Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29's column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.
Like pretty much every Democrat in America, I was dreading the first of two debate nights, each featuring a full roster of 10 candidates battling it out for the presidency. The format sounded messy, disorganized, and convoluted from the get-go, and most Americans probably couldn't even name two-thirds of the folks on the stage.
But then, Sen. Elizabeth Warren emerged as the welcome breath of fresh air she's been throughout her whole campaign, positioning herself as the star of the debate, just as many expected her to be. With her bold proposals and proclamations, she immediately distinguished herself from the pack — but you could also argue that the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party was the true "winner" on Wednesday night. In banding together on issues and refusing to battle each other directly, Warren and Julián Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, scored a victory for progressives, letting their policies shine through rather than giving in to Democratic drama.
The debate was Warren's to lose; she was the top poller by far among all of the candidates on stage (and is in third place overall behind former Veep Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders), and she’s been gaining momentum for months. Castro, after a very small bump of excitement at the start of his campaign, was in the middle of the pack and losing traction, finding himself adrift among a way-too-big pool of male candidates running with little name recognition. His goal was to stand out and make people walk away with an actual impression of him — and hope that it would translate into donors, press, and hype.
On both fronts, Warren and Castro delivered — and gave major visibility to the left wing of the party and progressive policies in the process. For proof, look no further than effusive praise from progressive tone-setter Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. "I really do think this was a breakaway night," she told late-night host Stephen Colbert on Wednesday night. "I think Elizabeth Warren really distinguished herself, I think Julián Castro really distinguished himself. I think Cory Booker did a great job in talking about criminal justice."
I asked Julián Castro if he’d talked with or heard from any other candidates since last night. “Sen. Warren texted me saying congrats and you did a good job,” he said. #DemDebates pic.twitter.com/xHmnvDHE2B— Alexi McCammond (@alexi) June 27, 2019
It’s important to mention that Warren and Castro weren’t necessarily competing against the cream of the crop. Let’s be real: It was hard at times to tell the mediocre white guys apart, and unlike the women, they talked over everyone the entire time. Warren and Castro distinguished themselves in part because they kept it respectful.
Early on in the debate, Castro was assertive and even combative with his opponents, but he pointedly steered completely clear of attacking all three women on the stage: Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Whether the reason was optics (he’s probably aware that people would go wild over a man interrupting a woman yet again) or policy (there were so many other fish to fry), it was a smart move that paid off dividends.
When it comes to policy, Warren and Castro were two of only a few candidates to directly mention abortion when talking about reproductive rights, with Castro going so far as to talk about the importance of reproductive justice and trans inclusion, earning huge applause and praise from advocates. Warren was one of only two candidates, along with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to call for an end to private insurance, in addition to giving her explicit support for Medicare for All, once again to audience applause.
Additionally, Warren and Castro were seemingly the only two candidates on the stage to back what Vox called "the most radical immigration idea in the 2020 primary;" decriminalizing U.S.-Mexico border crossings without papers. One of Castro’s hallmark proposals is his extensive plan on immigration reform (which Warren supports), and he took fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke to task for his lack of immigration policy specifics in one of many skirmishes throughout the night. In doing so, Castro made a compelling case for why he is the stronger "immigration candidate," while O’Rourke proved he has trouble standing out against opponents who aren't Ted Cruz (which is kind of a low bar).
I didn’t watch the debates last night. But I can tell Castro did well based on how pundits and politicos are tweeting about his performance. And I can tell Warren did well based on how much bots and trolls are trolling about her. Being a woman is fun!— Ashley Nicole Black (@ashleyn1cole) June 27, 2019
Only time will tell whether Castro upped his momentum in the long term after this debate, whether Warren will continue her rise in the polls, and whether both can make waves when they make it to later rounds with the likes of frontrunner Joe Biden and progressive stalwart Bernie Sanders. As the pool narrows and there aren’t as many moderates and centrists to serve as a stark contrast, Castro and Warren may have no choice but to take on one another.
That said, for the first night of debating in a chaotic format among a way-too-crowded field, we got two candidates with much-needed progressive ideas owning a slate of indistinguishable moderates — and given that we’re still roughly 500 days away from Election Day, that’s good enough for me.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29 and the founder of political volunteer network Get Her Elected. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.