Represent NYC: Discussion on Democratic Primary Debate

August 11, 2019

The first two 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate debates took place in June and July, with a record breaking 26 candidates (only 20 qualified for the debates). With the qualifications getting stricter for the third debate, the fight is only getting tougher, forcing some candidates to drop out of the race. Candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders currently hold the top three preferred Democratic candidates, but this is not stopping other Presidential hopefuls like New York Senator Kristen Gillibran and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from continuing to campaign for their Presidential run. Even with many trying to turn the White House blue, do they stand a chance in the 2020 Election?

Represent NYC, guest-host Christina Greer, is joined by Brigid Bergin, City Hall and Politics Reporter for WNYC, Jeff C. Mays, Reporter for the NY Times, and Matt McDermott, Director of Whitman Insight Strategies, to discuss the Democratic Primary Debate.

Aired August 11th, 2019.


DISCLAIMER:  Please be advised that this transcription was done from an audio recording by an out of house service; therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted.  If there is an issue please contact MNN

Dr. Greer: Hello and welcome to a special edition of Represent NYC on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. I'm Dr. Christina Greer. 20 of the Democratic primary candidates debated last week. It was the second round of debates. They had lots to say, but what did it mean and what did we learn? Joining me now are the New York Times political reporter Jeff Mays, WNYC political reporter Brigid Bergin, and political strategist Matt McDermott. Thank you all for being here. Let's do it. Okay. There's a lot to discuss. Let's start with, can you all each go around and just give us a little bit, what did you learn from two nights of these debates with 20 Democratic candidates on the stage? Jeff, let's start with you.

Jeff Mays: I learned that I can't wait until this field gets whittled down, because there were just way too many people up there, way too many views. It was hard to get to the heart of the matter on a lot of issues. You know, a lot of infighting between the Democratic party, and wondering whether this will hurt their chances to beat Trump. So I think what this field needs now is like a cudgel, and just chop it in half.

Brigid Bergin: I think two main things. One, we saw on full display this ideological division within the Democratic party. Are we the party of the progressive left, or are we the party of a more pragmatic path? And ultimately, which one of those choices will defeat Donald Trump? And then the other piece of it, you have a lot of these people, of these candidates, presidential candidates, full egos on display, but what is clear is people aren't necessarily absorbing the lesson of 2018, which was Democrats had a consistent message. It was all about, "Republicans want your health care." And at this point, these candidates are all over the place even on some of those fundamentals, that when you think about getting into the actual 2020 Republican Democrat contest, it feels like it's so unclear what the Democratic message will be.

Dr. Greer: What about you, Matt?

Matt McDermott: Yeah. I think my takeaway is this. I think for the first time in really 30 years, Democrats have an open race for the presidency. I think the former Vice President has maintained a lead in the polls, a fairly narrow lead compared to previous election cycles, and I think we're starting to see in these debates very clear competitors who can challenge him for the nomination. I think Senator Warren, Senator Harris have both made a position for themselves and a real case for why they want to win this election. And so I think we continue to see the Vice President with a lead in the polling, but I think once we start whittling this field down over the next month or two, we'll probably only have 10 candidates in the next debate. I think there's going to be a real opportunity to the points that have been made, to really have a debate dynamic in which these top candidates can challenge the Vice President for that lead and national polls.

Dr. Greer: So I want to follow up with each of you for something that you've said. So Jeff, you said it's too many people. Has the criteria been too expansive up until this point? I mean, the point of a democracy and sort of a Democratic primary is to give us options to hear about the ideological differences that Brigid mentioned within the party. Do you think that we should have had sort of tighter restrictions earlier on so that we didn't have two nights of 20 people twice?

Jeff Mays: Not necessarily. I mean, I agree with the options being as broad as possible to get as many people involved as possible, but maybe the debate formats, I don't know, 10 people on the stage, it just got muddled. The messages got muddled, and you had a lot of the minor candidates who, their job at this point is just to get any sort of attention. Kind of messing with, when when the debate got good, people would throw it off with some issue. And I think part of the problem is that's going to cause problems later, because what you saw is people starting to attack some of these issues in a way that I think is actually helpful to Republicans.

