voters at home so that you see where those bright lines are drawn so that, you know, everybody can say that they want to play nice and that they want the same direction. But if these voters are going to have to choose between 20 candidates or so, they've got to know what the differences are between these candidates.

KEITH: Though, interestingly, in the end, Buttigieg had a lot of speaking time. And one of the points he made was very much in line with him trying to find this center lane.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. Look; if - it's true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they're going to do? They're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. So let's just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it. That's the policy...

KURTZLEBEN: The funny thing is that also a conservative agenda in this particular group of candidates still involves a public option. I mean, a conservative agenda would not have been conservative for Democrats just, you know, a decade ago.

KEITH: Let us just spell out what a public option is.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. So a public option - as opposed to some of these other plans we're talking about - is basically that there would be a government-run insurance plan that you could buy into if you wanted. It would be an option publicly run, hence public option - duh dah (ph) - whereas - or you could buy into that or you could, you know, stick with what you have. You could buy into that or you wouldn't have to buy into that. You could stick with, for example, your employer-provided health insurance.

KEITH: So as we said, health care was an area where there was a lot of back and forth between the moderates and the progressives. And I just want to go through a series of clips from that section of the debate - that very long section of the debate - to give you a sense of what it was like. And we are going to start with Senator Bernie Sanders and former Congressman John Delaney.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Health care is a human right, not a privilege. I believe that. I will fight for that.

TAPPER: Thank you, Senator Sanders. Congressman Delaney.

DELANEY: Well, I'm right about this. We can create a universal health care system to give everyone basic health care for free. And I have a proposal to do it. But we don't have to go around and be the party of subtraction and telling half the country who has private health insurance that their health insurance is illegal.

KEITH: And this was one of the questions from the first debate that came back up in this debate, which is what happens to everyone's health insurance who has it now under some of these proposals? Senator Elizabeth Warren jumped in shortly after that exchange with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARREN: 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.

KEITH: And then later, there was a discussion between Senator Sanders and Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio. Tim Ryan, again, talking about, well, private health insurance could go away. This could affect union families. And this was an exchange that has already found its way onto a T-shirt at one hipster T-shirt place.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Medicare for All is comprehensive. It covers all health care needs. For senior citizens, it will finally include dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses.

TIM RYAN: But you don't...

SANDERS: Second of all...

RYAN: You don't know that, Bernie.

SANDERS: Second of all...

TAPPER: We'll come to you in a second, Congressman.

SANDERS: I do know it. I wrote the damn bill.

KEITH: And there you go. OK. So we do need to sort of spell out, though, what this is about. So, Asma, there was this divide on stage between arguably most of the people on the outer wings of the stage and the people at the center of the stage, outer wings wanting a public option or Medicare for All who want it or Medicare for America. And then in the middle of the stage, there were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

KHALID: And they've been calling for Medicare for All. And the key distinction to this is that they both have said they would eliminate private insurance while the folks who are endorsing sort of a more moderate position don't endorse that idea. And one of the things that I would say is kind of interesting is when you look at polling on this issue, a lot of folks in the general electorate do support the idea of Medicare for All broadly, but they're not in support of eliminating their own private health care insurance.

KEITH: Right. Domenico, our poll, the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, got into that question after the last debate.

MONTANARO: Right. I mean, you know, you had 70% of people saying that they were in favor of Medicare for All as an option but not in favor - only 41% in favor of Medicare for All as a replacement to private health insurance. And I couldn't help but feel like this debate was a place where a lot of the moderates tried to take the reins of the party a little bit and say that they were nervous about how far to the left they felt that the party was going unnecessarily so. I mean, I'd been hearing from a lot of Democratic strategists who are really worried about how a general election could go, that there were so many issues in our poll, for example, that showed broad support for a lot of Democratic policies but not necessarily this, you know, hand-raising issues that we had in the first round of debates, like providing health care for immigrants in the U.S. illegally or decriminalizing border crossings.

KHALID: So question, though, for you all because what you're saying, Domenico, strikes at the core of what I've been hearing so much on the campaign trail from Democrats this election cycle, which is how do they defeat Donald Trump? Is it the idea that you persuade persuadable voters? Or do you energize your base? And to me, that gets at the crux of the debate between the progressives and the moderates. And I don't know that it was very clear to me, you know, as to which side necessarily won out.

