HOUSTON — It was a night of “onlys” in Texas, as the 10 Democratic candidates on the debate stage tried to make the case that they were singularly prepared to take on Donald Trump in next year’s presidential election.
The case was difficult to make, even during a debate that lasted three hours, but virtually every candidate tried.
“I'm the only one up here that’s ever beat the NRA — only one ever to beat the NRA nationally,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator from Delaware worked on the assault weapons ban. That ban was part of a broader 1994 crime bill that, many progressives believe, led to the mass incarceration of young men of color.
The assault weapons ban expired during the Bush administration, and many Americans want some version of it reinstituted, even as other parts of the 1994 crime bill have become increasingly unpopular.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has been among those working to reverse the trend of mass incarceration fostered by that bill, and by other developments, took credit for “the only major bipartisan bill to pass under this president, for criminal justice reform.” That bill, called the First Step Act, eased sentencing guidelines and shortened prison terms for federal inmates. Booker worked on the bill with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and many other legislators and outside groups.
Seeking to highlight her foreign policy expertise, Sen. Kamala Harris of California said she was “the only person on this stage” to serve on “the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee.” It was Harris’s tough performance during intelligence hearings in the early days of the Trump presidency that first launched talk of a 2020 presidential bid by the junior senator from the Golden State.
Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is also on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he did not qualify for the Houston debate. No other current presidential candidate sits on the Homeland Security Committee.
It fell to ABC moderator David Muir to point out that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was “the only veteran on this stage.” Buttigieg served in a naval intelligence unit that has been popular among the politically ambitious as a way to gain military experience. Buttigieg said that “as a military officer,” he strove to not let down “somebody that you are responsible for in uniform.” The exchange allowed Buttigieg to distinguish himself as an expert in foreign policy, even as he continues to face criticism that South Bend’s city hall is insufficient preparation for the White House.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, similarly tried to reassure voters that he has the foreign policy experience necessary to run the nation: His singular focus on income inequality has left questions unanswered about how he would deal with foreign adversaries like China and Russia.
“I am the only person up here to have voted against all three of Trump’s military budgets,” he said at one point during the lengthy debate, as both candidates and viewers seemed to be battling exhaustion.
Seeking to highlight her own modest upbringing — and to definitively distinguish herself from Sanders, with whom she shares many ideas — Warren harked back to a time before she was a Harvard professor or U.S. senator.
“I think I’m the only person on this stage who has been a public school teacher,” Warren said. She spoke of increasing funding for education through a wealth tax and vowed to hire a public school teacher as her federal education secretary. The current secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire activist with no experience in public education.
Booker even tried a little humor. “I’m the only person on this stage that finds Trudeau’s hair very menacing,” the bald senator said, referring to the well-coiffed Canadian leader. Booker is, indeed, the only bald candidate, and would be the first bald president since Dwight Eisenhower. Alas, the self-deprecating joke did not appear to land well with the audience, and little laughter was audible.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, tried to highlight that she was the only candidate from the Upper Midwest, which the Democrats will need to win if they are to reclaim the White House. “I know a lot of my friends here from the left, but remember, I am from the middle of the country,” she said, an apparent dig at senators from states like California, Massachusetts and Vermont, all generally considered bastions of elite coastal liberalism.
Klobuchar added that she was “someone who believes in America and believes it from their heart because of where they came from.”
Her campaign has been largely predicated on the notion that she was “Midwestern nice” and therefore palatable to suburban Republicans and centrist Democrats turned off by progressive rhetoric. But the campaign has never recovered from allegations that Klobuchar was abusive to staffers on her campaign and in her Senate office.
Even candidates who weren’t at the debate tried similar tactics. “Despite having 10 candidates on stage, something was still clearly missing from tonight's debate: someone who has actually delivered real change for working people,” wrote New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Twitter.
Judging by users’ responses, however, the unpopular, scandal-plagued mayor is not widely regarded as the Democrats’ last, best hope.
And, of course, there was President Trump’s vow during the 2016 Republican National Convention, when he told Americans that he was uniquely equipped to be their president.
“I alone can fix it,” Trump said at the time.
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