Dr. Greer: Right. Matt, I saw you shaking your head.

Matt McDermott: Yeah, I think Jeff's exactly right. I think the debate so far has been great. It's great to have a variety of voices. It's great to have a diverse set of voices, but I think it's very obvious after the first two sets of debates why front runners are front runners, and why some of these other candidates have no support nationally and aren't raising the money they need to win a national campaign. And so while this debate's been great, I think the DNC is right to start to narrow this field down so we can take these top contenders and have an actual ideological debate about where this party should be going and where this party wants to take this country under Trump.

Dr. Greer: Right. And so Brigid, I wanted to actually follow up with you because you did some of the most, I would say, substantive reporting in 2016, in Brooklyn especially, about some of the ideological differences between Bernie and Hillary, and some of the dissatisfaction that a lot of Democratic primary voters experienced when going to the polls. And so can you flesh out what you saw on stage with some of the ... Some people say it's a civil war within the Democratic party right now with the hardcore progressives on the left, and then more centrists who want to try and get disaffected Republicans and Independents into the fold. What is your thinking kind of moving from what you reported on in 2016 to 2019?

Brigid Bergin: So I think part of what happened in 2016 and has been well reported at this point was-

Dr. Greer: But you started it. I just want to put it out there.

Brigid Bergin: It was that there was a lot of grassroots engagement. People who had not been previously tapped by a political candidate and engaged by a political candidate, and who felt like they were part of a movement. And I think that is, to quote our current Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she has said in the past, "We met the machine with the movement." I think there's some of that still happening within the Democratic party, that there are people who believe, certainly Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and their supporters, that this is a moment for structural change in how we govern, what the government is responsible for providing to its citizens, and for people who are struggling, that message may resonate. And whether they are left or left out, that message has the opportunity to resonate. There are Trump voters who that will resonate with.

Then there are more traditional Democrats, people who have been working in the party system who have been governing for a long time, who've gone through the process of making legislation, who see some of what these candidates are offering is just so far from what is doable given the current makeup of these legislative bodies. Because remember, this is not something that the President will do on their own. And so I think we're going to continue to see that kind of fight. We're going to see it certainly at the local level, and to the extent that what is happening at the local level bubbles up, I think that's going to be the real fight within the Democratic party. Are we talking about restructuring some of the services the government provides, or are we talking about something that's more pragmatic, something that is, quote, "doable," and will that be enough to pull Trump supporters away?

Dr. Greer: Right. So thinking about, "Will it be enough to pull Trump supporters away?" Was there anyone on the stage who sort of broke through? I'll start with you, Matt, because I know you were sitting there on your computer probably watching this whole debate, but was there anyone who broke through in the course of the two nights where you said, "Hmm, we might really see them emerge in September and October as a real front runner, and someone who could challenge Biden in a way that maybe we weren't thinking of before?"

Matt McDermott: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think, frankly, in both of these debates, and in the last series of debates, I think Elizabeth Warren has made the strongest case to date as to why her candidacy exists and why she should lead Democrats moving forward. I guess I take a bit of a contrarian take to this. I don't know if we necessarily have a divide right now between progressives and centrists in the party. I think we're seeing more clearly now in this set of debates we're having a debate between essentially change and status quo, and the Joe Bidens of the world are making a passionate case about why we need to have status quo and go back to the presidency of Barack Obama, and why that was a strong position for Democrats. I think the Warrens of the world are making a very strong case that we need change, and that the Democratic presidency of the last eight years under Obama, while great, could have been better, and here's why.

And so I think Warren's made a very clear case for what that change looks like and why can not only mobilize the base of Democrats, but win over Independents. Honestly, there's very few others on the stage right now that have made as strong a case. I think Senator Harris has tried to make that case, and I think in the release of her healthcare plan this week, she's moving in that direction. But I think we've just seen on a few different occasions, Warren is able to take hold of that debate stage unlike other candidates, and make a case in contrast to the Bidens of the world why that voice should be representing the party.

