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Debating ideas is a good start to 2020 presidential election

Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) U.S. author and

Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) U.S. author and writer Marianne Williamson, former Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper, U.S. attorney and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg, former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, U.S. Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris, U.S. Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator for Colorado Michael Bennet, U.S. Representative for California's 15th congressional district Eric Swalwell, participate in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida on Thursday. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/SAUL LOEB

The Democratic Party has kicked off a national conversation about where the United States has been, where we find ourselves now, what the future should bring and how to get there. It is a promising start.

For two hours on Wednesday and two more on Thursday, separate sets of 10 Democratic presidential candidates had a chance to be heard. What shone through, above the pundits’ tallies of landed punches and roundhouses slipped, was a diversity in the candidates’ qualifications and perspectives that feels both new and necessary.

These hopefuls hail from the four corners of the nation, from big cities, small towns and rural communities. The oldest, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is 77. The youngest, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is 40 years his junior. Buttigieg is also the nation’s first openly gay presidential candidate, and one of two combat veterans running.

The other, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 38, is the first Samoan American to serve in Congress, the first Hindu, and an unapologetically anti-war, isolationist candidate. Six candidates are women, three are black, one is Hispanic and one is Asian. And not all are prominent politicians. Inspirational speaker Marianne Williamson had a place onstage, as did tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and state and federal officeholders without much national visibility. And while the field will narrow to the serious candidates with the qualifications to occupy the Oval Office, even these tangential players showed they could lob in a few important points in this early going.   

The variety of the candidate pool is crucially important, not because the field needs to cover every square in a game of diversity bingo, but because the differing perspectives and life experiences of the people in this incomparably heterogeneous nation need to be heard. We are entering a potentially defining and transformative debate on the direction of the nation. Every point of view has to make it to the table.

These first debates were fine tools to kick off that process, but more precise instruments will be needed as the campaign continues. We now have a sense of what the issues will be, the schools of thought among the candidates, and an early sense of who might have serious electoral chops.

There were memorable lines, some zingers and some not, with fortunes rising and falling.

On the first night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren showed herself to be a powerful force, combining detailed plans and positions with honed debating skills. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, once a top-flight contender, had a bad night in two languages, while Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey got away with his Spanish because his answers in English on race and poverty were so impassioned. And Julian Castro, who has served as federal housing secretary and before that as mayor of San Antonio, Texas, raised his profile with a detailed and firm assessment of the immigration crisis on the Southern border and the toll it is taking.

On Thursday, Sen. Kamala Harris of California had a big moment, stopping an escalating series of interruptions among her competitors with, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” Buttigieg’s response, when asked why he had not made his police force more diverse as his city is racked by the fatal shooting of a black man by a white cop — “Because I couldn’t get it done” — was refreshing even if it was carefully crafted to spin a failure.

A confrontation between former Vice President Joe Biden and Harris in which she contrasted his stance against federal busing mandates with her own experience being bused to her second-grade class in the affluent white hills of Berkeley, California, left Biden looking like a relic and Harris looking like a star. Harris’ busing was not federally mandated, but under the hot lights and on such a hot topic, Biden couldn’t split that hair effectively.

Sanders proved himself still pure, unswerving in his vision of a nation where the government controls far more and struggling Americans have far more.

While all of the players still have ample opportunity to rise and fall, this first set of debates suggests that the stars of this campaign will be the issues themselves. That means the format of posing vague and easily evaded questions on every issue to huge crowds of candidates won’t be enough. Candidates’ health care plans, for instance, can’t really be explained with a show of hands on who favors Medicare for all, or at least we hope they can’t. The same is true with immigration reform, climate change and foreign affairs. Each of these could best be addressed in a series of single-subject or themed Democratic forums.

The next Democratic debates will be held on July 30 and 31 in Detroit. A serious conversation among Republicans is welcome and needed, too, whether or not President Donald Trump has nomination competition.

We have to come out of this election process with a leader for all Americans, armed with plans that can garner support beyond one party or niche group. And these first debates, featuring a big cast of qualified and thoughtful leaders engaged in a mostly collegial and heartening process, give us hope that we can.