Elizabeth Warren began Wednesday night’s opening debate of the 2020 Democratic primary campaign physically occupying center stage. And substantively, the Massachusetts senator held that ground.
It was not at all obvious that being the only one of the top five Democratic candidates in this first gaggle of 10 contenders would be an asset. Most of the drama has been reserved for Night Two, when former vice president Joe Biden will join Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, as well as Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for a kind of showdown.
But from the very first question, Warren made the most of her standing. NBC’s Savannah Guthrie accepted the premise of her campaign — listing some of her “many plans” for the economy — but wondered whether they would go over well “when 71% of Americans say the economy is doing well, including 60% of Democrats.”
Warren did not back down. "Who is this economy really working for? It's doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. ... When you've got an economy that does great for those with money and isn't doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on."
Yet Warren by no means dominated the evening, and while her voice stayed strong, it became, as the night went on, one among many. In truth, Democrats could feel good about this batch of candidates, the substance of the conversation, and the fact that — despite a lively divide on single-payer health care — the party is far more in consensus than at odds.
It was impossible to watch this serious exchange of views and not ponder the 2016 Republican debates and their dominance by Donald Trump and his antics. No Democrat (and we can be thankful for this) tried to stand out in the ways Trump did. Their swipes at each other, such as they were, were mostly subtle, respectful and substantive. No talk of small hands or low energy. Perhaps that reflects a collective Democratic campaign promise: No more indecency, no more recklessness — and, it is not too much to say, no more idiocy.
Nearly every other candidate had at least one forceful moment. Both Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and former HUD secretary Julián Castro assailed Trump's policies on immigrant children with passion and clarity.
"What kind of country are we running here?" Ryan asked, arguing that the president's policies were a sign of weakness, not strength. Later, Ryan alluded to his Youngstown, Ohio, background by saying that Democrats needed "someone from the forgotten communities that have been left behind for the last 30 years."
Castro brought down the house when he said that, when it came to migrants fleeing poverty and violence, it was wrong to "criminalize desperation." And when he was specifically asked about his Latino background, he shrewdly pivoted to reach out to African Americans and spoke of his proposals to reform policing of minority communities.
Former Maryland congressman John Delaney, running as the practical, moderate businessman in the field, pushed back against Medicare-for-all because, he said, it would unnecessarily move people off private insurance and offered what could be the theme of his entire effort: "I think we should be the party that keeps what's working and fixes what's broken."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), fighting for middle-ground voters, also opposed a single-payer system. But her best line was a pushback against mansplaining after several male candidates had expressed their views on abortion (which were not much different from her own). "There are three women up here," she said, "who've fought pretty hard for women's right to choose."
As the conversation continued, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) assumed a steadily larger role on a broad range of issues, and took the strongest stand of all the candidates on gun control, rooting it in his experience of violence in his own Newark neighborhood. "If you need a license to drive a car," he said, "you should need a license to buy and own a firearm."
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio cast himself as a down-the-line progressive, pushing his way into the discussion and refusing to fade into second-tier status. Democrats, he said, "should stop acting like the party of elites and start looking like the party of working people."
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) spoke of her experience as an Iraq War veteran, saying it allowed her to understand "the importance of our national security, as well as the terribly high cost of war."
And Beto O'Rourke, who was measured all evening, won the crowd, and no doubt the hearts of many Democrats, when the former congressman from Texas endorsed impeachment. "If we allow him to get away with this with complete impunity," he said, referring to Trump, "we will set a new standard." He promised "consequences," "accountability" and "justice."
Throughout, Trump loomed in a Voldemort way. Every answer had a subtext: I'm tough, I'm ready, and I can take on Trump. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee drew a raucous response — and spoke for nearly everyone in his party — when he declared: "The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump."
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group