Ten Democratic candidates for president faced off Thursday evening giving the nation a preview of what the hot topics of next 6 months of the primary season could look like. Healthcare was, of course, one of the biggest points of contention between the progressive and moderate candidates, with battle lines crystalizing around the issue of what to do about private insurance companies in a system that would include some version of Medicare for all. No single candidate carried the evening, although several candidates had significant moments. The most divisive exchange came when Castro accused Biden of forgetting his own words, which the record shows Biden did not do. However, Biden later made racially charged remarks which threatened to derail his performance entirely. Sanders and Warren also had good performances, while Klobuchar and yang struggle for air time throughout the debate. O’Rourke had perhaps his best showing yet on the national stage, drawing significant applause and praise from the other candidates for his response to the recent mass shootings across Texas. Overall, this debate was better moderated than previous debates in part because many of the most boisterous candidates, such as De Blasio and Gillibrand, were not on stage. With all of the candidates who did qualify debating on one night instead of debates split across two nights, voters were able to get a better sense of how the leaders of the field stack up against each other. Whether or not this debate will move the needle for any of the candidates remains to be seen.
This debate was the best opportunity so far for Klobuchar to give voters a sense of who she is. She struggled for air time throughout the debate but was able to effectively communicate her brand and differentiate herself from Sanders and Warren on Healthcare by arguing for a version of Medicare for All that would allow for private insurance options. "While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill," Klobuchar said, in her most forceful moment of the three debates so far. "It says on page eight we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. That's 149 million Americans in four years that won't have their current insurance. I don't think that's a bold idea. I think that's a bad idea."
She also effectively conveyed that she is a moderate centrist Democrat from the Midwest, and she had sell prepared deflections for questions of race and police violence against black men while she was Hennepin County prosecutor. But perhaps the largest critique of her performance was that she did not engage with Joe Biden at all, which is a missed opportunity given that this was the first time they had shared a debate stage together and given that she both target centrists and midwest moderates.
Cory Booker had a good night in general but his performance was no stronger than on previous nights. He had several good exchanges with other candidates about guns and race in America and was able to tie in his backstory with the overall national conversation around those issues. The main difference between this performance previous nights was in his tone. Whereas in the first debate he came off as too aggressive, this night he struck an even balance between stern rebukes and jovial charisma. The main problem for booker going forward is that he must demonstrate an understanding of and a positive vision for midwestern Americans, and nothing from this debate spoke to the concerns many folks from those regions have with his platform. The other candidates also largely stayed away from engaging with Booker, which gave him room to make several points about living in “low-income” neighborhoods without facing much scrutiny about his background and ties to Wall Street.
Buttigieg had a lackluster night overall and failed to reinvigorate his campaign, which has faced tough questions surrounding police violence against black people in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana. While he did manage to communicate his specific call for ‘medicare for all who want it’ as opposed to Sanders’s version M4A that would do away with private health insurance, he successfully avoided addressing the issue of race while calling for substantial criminal justice reform and reforming of the prison industrial complex. In a small detail that was easy to miss, Buttigieg was one of the only candidates to make any religious appeal to Christians. The religious angle has been a favorite of Buttigieg’s campaign because of the recent resurgence of left-wing evangelical Christians and Christians who are looking for representation in the Democratic party more generally.
Sanders had an ok night, not great, but not terrible either. Sanders tends to say the same thing over and over again no matter who he is speaking to, and except for a few moments when he sparred with the other front runners over healthcare issues, he largely stuck to his script all evening. The most significant exchange came when Biden directly attacked him for supporting Medicare for all and called for incremental improvements to Obamacare instead. The sentiment was echoed by other candidates during the section of the night devoted to healthcare questions, and Sanders effectively parried attacks about funding and the perrenial question: “How are you going to pay for that?” Sanders has had a lot of practice handling that question since it is the most common rebuttal to his position, and he was ready with his answer that, yes, American will pay more in taxes, but that they will pay less overall than they currently do now, especially when it comes to prescription drugs, which Sanders said would be capped at $200.
Joseph R. Biden Jr.
While many pundits declared Biden to be the winner overall, that sentiment came not from a close reading of what he said, but from a moment when Biden successfully defended against an ugly attack by Castro who tried to gaslight the former Vice President into admitting that he had forgotten his own words. Biden parried this and many other attacks throughout the night, delivering what for all intents and purposes looked like a winning performance. However, Biden has been suffering among Black voters, and his performance did nothing to help his case on that front. In a moment of bizarre, racially charged rhetoric, Biden seemed to suggest that teachers needed to teach Black parents how to raise their children properly in order to address the effects of slavery. It is worth reading in full:
“Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.
The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have — make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.
It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”
Especially in the context of a discussion about slavery, this is racially charged language from a bygone era. There is a lot to unpack in this quote, but the main message to Black people is that they need to raise their kids better. It was such a disastrous performance that at least a few major outlets are calling for Biden to drop out of the race.
