In a nationally televised debate Wednesday night -- featuring half a cattle car of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates -- the first 10 stood in alphabetical order on a Miami stage arguing with their party, with each other, of course with President Donald Trump. But mostly, they were introducing themselves to America, doing their darndest to stand out in a crowd.
The candidates: Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Bill deBlasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Tim Ryan and Elizabeth Warren. Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Diaz-Balart, representing NBC, CNBC and Telemundo, moderated. The second 10 candidates will do the same thing Thursday night.
Well-prepared Warren came in as the candidate to beat; Castro as a side character. But the former Housing and Urban Development secretary quickly became the breakthrough surprise, and by the end of the night a social media winner. Both Warren and Castro raised their game by ditching their scripts and speaking like human beings.
Surprisingly, no candidate went gunning for frontrunner Joe Biden. His first 10 rivals gave him a free pass, even though he wasn't there to fight back. They concentrated instead on taking shots at Trump and controversial policies like Medicare-for-all, keeping Roe v. Wade alive and well, and calls to decriminalize illegal border crossings. The former vice president probably won't be as lucky when it's his turn on the debate stage Thursday night.
One subject besides immigration expected to dominate the night was climate change. But it took moderators 90 minutes before broaching the subject. And in all it occupied only 10 minutes of the evening -- probably not enough time for Washington Governor Jay Inslee, the self-proclaimed climate candidate. Climate is his most prominent issue ... uhhh, except ...
When asked what the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States is, only four candidates replied "climate change": Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro. What was Inslee's response? “Donald Trump.”
The other candidates said nuclear war, China, and Russia. And so ended a lightning round of questions about climate change in a city that broke heat records during the last week -- a city some scientists claim is sinking into the sea.
Inslee did finally mention his $9 trillion climate change plan, defending the cost by claiming it will add years of great-paying union jobs. And Warren talked about her industrial policy proposal, calling it an opportunity for American innovation. "There's going to be a worldwide need for green technology," she said to applause. "We can provide that.
One thing the ten presidential hopefuls barely touched was the economy.
Moderators opened the evening with a simple statistic -- 72 percent of Americans believe the economy is going well, one of them said.
For the next few minutes, the 10 did everything they could think of to explain why 72 percent of Americans are wrong.
The tone deafness from the Democratic field was as clear as Beto O’Rourke’s pre-rehearsed Spanish soundbites. Warren did find one response. The economy is working for big oil companies, she said, but not for ordinary people.
Adam Brandon, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, had this to say about the debaters' inability to explain why citizens would have such a high opinion of the economy: "Americans know better, and they know prosperity when they see it.
"A Midwestern small business owner knows things are going well when he can hire more employees and afford to give them a raise. A suburban L.A. parent knows prosperity when she can easily afford to buy her child’s school supplies and pay for summer camp. A New York start-up knows prosperity when its leaders have the freedom to operate when and wherever they choose.
"Americans know economic prosperity when they see it, and they don’t need a field of out-of-touch, big government Democrats starring in a version of 'The Emperor’s New Clothes'.”
Warren of Massachusetts did imply that today’s economy isn’t good for normal people. But record low unemployment and rising wages for the first time in years for the lowest income bracket beg to differ
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey bemoaned that small businesses are struggling -- particularly in marginalized communities. What he failed to mention, said Brandon, was that minority entrepreneurship and job growth has hit record highs in the past two years.
Former Hud secretary Castro chimed in that we need to make the economy work for women. He must not have noticed that more than half the jobs in the past couple of years have gone to women and that times have never been better for female business owners.
Warren came back to finish off her bad-faith appraisal of the U.S. economy by calling for a “structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.” For all the left’s talk of President Trump “destroying democratic norms,” Brandon said, a total systemic overhaul is bound to come off as hypocritical to the American voter in 2020.
When the debate ended, Terrie Rizzo, Florida Democratic Party chair, issued this statement: “Our party’s first night’s slate talked about their ideas and shared their visions for the future with Floridians. They reminded the American people that Democrats are the party of ideas and the party for the people. Thank you to all of tonight’s candidates, and onward to the second night of the first Democratic Presidential Primary Debate tomorrow evening!”
Republican National Committee spokesperson Rick Gorka issued a statement of his own: "Tonight, we saw the Democrat Party advocate for open borders and proudly raise their hands to eliminate our choice of healthcare for our families. These socialist policies would kill our economy and put Americans out of work. The fact remains, President Donald Trump has restarted our economy and reestablished American leadership around the world. Voters know that President Trump has delivered on his word and it is why Democrats will lose in 2020.”
At 9 p.m. ET Thursday, NBC, CNBC and Telemundo viewers can see the second round of the 2020 Democratic Primary Debates with these candidates on stage: Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kristen Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.
If you missed Wednesday's debate and want to view all two hours of it, click here.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith