Five Takeaways from the First Night of the Democratic Debate

Five Takeaways from the First Night of the Democratic Debate (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

As we get ready for night two of the Democratic debate, some of us are still reeling from Wednesday’s round one. 

From Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker’s choppy Spanish to Amy Klobuchar’s reference to “my Uncle Dick and his deer stand” when speaking on gun control … the first night had it all.

In case you were too busy to watch the debate, or just didn’t have the emotional energy to commit, here are five key takeaways from the first night of the Democratic debate.

Warren was center-stage, literally and metaphorically. But did you expect these two underdogs to shine?

Entering the debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren was polling the best among Wednesday’s candidates — but still behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, who go on Thursday. So it’s no shocker that she got lots of speaking time.

But two candidates surprisingly stood out: former Housing Secretary under the Obama administration Julián Castro and Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. 

Google searches about Castro spiked 2,400% during the debate. He spoke passionately about numerous issues, and his statement about reproductive justice endeared him to progressives. He also had some spicy one-liners — among them: “On January 20, 2021, we’ll say adios to Donald Trump.” 

Meanwhile, interest in Gabbard surged nationally. She’s controversial among Democrats, some of whom criticize her for meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and for her past anti-LGBTQ stances. Her history will undoubtedly reemerge later on, as will those of other candidates (including Biden’s abortion stances and Senator Kamala Harris’s history as San Francisco District Attorney).

Dems Divided on Health Care

Warren raised her hand high when the candidates were asked, “Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?” She was one of 15 co-sponsors for the Medicare-for-All Act of 2019. This plan would abolish private health insurance in exchange for a single-payer system. This idea is popular among young voters: most Gen Z/Millennial voters support providing Medicare for every American, according to data from Hill.TV and the HarrisX polling company.

Meanwhile, others prefer a more incremental approach. Many prefer offering a public option to those who can’t afford private insurance while allowing those who like their private plans to keep them. As former Congressman John Delaney said, “I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken.” 

The health care discussion spiraled into a shouting match. The tension shows just how divided Dems are when it comes to fixing health care.

Bipartisanship Will be a Dilemma for the Nominee

No one really had an answer for the question “Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell …  if he’s still sitting there as the Senate Majority Leader?” This will be a problem further down the line, especially given how partisan politics has become. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, they’ll face a huge decision if elected president: should they lean into the Democratic Party and pass bills on a party basis, further fueling partisanship? Or should they try to reach across the aisle and work in a bipartisan manner, risking blowback from liberal supporters?

To Impeach or not to Impeach…

There was a question about impeachment, but surprisingly, no one had much to say. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke stated, “We must begin impeachment now so that we have the facts and the truth.” Delaney countered that, “This is not the number-one issue the American people ask us about.” Few other candidates added anything.

This comes at a time when over half of Americans support a continued investigation or some form of punitive action against Trump based on the Mueller report, though not necessarily via impeachment. As campaigning continues, candidates better formulate clearer stances on impeachment. Voters are divided on it, and it’s a topic that’s not going away.

Gun control unites the candidates

In a show of unity, the candidates agreed that comprehensive gun reform is needed. This is an issue that strikes at the heart of young voters, especially as youth activism for gun reform has spiked following the Parkland shooting.

Many — including Warren and O’Rourke — cited common sense gun reforms they would support as president. Their proposals included banning assault weapons (“weapons of war,” as O’Rourke described them), conducting background checks, and initiating buy-back programs.

Booker also spoke passionately about gun control, tying in his experiences as mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He also criticized inaction on the issue, saying, “I’m tired of hearing people, all they have to offer is thoughts and prayers.”

That wraps up our five key takeaways from the first night of the Democratic debates. And remember: we get to do it all over again tonight! Grab some popcorn… the saga continues.

How to Watch 

TV: NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo

Time: 9-11 p.m. EST

Online:, NBC app, Telemundo, NBC News’ Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, 

Candidates for tonight’s debate:

Joe Biden, Michael Bennet, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.

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