Warren had a spectacular evening and delivered one of her best performances yet. She remained calm yet forceful and delivered strong homages to her midwestern roots while making the case that her education background as a public school teacher gives her a unique perspective on the need for education reform as well as the student loan crisis. Unfortunately for Warren, the economy was not a major topic of debate and so she did not get an opportunity to lay out her economic plan or demonstrate her formidable knowledge of financial regulatory issues. But she was able to make strong arguments for medicare for all and tap her education background again to address the problem of school shootings and the need for stronger gun control legislation.
Harris did little to help her sinking image as a hotshot prosecutor who has put countless black people in jail for petty reasons. She tried to return her aim to Trump throughout the debate, but her pivots were a bit awkward, and her characteristic hard-edged realism came across as condescending instead of level-headed. She studiously avoided any pointed confrontations with Biden of the sort that gave her a boost in the polls after the first debate, most likely because later polling showed that her previous performance garnered more sympathy for Biden and ended up hurting her overall because people thought he attack was unfair. So this time she tried to avoid direct head to head clashes with the front runners and instead connect with voters on criminal justice reform and family values. Whether voters will respond to this is an open question, but if Harris wants to make it past the Iowa caucuses, she will need to have a better performance next time.
Yang had one of his best nights so far, specifically because he was given more air time and allowed to engage with the other major candidates in the field. His main message that automation is coming to take American’s jobs away was overshadowed by a small stunt he pulled in which he committed to giving 10 people $1000 per month for a year during the debate. The moment drew laughter and some eye-rolling from the audience and other candidates, specifically Kamala Harris. But Yang went on to make well-formed arguments for the need for education reform, healthcare reform, and immigration reform. The one area where Yang clearly was way out of his depth was on foreign policy. He faced a tough challenge to make the case that he was the best of all of the other candidates to take on the wars in the Middle East and handle China when several of the other candidates have been to Afganistan and the Middle East several times, including Buttigieg who is a veteran. The one thing that Yang does better than the other candidates is that he draws meme-worthy attention to himself, and he managed to do so again last night. Whether his performance will move the needle in the polls is unclear, but Yang had a good performance overall by many standards.
O’Rourke had a much better night than he has had in the previous two debates. Whereas in previous debates his delivery was stilted, rehearsed, and full of vapid populist rhetoric, last night he came across as passionate, magnanimous, and perhaps even presidential. Several of the other candidates on stage took time to praise his response to the recent spate of mass shootings in Texas, which gave O’Rourke several opportunities to appear gracious and magnanimous in the wake of tragedy. But when it was finally O’Rourke’s turn to speak about gun rights and gun control, he said, “hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, you’re AK-47.” This line got a huge round of applause and cheering from the audience, but almost immediately after the debate, the more moderate gun control advocates came out against him, saying his statement would scare gun rights advocates and make it harder to pass sensible gun control legislation. By the following morning, many pundits were saying that O’Rourke had miscalculated with his passionate embrace of the narrative that liberals are coming to take away America’s guns. That sort of miscalculation is not out of character for O’Rourke, but whether or not it will hurt him in the polls remains to be seen.
If there was a loser of the debate overall, it was, unfortunately, Julián Castro. Castro performed decently overall, but in one major exchange with Biden, completely undercut the rest of the his performance. Castro accused Biden of forgetting that he had said people would have to opt in to get Medicare-like insurance under his health care plan. “You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago they would have to buy in,” Castro jabbed at Biden, who at the age of 78 on Inauguration Day 2021 would be the oldest president ever to serve should he win. “Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?” The problem with the attack was that it was wrong: Biden had not in fact said people would have to buy in, and Biden had not forgotten anything. The result was a fantastic embarrassment for Castro, who had to fend off accusations of ageism and unnecessary mean-spiritedness after the debate. At the moment, the audience booed and Castro himself seems to recognize that the attack had backfired immediately. He spent the rest of the evening trying to win back favor but never quite recovered.
This debate was unlikely to move the needle in any significant way for any of the candidates. If voters catch on to Biden’s bizarre racist ramble, that could affect his polling among Black and minority voters, and if it catches fire, could threaten his candidacy. So far, that hasn’t happened, though. Warren probably had the best performance overall of the front runners, while most of the other candidates did well but did not make any game-changing moves that would fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race. If the race has evolved in any significant way after these debates, it would most likely be on the issue of healthcare, where the moderate liberals such as Klobuchar, Biden, and Buttigieg are starting to define themselves more concretely in opposition to the progressives such as Warren and Sanders. The moderates would like to either reform and improve Obamacare or implement a version of medicare for all that would allow for private insurance options. Meanwhile, the progressives would like to see a medicare for all system that does away with private insurance entirely and automatically covers every American via a single-payer solution. This disagreement is quickly turning into the defining issue of the primaries.