Dr. Greer: Yeah. I mean, I think some of the praise that I've heard for Warren is that she's creating a structural argument about historical structures that have been broken, by creating a vision. Anyone who has a campaign where organically the slogan is, "I have a plan for that," that's not Elizabeth Warren's slogan. That's just an organic slogan that emerged. And so I do think you're correct in saying the status quo, which is a lot of people don't really think that there's a structural problem. Once Trump is removed, things will go back to normal, but their normal has been pretty much the boot on the neck of a lot of people historically and structurally. For you all is there-

Jeff Mays: That's the case that Biden is trying to make, right? That he's going to bring things back to the way they were before.

Dr. Greer: The good old days.

Jeff Mays: But there were no good old days, to be honest. And the reason that I think Elizabeth Warren has been so appealing to so many people is she gets to the heart of this myth that there's this mythical Trump voter, this white working class person that is just disaffected and hurt by the economy, and that's why they voted for Trump, when we actually know that a lot of Trump supporters were wealthier white people, and we also know that African Americans are going to make up 25% of the electorate in this upcoming general election. So there needs to be a way to address the base.

When Obama was running for President, black people stood on line until 8:00 or 9:00 to vote. They were not leaving. You need to have that sort of excitement to be able to drive the base to the polls. Hillary Clinton didn't do that, and that's why she lost key states. She did not have that level of support from the base of the party. So when I think you start focusing on, "How do we get back these disaffected Trump voters?" Then you start losing something. You start losing some of those issues. What Elizabeth Warren is doing is saying, "I have these issues that are important to the base of the party, to even so-called disaffected Trump voters." She's putting the issues out there in a way that no other candidate right now is.

Dr. Greer: Brigid, what do you think?

Brigid Bergin: I do think Senator Warren has been most effective in the first and second round of debates, and this was going to be a real test for her in this second round of debates, because she was sharing the stage with Senator Sanders, who is theoretically her ideological counterpart who has been at this, who didn't have a great first debate performance, and certainly had a much better second debate performance. And still, she I think emerged as one of the clearest and most ... A clearer alternative to some of the other candidates. In the second night of debates, that I found altogether there were a lot of candidates who I think we won't see a lot longer in that field.

Matt McDermott: Thank god.

Dr. Greer: Gosh, a polite way to say it. It's like, "They gotta go."

Brigid Bergin: And there are some candidates who I think are clearly folks who may be positioning themselves for a potential vice presidency.

Dr. Greer: That's where I would love to pivot, so thank you for teeing it up. I want to hear from all of you, so please continue. Who do you see emerging as ... Unfortunately it's like we've kind of had JV and varsity, but now it seems as though we're breaking the pack into presidential candidates, vice presidential candidates, people who need to go back to their day jobs, and many of them don't have day jobs, and so it explains why they're on that stage. So who do you all see, Brigid, I'll start with you, emerging as to the VP contenders? And I know it'll depend on some of the demographics emerging from whoever gets the presidential nominee.

Brigid Bergin: Absolutely.

Dr. Greer: But as of now, who do you all feel is making the case that they should be in the conversation, but maybe just not as a president?

Brigid Bergin: I would add additionally, to frame your question, candidates at this point, candidates are still struggling to qualify for the third debate. It's got a higher fundraising threshold, a higher polling threshold. And so part of what is shaping how I think some of this stuff is shaking out is, "Is this person maybe going to make the stage, but still not necessarily a front runner, but has been effective enough to start gaining some momentum and is clearly speaking to a constituency?" I think Secretary Julian Castro definitely has made an impression in both the first and the second debates. It was fascinating in this second round of debates that he was the first person to bring up what is a very specific New York City issue, talking about the death of Eric Garner and how officer Daniel Pantaleo had at that point not received any punishment from the NYPD, didn't speak directly to Mayor Bill de Blasio who he was sharing the stage with, but protesters in that room were, and it was clearly he was using it as an opportunity to talk about flaws in the criminal justice system-

Dr. Greer: Because he also mentioned Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner. And he's also the only one who looked in the camera and said, "Donald Trump is a racist."

