Debates tell us issues will be the stars of the 2020 election

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.

The 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.

Six candidates are women, three are black, one is Hispanic and one is Asian.

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 country. Every point of view has to make it to the table.

We need to narrow the focus

These first debates were fine tools to kick off that process, but more precise instruments will be needed. 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.

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 night 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 crafted to spin a failure.

Single-subject debates would help

A confrontation between former Vice President Joe Biden and Harris left Biden looking like a relic and Harris looking like a star.

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

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. Health care, immigration and climate change could best be addressed in a series of single-subject or themed Democratic forums.

A serious conversation among Republicans is welcome and needed too.

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 give us hope that we can.