During last week’s second round of Democratic debates, we got to spend more time with the 20 highest scoring competitors for the party’s presidential nomination. Each tried to cram detailed policy positions and “attack zingers” into one-minute answers to moderator questions, and 15-second replies to the positions of others. While this round featured slightly more direct “debating” between some of the candidates, none had time to provide much more than expanded bumper sticker-phrased responses on complex and nuanced policy issues.

True, we managed to put faces to names like Bullock, Bennet, Gabbard and Hickenlooper, and were treated to entertaining pitches from the likes of Williamson and Yang, but what we really got was a better sense of which candidates are progressives and which are moderates — even if there were too many of them, and some of their differences on issues are paper-thin.

There were some pretty clear takeaways: For the front-runner group, former Vice President Joe Biden did much better than his lackluster performance during the first round of debates; Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) seemed flustered by criticism; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) didn’t advance his cause; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) was widely touted as the “winner” of the two-night show. 

The more interesting action came from the lower-tier candidates, most of whom will not make it to the next round in September. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) stepped up his game and showed renewed promise; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg remained thoughtful and articulate; former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) were all impressive, but not good enough to get sufficient traction to materially elevate their standing. 

If there was a surprise, it was the debaters’ criticism of former President Barack Obama. Like a circular firing squad, the candidates took aim at several Obama programs and actions, which left front-runner Biden in a lonely soliloquy proclaiming his pride and role in the Obama legacy. 

Notably, the debate focused almost exclusively on domestic issues, with virtually no discussion of foreign policy. That disappointed Israel supporters who were anxious to hear comforting messages of support and feared hackle-raising comments about occupation and the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. But that was not to be, at least for this round, since questioners recognized that Democratic voters are more focused on jobs, health care, immigration policy, race relations, gun laws, economic equality and policy — and replacing Trump in the White House — than they are on complex foreign policy issues. 

As the field narrows in the coming months, and the candidates’ policy positions are refined, we hope the discussion among Democrats moves from the idealistic and progressive left toward the historic center, so as to give voters meaningful choices in next November’s election. JN

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