Brigid Bergin: So I think-

Dr. Greer: Anyone else?

Brigid Bergin: I have followed the candidacy of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York. It's a candidacy that has struggled to gain momentum nationally, though I thought her performance in the second round of debates was certainly better than our first, and depending on the top of the ticket, could be an interesting VP candidate. Has made clear that her leadership as a woman is very central to who she is, and is unafraid of talking about that. And as a woman, I appreciate someone who doesn't make that a woman's issue, but makes that an issue, and so-

Dr. Greer: Right, because there's no such thing as women's issues. Childcare is an issue.

Brigid Bergin: Is an issue.

Dr. Greer: It's not a women's issue. A woman's right to choose is actually kind of a conversation for everyone.

Brigid Bergin: So I have appreciated her willingness to be open and forthright on those issues, so I think those are two people.

Dr. Greer: Jeff?

Jeff Mays: Cory Booker certainly had a much better night than previously. He was on the offensive. He took Joe Biden on directly, as many of the candidates did that night.

Dr. Greer: Continuing from their Twitter conversation.

Jeff Mays: Right. Continuing the Twitter candidate. He's put away the sort of love movement message that he's been putting forth and was a little more front and confrontational this time around. He's still not polling very well, so if he continues to not poll very well but still hangs around, he could very well be a very good vice presidential candidate for someone. You can argue that maybe Hillary Clinton should have chose him four years ago as a vice presidential candidate, but I think what a lot of these guys are trying to do is just hang around long enough to see what shakes out. Someone like Beto O'Rourke who's not really doing that great but has enough money to hang around for the long haul. Pete Buttigieg. Who knows what's going to happen going forward? But the amount of money he's raising give him the chance to hang around, to be on that debate stage, to insert himself and make himself a real option for people going forward.

Dr. Greer: And what about you, Matt?

Matt McDermott: I'm glad Pete was brought up, because he's who I have in my mind as sort of the ideal VP candidate, depending on who the nominee is, in part for a few reasons. One, if you just look at the fundamentals, last quarter, he was able to raise the most money out of the entire field of candidates. As a small town mayor, beat out the former Vice President, beat out a half a dozen different senators, a former secretary, cabinet secretary, and raised $25 million out of nowhere. So clearly he's able to put in the work and the effort that's needed to do a presidential campaign. And I'd also add that once we move past this electability argument, I think Democratic voters for the past few cycles have been yearning for historic candidacies, and we saw that in Barack Obama and we saw that in Hillary Clinton. I think we'll see it with our nominee in this cycle, and so I think it's a natural fit to have a VP candidate that fits in with the historic nature. Having the first LGBTQ person on the presidential ticket I think would be a hugely historic first. I think it would empower the grassroots of the party and start a conversation that the base is looking for in terms of representation on the presidential stage.

Dr. Greer: Anyone else? Or is that sort of your-

Matt McDermott: I think Secretary Castro is sort of the dark horse in this. I think he's going to do what he needs to make it onto the next debate stage, and I think he's sort of been waiting in the wings. There's a lot of reasons why his candidacy makes a lot of sense, and frankly why putting him on the ticket makes a lot of sense, and I think we saw a few sparks in the most recent debate of his ability to take on that fight, and we'll see how he can manifest that in the months to come.

Dr. Greer: I think spark is the right word with Castro, just because he seems as though he's a slow burn candidate. He's from Texas, he's served on the federal level, and each time, as we've seen with, say, Warren and particular candidates, they're on the upswing in the debates, and so I think that he's definitely one to watch. You were going to say something?

