David Zurawik

Democratic debate, Night 1: Technical glitches aside, this is what a conversation about democracy sounds like

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is displayed on a monitor inside the spin room during the first Democratic presidential primary debate for the 2020 election at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, in Miami.

The technical problems of chatter from off-camera open mikes and several signal interruptions were surprising and maybe even unforgivable on a production the magnitude of NBC’s first Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night. But the two-hour live event from Miami is still worthy of high praise for the substance of what was said by most of the 10 Democratic candidates onstage in what was not so much a debate as it was an informed and spirited conversation about democracy.

Despite the glitches, NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo went all-out to treat the event with the importance it deserved. And for two hours of prime time on all three channels, the moderators spurred the candidates with generally solid questions and gave them the space needed for a lively, even urgent, discussion about the issues confronting and, in some cases, confounding Americans today.


Unlike the early Republican debates in 2016 when Donald Trump seemed to be the center of attention even when he wasn’t given the chance to speak and stood there looking bored, no one onstage was left out of the conversation Wednesday night.

The two candidates in greatest danger of being lost in the large field were New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, who were visually marginalized to some extent by their positions on the ends of the stage. (The end positions were the result of low poll numbers.)


But both wound up being fully engaged in the conversation by nature of the questions asked and their own efforts to create space for themselves in the conversation.

De Blasio, of whom I am no fan, impressed me with his telling of a personal history that included his father coming back from World War II wounded in body and mind, and ultimately committing suicide. I didn’t know that, and I am going to do more research on de Blasio that I otherwise probably would not have done. I suspect I am not alone in that plan, and that is what these early debates should do: get citizens looking deeper and harder at candidates they might have ignored.

Delaney’s aggression onstage did not have such a positive effect for me. I generally applaud men and women who are not shy about going after what they want, but Delaney talked over too many other candidates and refused to stop talking when asked several times by moderators to do so. I sensed entitlement in him doing that, and didn’t like it.

The front-runners did get more questions and screen time at the start, particularly Senator Elizabeth Warren.

But it was a great choice to front-load with questions and screen time for her, not just because she had the best poll numbers, but because she set the urgent and righteous tone of this debate with her answers.

She came out of the box breathing fire about economic inequality and the lack of “courage” in Washington to combat it — and she never let up all night long. She set the bar high, and it felt like the other candidates in the center of the stage alongside her responded with the best versions of themselves.

If she did best among the front-runners, Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, was the star among those who had been mostly flying under the radar.

His statement that the tragic image of a father and his young child lying dead in the water along the bank of the Rio Grande is not only “heartbreaking,” but should also “piss all of us off,” made me want to jump out of my seat and cheer.


Finally, I thought, a candidate speaking to the outrage some of us feel over the cruelty of President Donald Trump’s border policies. And doing it in real language.

I also loved Castro invoking the notion of being able to say “adios” to Trump on Inauguration Day in January 2021.

There was a lot of Spanish being spoken onstage Wednesday night, and I liked that, too. On one level, it showed the rich diversity of the field. But it also showed respect for the language and the culture of those who speak it.

Subliminally, or perhaps not so subliminally, it was another way the Democrats distinguished themselves from Trump, who has positioned himself as a reactionary figure dedicated to maintaining white, male privilege and power.

One of the best aspects of the evening was the fact that neither the Democrats nor NBC let Trump in any way dominate the discussion.

Last week, Trump indicated that he was going to live-tweet the debate. Then just before the debate, he said he wasn’t because he was going to be on Air Force One. (As if the plane would not be able to show the telecast, or he would not be able to tweet from the plane.)


But, of course, he could not stay away, and he did tweet early in the telecast with one word: “BORING!”

And then at the halfway point when the audio from live microphones on moderators Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and José Díaz-Balart, who had just ceded the anchor desk to Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow, forced the producers to break away from the debate, Trump got on Twitter again to slam NBC for the gaffe.

Trolls are gonna troll, I guess.

Trump’s son Eric also tweeted about how “bored” he was by the debate, characterizing it as a mess and train wreck in multiple tweets.

Maybe for the Trump family hearing people talk passionately about how we might become a better nation and keep immigrants from dying at the border or citizens from falling into crushing poverty even as they work multiple jobs is boring.

But, despite the technical failings, I think NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo created an inviting media space for a socially conscious conversation about how we can do that.


And led by Warren and Castro, the candidates, for the most part, took advantage of that stage.

I will be back Thursday for Night 2 with 10 more Democratic candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads everyone in the polls, and Senator Bernie Sanders.

I am betting the Trumps will be there, too, telling us how boring it is.