At tonight’s town hall in Nevada, Bernie Sanders sounds like a regular old politician.

Like it did in 2008, the Clinton campaign has underestimated the political skills of its rivals. And at the start of the town hall, Bernie Sanders is showing off his political skills. 

Asked about the conflict between the U.S. government and Apple, Sanders sided with ... the U.S. government and Apple. (In truth, his answer was quite good—he essentially argued that we needed to balance liberty and safety.) When asked about calling for a primary challenge of President Obama in 2011, Sanders totally dodged the question, and praised Obama’s presidency and touted their working relationship. And when asked about his criticism of Bill Clinton earlier in the day, he scolded Chuck Todd for getting the context wrong and then ... praised Clinton’s presidency. Sanders got some substantive criticism in, of course, but he mostly bobbed and weaved. 

Things got better when Todd and Jose Diaz-Balart let the audience take over. Their questions have been perhaps the best we’ve seen in any debate so far this year. They’re tough questions, touching on many of Sanders’s perceived weaknesses: feminism, racial justice, and the costs of his economic policies. Intersectionality also got its first (I think) mention of the primary season. For the most part, Sanders handled those questions very well and much more directly, even joking about the fact that Bernie boy-hater Gloria Steinem made him an “honorary woman.” If Clinton gets the same tough treatment, this will be the rarest of birds: a good town hall debate.

June 27, 2019

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This is Democratic speed dating.

The opening debate is always a “get to know you” debate. That’s especially true of the first of two opening Democratic debates, given that it’s frontloaded with candidates no one knows (Tim Ryan, John Delaney), candidates almost no one knows (Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Bill de Blasio, Julián Castro), and candidates already in need of a campaign reset (Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke).

But it’s hard to make an impression when there are nine other people, many of them desperate, on the stage. The general strategy in the opening thirty minutes of the debate is for candidates to talk as fast as they possibly can, guaranteeing that they can maximize their short minute of allotted time. This is, of course, familiar to anyone who’s been in high school debate—a combination of nerves and peacocking, showing the audience just how much they know. This has been exacerbated by the manic opening of the debate, which has touched on issues from climate change to health care to antitrust, without much effort to try to get the candidates to actually talk to each other. (De Blasio, arguably the most desperate on the stage, is the only guy really trying to pick a fight.)

If there’s a byproduct of the pace of the debate so far, it’s that it does showcase just how many ideas the Democratic candidates have on the table. But mostly, it just showcases just how many candidates there are on the stage, and how many of them seem not that different from one another. (I’m looking at you, John Delaney and Tim Ryan.)

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Is cruelty a winner?

As the Democrats take the stage for the first debate, I am expecting—hoping, even—that there will be ample outrage over the warehousing of migrant children at the southern border.

The last week or so has seen an uptick in attention—because of the brutality at the Clint facility, because of the drowning deaths in the Rio Grande—on what has been the shame of a nation for most of the Trump administration. Several presidential candidates in Miami will be making the short trip to Homestead, a for-profit shelter for unaccompanied minors. The facility was, it must be said, first opened under Obama, but it was re-opened and doubled in size by Trump to cage hundreds of migrants in their teens.

Today, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar made separate visits there. Neither were allowed inside, but Warren stood on a step ladder and peered over the fence at what she said were kids being marched in lines. She turned to the assemblage of media and supporters and called it “a moral stain inflicted by Donald Trump.”

“Following a policy that can be boiled down to one basic idea—and that is maximizing the pain inflicted on families who flee to the United States to try to build some security and safety in their lives—is fundamentally and morally wrong.”

Warren’s right, of course, and it is refreshing to hear strong condemnations from one of the Dem frontrunners. But then I thought, is that going to matter?

Adam Serwer famously wrote last October that “the cruelty is the point,” that the through line that connects what seems like a chaotic carnival of policy misfires is the joy at inflicting pain on people Trump and his fans see as “other.” That premise has become almost universally accepted by those opposed to this administration and the Republican Party that embraces it—and so, it is likely that many in Miami will try to score points by voicing righteous and rightful outrage at the serial meanness of Team Trump. But is that outrage a winner for the campaign trail?

This question applies to both the primaries—where every Democrat will hopefully be vocally opposed to the Zero Tolerance “policy”—and the general, where the issue energizes the GOP while seeming to enervate Democrats. The last thing you want to do is exhaust your base, after all.

But beyond that: Does Trump’s cruelty engender a real feeling of powerlessness? Is opposing cruelty basically negative campaigning—campaigning without hope, when your best advisers will tell you to close with hope?

June 26, 2019

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Welcome to TNR’s coverage of the Democratic debates.

Yes, the debates are upon us, a mere 16 months before voters will cast their ballots to decide whether President Trump should get a second term. In that time, babies will be conceived and born, the earth will orbit the sun and then some, and Democrats will, with any luck, choose a champion from the two dozen candidates running for the nomination. It all begins tonight, with the first of two debates in Miami this week featuring the 20 candidates—ten each round—who qualified to participate by either polling at 1 percent in three surveys or receiving 65,000 individual donations.

The staff of The New Republic will be watching the proceedings, offering running commentary and post-debate analysis, and hopefully answering any questions readers might have. Who’s up, who’s down? Who, if anyone, seems qualified to stall America’s spiraling descent into a fiery wasteland overseen by Trumpian kleptocrats? And who is Eric Swalwell, anyway? Pop by TNR’s Minutes blog at 9 o’clock EST tonight and tomorrow night to find out!