4 Big Takeaways From the DNC Debates in Detroit

The most contentious topics and the bitterest rivalries at the Fox Theatre this week
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DNC debates

Democratic presidential candidates gathered at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on July 30 and 31 for the second round of the DNC Debates. Didn’t get a chance to watch or looking to further understand what you did see? Here are four of the biggest takeaways from the two-night political event.

The first night of debates split democrats into two teams

With Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders playing for the progressives and Congressman Tim Ryan, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Congressman John Delaney, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock playing for the moderates, the two senators spent most of the night defending their ideas and attempting to convince Democratic voters that their bolder ideas didn’t make them in-electable — a sizable concern when the one thing everyone on the stage did agree on was that one of them needs to beat Donald Trump in 2020. The two sides clashed over almost every topic, including whether the country should end employer-based health care and switch to a single-payer system (moderates say it shouldn’t), whether the U.S. border should be decriminalized (progressives say it should), and whether the Green New Deal is the best way to handle climate change (moderates say it isn’t). But this structure also meant that Sanders and Warren, the two highest-polling progressives in the race, never went head-to-head.

Biden is still on the defense

The first night of debates on July 31 read like a war of ideas fought between progressives and moderates. While this theme also played a role in the July 31 debates, the real war was fought between former Vice President Joe Biden and, well, everybody else. Biden presented a stronger defense than in the first round of debates and even turned to the offense during some arguments. But still, he was hard-pressed to fight off attacks from all directions. As the front-runner for Democratic nominee, he was the main focus of everyone else of the stage. He endured criticism from Sen. Kamala Harris on many things, including his previous support for the Hyde Amendment, which would block the use of federal funds for abortions. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also commented on a sexist op-ed Biden wrote in opposition of a childcare tax credit, and Sen. Cory Booker spoke on Biden’s part in the 1994 “tough on crime” bill, which some say caused mass incarceration and disproportionately affected people of color.

Harris is gaining traction — and scrutiny

People started looking at Harris more seriously after her scathing offense against Biden in the first round of debates in June. This moment — namely when she condemned his opposition to a 1970s bill that aimed to desegregate schools using federally mandated busing — saw her numbers surge in the polls. She attracted the attention of voters, but also that of her fellow candidates. This time, when they weren’t going after Biden, they set their sights on her. The debate opened on health care and some contenders wasted no time before setting in on Harris’ Medicare-for-all plan. Released on July 29, the plan involves a 10-year transition and — as Biden was sure to point out — would cost $3 trillion. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard also took aim at Harris’ track record as attorney general of California. “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said. Biden chimed in as well, citing an evidence-tampering scandal that occurred during her time as San Francisco district attorney and resulted in the dismissal of more than 1,000 drug cases. Gaining so much support this early in the race may seem promising for Harris, but some wonder whether her offensive strategies will pay off in the long run, or if they will simply put a larger target on her back.

The hottest topic? Medicare for all

During the first night of debates, Congressman Ryan interrupted Sanders’ insistences that his Medicare-for-all plan would offer coverage just as good as what is offered by employers, saying, “You don’t know that. You don’t know that, Bernie.” Sen. Sanders attracted cheers and headlines with the reply: “I do know. I wrote the damn bill.” The stand-out moment is an incisive representation of the tension that surrounded the topic of health care during both nights of the DNC debates in Detroit. Moderate Democrats, like Delaney, Biden, Bullock, and Ryan say a Medicare-for-all plan will criminalize the health care plans many working citizens receive from their employers — plans the moderates say Americans should be allowed the choice to keep. Progressive-leaning democrats, like Sanders, Warren, Harris, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are concerned that anything else will leave some Americans still without any health care at all. Moderate candidates prefer plans that allow a public option, and some say these plans would eventually create a single-payer system as people increasingly chose government health care over private insurance. Progressives say it’s not enough. One thing they all seem to agree on is that something needs to change.


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