Debate Night: The ‘On Politics’ Breakdown

Hi, and welcome to a special post-debate edition of On Politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

Raise your hand if you knew John Delaney was running for president before last night’s debate.

Oh, Mrs. Delaney, thanks for reading!

The former Maryland congressman may not end up as our next president. But it sure seemed like he was cast in the role of Joe Biden on Tuesday.

In a debate that went deep on substance, beginning with a detailed discussion of health care, Mr. Delaney became a favorite punching bag of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. When he questioned the “Medicare for all” proposal, Mr. Sanders shot back: “You’re wrong.”

For Ms. Warren, Mr. Delaney’s criticism led to one of the most memorable lines of the night: “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,” she said, firing back at his charges that her ideas were unrealistic.

It’s worth noting that Mr. Delaney barely breaks 1 percent in the polls. And he didn’t even get close to the most speaking time during the debate, clocking in below six other candidates.

So this isn’t actually *about* Mr. Delaney. This is about the larger debate happening in the Democratic Party: The fight between a more moderate wing that wants to return to a pre-Trump “normal” and an energized progressive flank calling for “political revolution” and “big systemic change.”

Not to say we called it but, well, we called it.

For the progressives, Mr. Delaney, who lacks a serious political following, offered a fairly low-risk target to practice the attacks they’re likely to one day wield against Mr. Biden.

A side effect of Mr. Delaney being the progressives’ favorite foil? Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg getting lost in the larger fight. Neither of the men really captured any memorable lines. That’s particularly problematic for Mr. O’Rourke, who has seen his momentum slow considerably since he entered the race in March.

Though some pundits built up a rivalry between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, the two progressive leaders in the campaign telegraphed no desire to attack each other in the days leading up to their debate. They kept to that nonaggression pact throughout the night, to the benefit of both their candidacies. Rather than battle each other, they left as joint victors, having captured the few viral moments of the evening.

One other notable nugget: Marianne Williamson. After her appearance in the first set of debates, Ms. Williamson was widely mocked. Republicans even started a campaign to keep her in the debate. Fewer are laughing after her second showing. The author and spiritual adviser delivered a sharp answer on reparations, putting a specific price tag on an issue that the rest of the field would prefer to talk about in generalities.

Yes, she still warned of “dark psychic forces” in politics. Yes, she still promised “radical truth-telling.” But in her quest to be taken seriously as a political candidate, Ms. Williamson was no longer relegated to the comic relief of the evening.

Speaking of comic relief, I love this little monkey. May it be the first of many gifs that come out of tonight’s debate.



My colleague Reid Epstein found Charles Barkley in the corner of the spin room. It was the basketball Hall of Famer’s first political debate, but Mr. Barkley is no stranger to television, having spent 19 seasons on TNT’s NBA halftime and postgame shows.

REID: Why are you here?

BARKLEY: I came here to see Julián Castro and Pete Buttigieg. Those are the two guys I like the most, so I came to see both of them in person. I think Mayor Pete was fantastic tonight and I’m really looking forward to seeing Julián tomorrow.

It’s hard to judge these things because they don’t really get a chance to say anything, to be honest with you. You never get to explain anything, that would be the best way to say it. You can say, ‘I want to get rid of all college debt, I want to do Medicare for all.’ Those sound great, but you got to do a little bit more than that in how you’re going to pay for it.

How do you know Julián Castro?

When Julián was mayor of San Antonio, I spent a lot of time with him when I was there for Spurs games. But I tell you, Bernie Sanders, he’s a live wire, him and Elizabeth Warren. They’ve got great charisma. But like I say, it’s just too many people right now. You can’t ask a question and get a definite answer.

How did you get a ticket?

I came here with Turner (the parent company of CNN and TNT). They took care of me. That’s the least they can do, they work me like a dog.


It was one of the most substantive presidential primary debates in recent memory. Here are six takeaways.

With a few knockout exchanges, Bernie Sanders showed that he can still own the Democratic debate. And, on this night, the Democratic debate stage.

As a group of moderate underdogs sought to slow their momentum, Mr. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren formed something of an ideological tag team to defend their shared agenda.

Pete Buttigieg and Steve Bullock both spoke in stark terms about how the epidemic of gun violence had personally affected them.

Here are Marianne Williamson’s answers on race and reparations.

A look at the key matchups to watch during tonight’s debate.


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