MONTANARO: For sure, and I don't think we have an answer for what the right answer is. You know, I think that 2016 was a persuasion election. I mean, Donald Trump was able to win over a lot of people, a lot of independents, Obama voters, who then moved to him and Democrats weren't able to also win those voters and turn out their base in certain parts of the country.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to back up and get at one other big disagreement there was on the stage. Asma got at the thing about private health insurance, which is true. Medicare for All would largely outlaw a lot of the private insurance that we are used to in America. Well, aside from that, the big thing, which the moderators really tried to jab at, was whether Medicare for All would require middle-class tax hikes. Jake Tapper asked people point-blank about this. And this is a thing where you saw Warren and Sanders really once again kind of tag team, as Asma put it, and say, well, it's not about tax hike, it's about costs. Like, yes, your taxes might go up. For example, Bernie Sanders has proposed a 4% tax on people who earn more than $29,000 a year, so, yeah, a lot of middle-class people.

But his argument is - and I called up a couple of health care experts tonight to see if this is true - his argument is, well, yes, they'd pay more in taxes, but they would end up paying far less in health care 'cause Medicare for All means no premiums, no copays. You would have so much less to pay. Now, that said, that's if the plan works exactly as Bernie Sanders wants it to, which is a big if.

KEITH: All right. We have to take a quick break. And when we get back - what these candidates had to say about immigration and one thing we couldn't let go of from tonight's debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: And we are back. And another big policy issue that came up - and again, it was a reprise of something that had happened at the first debate - was the conversation about immigration and decriminalization of border crossings.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So this whole decriminalization of border crossings, it was one of those hand-raising questions at the last debate. They did not do hand raising tonight. But it's become, once again, one of those flash points among Democrats in this race. People who say, yes, we should decriminalize it argue that criminalizing border crossings is what allows Donald Trump to - has allowed the Trump administration to separate families, for example.

KEITH: Because of their zero-tolerance policy.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Whereas people who are opposed to it say, well, that's just too much. You need to make it a crime to cross the border because it's a bad thing to cross a border illegally.

KEITH: And that is where Steve Bullock, who is the governor of Montana, that's where he really had a moment.

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STEVE BULLOCK: A sane immigration system needs a sane leader, and we can do that without decriminalizing and providing health care for everyone. And it's not me saying that. That's Obama's Homeland Security secretary that said, you'll cause further problems at the border, not making it better.

WARREN: Well, what you're saying is ignore the law. Laws matter. And it matters if we say our law is that we will lock people up who come here seeking refuge, who come here seeking asylum. That is not a crime.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, this is one more area - and we talked about this a little before, but once again, this is one more area where it was all about decriminalization, and later, they got into health care for people who are in the country illegally, but it ended up obscuring or, actually, totally sort of blowing out of the water any other discussion of other immigration topics. Similarly, health care - we didn't learn about what the other candidates wanted. We learned about what Sanders and Warren wanted. Here, we didn't learn a lot about what a lot of the other candidates' immigration plans are. We talked a lot about decriminalization.

KHALID: To me, what was fascinating is that's not even something that Democrats had been talking about prior to Julian Castro bringing it up in the last debate, right? Like, it's not been something even when you talk to immigration activists, I would say, that I had been hearing tons about prior to the first debate.

KEITH: Yeah, I guess that is one way in which debates matter. They at least can change the conversation that is being had. You know, I think, Domenico, the Trump campaign and others watched this debate as they watched the last one - with great interest - in hopes of, you know, finding plenty of fodder to attack whoever the nominee ends up being.

MONTANARO: They did. And in fact, we saw Trump's communications director was here (laughter) at the debate very eagerly awaiting, seeing what they would hear. Now, I'm not so certain that the Trump campaign came away with the same warm and fuzzy feelings that they had after the last debate and being able to paint all of the candidates with the same broad brush. I think that there was a significant number of those, quote-unquote, "moderates" on the stage who wanted to push back tonight. And I think Steve Bullock, you know, the governor of Montana, is somebody who, you know, acquitted himself pretty well if you're somebody who is open to his message and you don't want to see the party go too far for your comfort zone.

And if you think about the debate that's coming up where you've got Joe Biden in the middle of everything, if he doesn't do well again, like he didn't do very well - had the lackluster performance - there might be some of those voters who really like Biden but who want a moderate candidate and who might give someone like Bullock a look.

KHALID: But the important thing to remember is that many of the candidates we saw on stage tonight will not necessarily be there...

MONTANARO: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Even for the fall debates. I believe, thus far, only seven of the candidates in total have qualified because the DNC has stricter criteria both on fundraising and in polling. And so even if the moderates were making a very strong push, say, someone like the former governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, or former Congressman John Delaney...

KEITH: Or Amy Klobuchar...

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

KEITH: ...The senator from Minnesota.

KHALID: Exactly. Like, they are not necessarily even guaranteed to be in that next debate, which to me makes me think, OK, fine, maybe this is an aberration. I don't know that we're going to see such a divide between moderates and progressives moving forward because it's more than likely that more of the progressives will make it through to the next debates.

