5 key takeaways from the Democratic debate in Detroit

Ten candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination gathered Tuesday night in the Motor City for the first of two consecutive debates, and the event gave them an important opportunity to shine in front of a national audience.

Candidates polling in the lower tier of the field tried to score points by going after the progressive frontrunners on the stage, but Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren brushed them aside, while spiritualist author Marianne Williamson managed to transcend the morass with her comments on race and the “dark psychic forces” she believes are being driven by President Trump.

Below are five takeaways from Tuesday night’s debate:

1. The Sanders/Warren alliance holds

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Photo: Paul Sancya/AP)

The Sanders and Warren campaigns spent the days leading up to Tuesday’s debate stating that the two most progressive candidates in the race wouldn’t waste any time going after each other, but some still thought it possible there might be swipes between the highest polling contenders on stage. Instead, they presented a united front against a slew of more conservative candidates and moderators that Sanders accused of using Republican talking points. The tag team started with a defense of a single-payer Medicare for All system and culminated in a discussion of trade deals. After Warren stated that they favor multinational corporations over workers, Sanders simply stated, “Elizabeth is absolutely right.”

2. A tough night for John Delaney

Democratic presidential hopeful former US Representative for Maryland's 6th congressional district John Delaney participate in the first round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 30, 2019. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
John Delaney (Photo: Brendan Smialowsk/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney has consistently polled at zero percent despite spending a great deal of time and his own money on an effort to run as a moderate in the race. On Tuesday night, he suffered a series of blows as CNN seemed to repeatedly steer him into fight after fight with the progressive frontrunners. At one point, after Delaney finished speaking, Warren said, “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.” Shortly thereafter, his Wikipedia page was updated to say that he had been murdered by her words. Later, when moderators pointed out that Delaney and his net worth of $65 million would be affected by Warren’s proposed wealth tax, the camera caught the Massachusetts senator smiling and rubbing her hands together.

“If we’re being real, it’s possible that John Delaney spent two years of his life running for president so that he could become best known as an Elizabeth Warren gif,” wrote Los Angeles Times national correspondent Matt Pearce on Twitter.

3. Marianne’s moment

Self-help author Marianne Williamson, without much of a traditional political background beyond a single independent run for the House, mainly earned laughs and memes following her June debate performance, and criticism for controversial comments about vaccines. This time around, she had a number of moments that had the audience roaring with applause despite having the second-least amount of time of any of the candidates. She spoke about the lack of clean water in Flint, Mich., and her belief that it wouldn’t have happened in a white community like Grosse Pointe. Williamson also spoke about her support for reparations for slavery, calling them a “debt that is owed” to African-Americans in this country. She received perhaps her loudest cheers of the night after explaining her support for universal free college and questioning why some of her fellow candidates were on that particular stage.

“I’ve heard some people here tonight — I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” said Williamson. “You seem to think there’s something wrong about using instruments of government to help people. That is what government should do. All policies should help people thrive. That is how we will have peace and that is how we will have prosperity.”

4. The debate over reparations

Williamson wasn’t the only candidate to discuss reparations, a topic that was mostly absent during the first Democratic presidential debates in Miami. It took center stage in Detroit, however, when former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke raised it during a discussion on what co-moderator Don Lemon called President Trump’s “bigotry.”

“I want to acknowledge something that we’re all touching on, which is the very foundation of this country, the wealth that we have built, the way we became the greatest country on the face of the planet was literally on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force,” O’Rourke said. “The legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression is alive and well in every aspect of the economy and in the country.”

O’Rourke said that as president he would sign into law a bill that would form a committee on reparations so that “we can have the national conversation we’ve waited too long in this country to have.”

Williamson scoffed at the idea of studying the issue.

“We don’t need another commission to look at evidence,” Williamson said. “It is time for us to simply realize that this country will not heal — all that a country is is a collection of people. People heal when there is some deep truth telling. We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with.”

5. Bullock wobbles late

Steve Bullock
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

In his first debate appearance alongside his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock seemed to stumble while arguing for U.S. denuclearization.

Bullock said he agreed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s assertion that the United States ought to reduce its nuclear weapons arsenal.

“We need to get back to nuclear proliferation,” Bullock said.

“What?” a puzzled Warren asked.

“When you have folks — de-proliferation,” Bullock stammered. “Reducing that.”

Earlier in the night, the Montana governor, who has billed himself as a moderate Democrat who won in a red state, had a stronger exchange when he challenged Warren’s plan to decriminalize migrant border crossings.

“You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” Bullock said. “I think this is part of the discussion that shows how often these debates are detached from people’s lives.

“We got a hundred thousand people showing up at the border right now,” he added. “If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that. Don’t take my word. That was President Obama's homeland security secretary that said that.”

Democratic presidential candidates
Candidates at the beginning of the second Democratic presidential debate. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)


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