Jeff Mays: I was just going to say, about the spark issue with Julian Castro, is that he has been the most direct so far that's been mentioned, and just talking about issues of race. He is looking directly into the camera, "Donald Trump is a racist." He's being forward on these issues. He has hit the mayor, Mayor de Blasio twice on Eric Garner now. In the first debate he talked about Eric Garner and he talked about it again now. So that's the kind of person you would want as a vice presidential candidate. Someone who can hold their own, have some legitimacy on these issues, and talk about them in a very smart way, which is what he's doing right now.

Dr. Greer: So you mentioned someone who hasn't really come up much in this conversation or any conversations when it comes to the presidency, and that's our good mayor, Mayor de Blasio. So Jeff and Brigid, you all have been doing some solid reporting ever since de Blasio got into office. Let's bring this national conversation a little more local. I mean, why do you all think that ... Yeah, this is New York, people. Why is it that South Bend and San Antonio and places, Inslee from Washington, is getting as much time, if not more than the Mayor from New York City or a Senator from New York State? What's going on with, say, the de Blasio and the Gillibrand candidacies where it's just people aren't interested? It doesn't seem as though it's the shadow of Trump, even though he's from Queens in New York, but what is it? Why isn't there that spark? Why aren't they catching on in any capacity as of now?

Jeff Mays: I think what Mayor de Blasio, what we saw during the debate is a lot of his issues were exposed, and I just wrote about this recently. You know, there were protesters in the crowd shouting, "Fire Daniel Pantaleo," who was involved in the death of Eric Garner. You saw he got a really tough question about, "If you can't handle lead in NYCHA, how are you going to handle lead in places like Flint, Michigan?" His issues have been exposed nationally. I think it was a really rough night for him. He made a lot of attempts to go after Joe Biden, to go after Kamala Harris. They barely mentioned his name in even responding to his critiques, a lot of candidates did. And then when the debate came around to Eric Garner-

Dr. Greer: And worse than engaging is being ignored on the debate stage.

Jeff Mays: Right. And when it came around to Eric Garner, there was a whole conversation around police accountability that did not even invoke him until he was called on to answer for his decision not to fire the officer involved in the Eric Garner death. So I think he has a problem of, you would expect the mayor of New York City would be getting more time, but it's a case of where a lot of the issues he's had here are now following him onto the national stage.

Brigid Bergin: And I would argue, I think in some respects, in terms of free media, he actually is getting a fair amount of time. He's made plenty of national television appearances. He's on MSNBC a fair amount. He's certainly on our air, on WNYC and NPR. He's in the New York Times, but he has a record, and he has to stand by that record and explain it to a national electorate. He intended to run on that record. He intended to hold up pre-K and some of his newer proposals, a healthcare proposal that they described as universal healthcare. And yet when those of us who do our jobs dig into them, there's room for critique, and there's room for discussion about how it's working in New York city. So then to be able to talk about how it's going to become national is a challenging conversation to have.

Matt McDermott: I hate to be blunt, but Bill de Blasio is still a candidate without a candidacy. I mean, there is no argument for his candidacy nationally. I think in a field with so many people, you need to have a very clear and concise elevator pitch for why you're running. What is the word, what is the phrase that you think of when you think of Senator Harris or you think of Senator Warren? I can immediately come up with something in my mind. I don't know what to think when I think Bill de Blasio, and you can see that in his candidacy. I mean, he's not raising the money he needs to be a national contender. He may not even make the next debate stage, and so he's just not putting together the resources he needs to run, and I don't think he's fully come up with a reason for him running-

Dr. Greer: [crosstalk 00:23:31] he wants it.

Matt McDermott: That he wants it, and that he has potentially a difficult political future in New York that he wants to avoid. But there's so many other candidates in the race right now that make such a clearer and more concise progressive case for their candidacy, and it just begs the question why he's in this race and what he wants to accomplish out of it.

Jeff Mays: Well, his argument was that he could take the things he's done in New York like, like free K, crime reduction, and bring them on a national level. The problem is, there are holes in his record on some of these issues, like Eric Garner. When you dig deep into ... He talks about healthcare, he's not being completely honest about the scope of his healthcare plan. So there are holes in his resume in terms of what he's promising to do on a national level. And this is the problem, I think, too, for people with long records like Biden, Buttigieg. People went back and looked at, "What was actually his relationship with the African American community in South Bend?" So he has this long record that you can go in, dig up, point out where he's not being completely truthful, and it's damaging him. And I don't even know if he is on that second tier of being considered for Vice President or a cabinet position at this point.

