What did we learn from the Detroit debates?
The Detroit Democratic presidential debates are in the books.
Joe Biden showed some fight. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders defended their similar liberal worldviews from low-polling moderates who warned of “fairy tale promises” and “wish-list economics.” And author Marianne Williamson, while still a fringe candidate, earned plenty of kudos (and Google searches) for some of her answers on reparations for slavery and environmental justice.
Here is what else we learned from two nights of the Detroit debates.
1. Joe Biden can take a punch, but he still has work to do.
From the moment he stepped on stage Wednesday, Biden seemed intent on sending the message that he was ready to tussle.
Biden at times looked like a deer-in-the-headlights at the Miami debate last month, coming under blistering attack by Sen. Kamala Harris for his past opposition to federallymandated school busing and his relationship with two segregationist lawmakers with whom he served in the Senate.
The former vice president and leader in Democratic polls made it clear from the get-go in Detroit that this time he understood it was going to be a knife fight.
“Tonight, I think Democrats are expecting some engagement here,” Biden said in his opening statement. “And I expect we’ll get it.”
He went after Harris early on over her version of “Medicare for All” that would be rolled out over a 10-year period.
“The senator’s had several plans so far, and anytime someone tells you you’re gonna get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years,” Biden said. “If you notice, there’s no talk about the fact that the plan in 10 years will cost $3 trillion. You will lose your employer-based insurance.”
Medicare for All? ‘Let’s talk about math’: Biden and Harris spar over healthcare
He also appeared ready when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came after him about a 1981 editorial in which he wrote that expanding the child care tax credit and allowing more women to work would subsidize “the deterioration of the family.”
In his response to Gillibrand, Biden reminded her that she was full of praise for his dedication to equality at a 2015 Syracuse University event to raise awareness about campus sexual assault.
“I don’t know what’s happened except that you’re now running for president,” Biden fired back.
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But he was less steady in his tough exchange with Sen. Cory Booker, who went after Biden for his role in advancing the 1994 crime bill that is widely cited as a prime factor in the mass incarceration of African Americans.
Biden tried to turn the tables on Booker, taking aim at him for the Newark Police Department embracing stop-and-frisk policies when Booker was mayor.
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“If you want to compare records, and frankly I’m shocked that you do, I am happy to do that,” Booker retorted. “There’s a saying in my community: You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”
But in the end, Biden showed he could both throw and take a punch.
It’s skill he’ll need to keep honing as long as he’s the Democratic front-runner and will need to perfect should he win the nomination and get to the debate stage with President Donald Trump.
2: The embrace of Obama may be a blessing and a curse.
Throughout both nights, candidates sought to bolster their chances by connecting their stances and policies to former President Barack Obama.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock noted on the first night of the debate that his opposition to decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing was the same stance as Obama’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Harris noted that Obama Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius endorsed her health care plan. And Biden didn’t miss a chance to remind voters that he’s the guy Obama picked to be his vice president.
More: ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid’ and the other top moments from Wednesday’s spirited debate
But the Obama connection cut both ways on the second night of the debate.
De Blasio questioned Biden on whether he supported the Obama administration’s wide-scale deportation of undocumented immigrants. Biden demurred.
“I was vice president. I was not the president,” Biden responded. “I keep my recommendation in private.”
Protesters at one point interrupted the debate, shouting while Biden spoke and referencing Obama’s history with deportations.
The former president’s legacy is a badge of honor for many but has also seen criticism from some on the left, and it could be a talking point as the campaign rolls on.
3. Cory Booker finally landed a big moment.
For months, Booker has been treading water in the polls, unable to crack into the top tier of candidates.
But on Wednesday, he landed some of the toughest blows against Biden and in the process breathed some much-needed oxygen into his campaign.
His sharpest exchange with Biden came as the two debated their records on criminal justice.
“Since the 1970s, every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it,” Booker said. “This is one of those instances when the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws.”
As Booker and Biden went back and forth, Biden misspoke and called Booker “the president” and then called him “the future president.”
Booker embraced the unintentional endorsement.
“First of all, I’m grateful that he endorsed my presidency already,” Booker said with a laugh.
Minutes after the debate ended, the Booker campaign was already selling stickers featuring a smiling photo of the New Jersey senator adorned with the “future president” quote from Biden.
4. The debate stage will almost certainly be less crowded next time.
The winnowing of the unwieldy Democratic field now seems inevitable.
Half of the contenders who made the stage in Detroit now face a steep climb to meet tougher polling and fundraising requirements the Democratic National Committee has set for next month’s debate in Houston.
For debates scheduled for September and October, candidates will have to hit 2% in four qualifying polls and tally at least 130,000 individual donors, according to the DNC guidance. For the first and second rounds of debates, the DNC required that candidates had to either hit at least 1% in three polls or receive campaign contributions from at least 65,000 donors.
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Seven candidates – Biden, Booker, Harris, Warren, Sanders, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke – say they have crossed the threshold. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and entrepreneur Andrew Yang are on the cusp.
It’s going to be tough sledding for the rest of the field. More than half of the candidates are routinely polling at less than 2%, and none had a real breakout moment in the debates that might have catapulted them into voters’ minds. So this may have been the last time you saw the likes of Jay Inslee or John Hickenlooper on the debate stage.
5. It’s going to be difficult for networks to keep viewers engaged in debates.
The good news from the first night of the debates: CNN drew more viewers (about 10 million) than the season finale of ABC’s “The Bachelorette” (7.2 million), according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research numbers.
The bad news: Viewership was way down from last month’s Miami debate, which drew 15.3 million viewers.
Prominent politicos groused during the first night of the debate that the format left them unsatisfied: too many candidates, too little time for cogent answers and too many big issues not getting enough attention.
With fewer candidates expected to qualify for the September and October debates, some of the gripes could be alleviated.
Media critics – and Sen. Sanders – also groused that the CNN moderators seemed intent on framing the questions in a manner to ensure conflict.
On Night 2 of the debate, Yang waxed during his closing statement about the absurdity of the theater of the event.
“Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million jobs away – hundreds and thousands right here in Michigan,” Yang said, “we’re up here with makeup on our faces and rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.”