MONTANARO: Yeah. But to be honest, you know, we started playing "Bye Bye Bye" for Eric Swalwell when he dropped out. You know, these candidates might not drop out, but if they're never back on the stage again and never able to speak to a national audience again after struggling to get their name ID up and struggling to get a large donor base, that's essentially the end of their campaigns for a lot of them.

KEITH: Another big question that we posed in our podcast sort of setting up this debate was, how will Warren and Sanders interact with each other on stage? They did not fight, per se, or even at all.

KHALID: No, they didn't. I mean, in fact, they had each other's back when some of those, you know, policies, say, around Medicare for All were being criticized. But I think it's worth pointing out that while they were largely endorsing the same policies, it was very clear that when it came to attitude and style how they're different from one another. I mean, there was a point where I believe it's Congressman Tim Ryan told Bernie Sanders you don't need to yell or you don't need to shout...

MONTANARO: You don't need to yell about it.

KHALID: Yeah. I mean, right? And - because there was a sense that Sanders was really animated in discussing this, particularly around health care, while Warren took, I think, sort of a more explanatory approach. No doubt, you know, she sort of did stand her ground when particular policies were criticized. But, to me, it was very clear that their tone and their style was different. And what will be interesting to watch is if folks want a progressive candidate, do they see Warren as the more pragmatic choice - I think, thus far, that's what we've been seeing - and has that solidified even further after tonight?

MONTANARO: And it's funny how it reflects on their campaigns, too, because we were in the spin room afterward, and we were talking to Sanders' campaign manager. And, you know, he said essentially, you know, he won - you know, he said that he didn't - not only did he write the damn bill, but he won the damn debate, right? And they said, sure, he gets animated, sure, he's feisty, but he wants that fight, right? And, you know, when you talk to the Warren folks, they're very reserved. They're - they seem to also have this degree to feeling like, you know, she won, she did a good job, and they're happy to refer you to the surrogates on the campaign but not to...

KHALID: Or to Warren herself, who apparently came through the spin room later in the evening, but we had to bounce out, so unfortunately we missed her.

KEITH: All right. Here at the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, we are providing a service for you, which is that if around the water cooler tomorrow people are talking about this debate, there may be one moment that they are talking about that has very little to do with health care or immigration or policy.

KURTZLEBEN: It was probably trade, right? TPP.

KEITH: No, Danielle. It is Marianne Williamson and one line she delivered in this debate...

KHALID: The dark psychic - sorry.

KEITH: Yes. You're giving away the punch line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIANNE WILLIAMSON: If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I'm afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days. We need to say it like it is. 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.

KHALID: You can mock what you want around what she was saying, but one very legitimate point I want to bring up about this is Marianne Williamson was, I believe, the first candidate to explicitly talk about race during this debate. That was about an hour and a half into the conversation. To me...

MONTANARO: And explicitly endorse reparations.

KHALID: And she talked about Flint in a way also that even Klobuchar, who was first asked that question, did not. And, you know, look; we've talked about this many, many times before on the podcast and in general that race is a big part of the Democratic primary debate just given their electorate. They are talking about race in ways that we didn't hear a couple years ago. And so to me, it was kind of profound given the dynamics that on stage tonight were - was an all-white field that Marianne Williamson was the one who sort of more explicitly talked about this than some of the other folks - or first more explicitly did, I should say.

KEITH: Well - and tomorrow night, it will not be an all-white field. Tomorrow night on the debate stage, you will have Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and Vice President Joe Biden will be at the center of the stage due to his very strong polling advantage in this race. So very quickly, what are you guys looking for for that debate?

KURTZLEBEN: For me, once again, it's that middle-class tax question that they talked about tonight with Medicare for All purely because Kamala Harris came out with her health care plan this week. Joe Biden immediately hit her on it and on the middle-class tax hike, the question of whether she would have to raise them. She says she won't. So you can expect to hear that debate all over again tomorrow.

MONTANARO: Biden's going to be at the center. He's going to get attacked on race and gender. Is he able to show that he's in some kind of prime form? I mean, he's been able to rebound, but if he can't show that he can stand on this debate stage and deliver a solid performance, you know, it could be make or break for him.

KEITH: Though, he does still have very dominant poll numbers, we should point out.

MONTANARO: You know, I wouldn't know if I'd say dominant poll numbers.

KHALID: Yeah. People often describe his support when you talk to pollsters as being somewhat broad but not necessarily deep.

KEITH: All right. Well, we will see what happens tomorrow night. And we will be back in your feeds after the second debate on CNN. If you want to join a live conversation with our NPR POLITICS fans, guess what. We now have a private Facebook group for you to meet other podcast listeners. We'll post questions and post analysis there. You can join by heading over to n.pr/politicsgroup. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the campaign.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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