Dr. Greer: Right. Well, before I let you all leave, as it stands now, the New York Times has reported that these are the following candidates who have already made it to the third debate in September, which will be held in Texas. So it's a little home field advantage advantage for some. So we've got Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who Matt mentioned, from South Bend, who's been doing incredibly well fundraising, because obviously there's some fundraising requirements and donation numbers where people had to pass that threshold. Senator Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke from Texas, Bernie Sanders, Vermont, Elizabeth Warren. Castro seems to be right on the cusp, as is Andrew Yang, and I think just this morning it was announced that Amy Klobuchar had surpassed the $130,000 donation donor mark. So really briefly, can you all tell me who you're looking for, or what you're looking to hear?

Brigid Bergin: I think that it is incumbent on the debate moderators and the candidates to make the conversation about the border and ICE, and not just our immigration policy. I mean, I think some of the conversation in the last debate was interesting, talking about a type of Marshall plan to help restore the economy of some of these countries that people are fleeing because their health and safety and livelihood is at risk. But then to talk about, "What are our obligations? And as a nation, where are we in terms of human rights, when we look at how people who are trying to enter this country are being treated? Issues of asylum versus family separation," and that whole host of issues. I mean, I hope that a large portion of that debate, because it is in Texas, with the border and where that crisis, it feels like the epicenter, that we hear a lot of that from the candidates. And honestly, I am not looking to any one candidate. I would like to hear where they all stand and to see to what extent that becomes a more consistent part of our national debate. Because it is in the paper on a regular basis, we see these horrifying photos, but it feels like it is over here, from what is happening in this debate.

Dr. Greer: And there's a nuance between whether it's criminal and civil, so maybe that will be the debate where we really see the distinctions. You know, Castro said, "We need to abolish certain things, and this we will not prosecute, et cetera." Okay. Really briefly, what do you think, Jeff, and what do you think, Matt?

Jeff Mays: I think Joe Biden has been getting beat up in these past few debates, so the question's going to be, "Is he going to stop being on a defensive posture? And when is he going to be on a more sort of offensive posture?"

Dr. Greer: And earn the right to be the front runner.

Jeff Mays: Right, and just kind of live up to what we're seeing in the polls, because it hasn't played out so far on the debate stage. I also think Cory Booker's going to have to take another step, and someone like Beto O'Rourke, this is going to be his home turf. He's going to have to show why he should even still be on the debate stage. So this is very crucial for a couple of candidates, and also I'd like to see Kamala Harris continue to evolve on the stage and talk more about the issues, and talk more about her prosecutorial record as well.

Dr. Greer: Gotcha. Matt?

Matt McDermott: For me, this next debate is the first opportunity American voters have to see the electability argument play out on one debate stage. An overwhelming majority of Democratic voters right now are making the case for their candidate right now based on electability, and I think we've seen in these first two debates that it's hard to look at what happened on that debate stage and make the case right now that Joe Biden is the most electable person to take on Trump next year. He has a lead in the polls right now. It's significantly smaller than any previous front runner, and so I think there's a real opportunity there with everyone on one debate stage to actually make an electability case to voters and show each of these candidates not only what they stand for, but how they're qualified to take on Trump next year. And this should hopefully be our first opportunity to see that on one stage.

Dr. Greer: Right. Well, thank you all so much for joining me today, and that's all the time we have. So thank you so much, Jeff, Brigid, and Matt for being here with me, and thank you all for watching this special edition of Represent NYC on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. I'm Christina Greer. Goodbye.

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Represent NYC

"Represent NYC" is a weekly program produced by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) that gives local elected officials and candidates the chance to update voters about the issues shaping the future of the city, and how they'll deliver on campaign promises. The show features a rotating cast of...

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