The Democrats met in Houston on Thursday night for the third Democratic debate of 2019, this time all on one night. After three hours of sparring between the 10 candidates who qualified, here’s who won, who lost, and what it means moving forward.
The Democratic Party: Given this was the first time the cream of the Democratic crop was all on the same debate stage, it took on added significance. And the field was better than it has been. The absence of bomb-throwers who were at 1 percent in the polls helped keep things focused. But even beyond that, the candidates including Biden (though he still had his poor moments) and Kamala Harris (who somewhat fell apart in her closing statement) were generally sharper than they have been. I named President Donald Trump a winner after a previous debate, given how so-so the Democrats were. Party leaders should be more encouraged by what they saw Thursday.
Elizabeth Warren: She was not dominant, but of the three front-runners this race seems to have settled around at this early juncture, she had the best performance and, more importantly, the fewest tough moments. Warren seems to come into these debates with a clear game-plan, lots of ideas and - somewhat inexplicably - seems almost impossible for her opponents to attack. If that continues to be the case, she reaps the rewards from Biden and Bernie Sanders taking hits. She’s also the only candidate with demonstrated upward momentum in this race. It’s difficult to see how that doesn’t continue after this.
Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg has been solid and even impressive at basically every debate, and while he may not have wowed anyone or knocked down his opponents Thursday, he was good again. He had perhaps the best argument against getting rid of private insurance for Medicare-for-all, saying, “If we’re right as progressives that the public alternative is better, then the American people will figure that out for themselves.” He said of Trump’s China trade war: “When I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he’d like to see me making a deal with Xi Jinping; I’d like to see him making a deal with Xi Jinping.” And the crowd loved it when he said that on public education, he’d “appoint a secretary of education who actually believes in public education.” They might have been prepared lines, but they didn’t come off as such. Buttigieg is routinely and unfailingly prepared. And his closing answer on coming out as gay came off as genuine and had a real point behind it.
Barack Obama: The last Democratic president has found himself something of an unlikely villain at the first two debates, as Democrats anxious to go further left than his administration distanced themselves from his immigration record, his deals with Republicans and even argued Obamacare is insufficient. But Thursday night, at the first debate at a historically black college since 2007, Obama got more than his share of love.
We knew that would come from Biden, who launched a campaign ad shortly before the debate hailing his achievements with Obama. But the other candidates also repeatedly hugged the Obama legacy.
"The senator [Warren] she's says for Bernie. Well I'm for Barack," Biden said near the beginning. Warren parried that by saying, "We all owe a huge debt to President Obama [on Obamacare]. . . . Now the question is how best can we improve on it." Amy Klobuchar said of her more middle-ground approach on health care: "I want to do what Barack Obama wanted to do from the very beginning, which is a public option." Julián Castro even invoked Obama to attack Biden, when he said Biden's health care proposal would leave 10 million people uninsured. "Barack Obama's vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered," Castro said. Harris also attacked Biden's moderation by invoking Obama's campaign slogan: "Instead of saying no we can't, let's say yes we can." (The audience, though, didn't seem to pick up on it.)
Castro’s big attack on Biden: The former Housing and Urban Development secretary clearly came ready to go at this debate, and he went hard at Biden. But his biggest optical win didn’t have substance to back it up. He accused Biden of saying his plan would not automatically enroll people in his public health care option. When Biden denied it, Castro was apoplectic. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” he said repeatedly, perhaps not subtly spotlighting Biden’s age.
Well, we checked the tape, and Castro was wrong. Biden had said that "anyone who can't afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have, et cetera."
Prosecutors: Both Harris and Klobuchar, as former prosecutors, faced brutal questions about their records - particularly when it comes to racial justice. Harris responded to reservations about her tough-on-crime record by saying, “I made a decision that if I was going to have the ability to reform the system, I was going to have to do it from the inside” but admitted she hadn’t done enough. Klobuchar was asked about an ACLU official who said she showed no interest in racial justice as Hennepin County prosecutor. She did OK with the question, pointing to black kids whose killers she prosecuted. But it was anecdotal, and it wasn’t great. We knew this was a hurdle, especially for Harris; that was certainly the case Thursday.
The ‘guys stop arguing’ line: One of the cheapest attempted applause lines at this debates is when candidates complain about their opponents arguing too much. Yes, certain types of attacks can go too far. But on Thursday, a couple candidates tried to pull this out when there were real, substantive debates about big ideas. When Medicare-for-all was at-issue, Harris said, “Frankly, I think this discussion is giving the American public a headache.” At one point, Andrew Yang tried to make a similar point, when Castro cut in and said, “That’s called a debate.” He was right. You’re supposed to disagree, especially about things as big as potentially spending $30 trillion in government funds on health care and completely revamping American health care. Embrace the debate.
Harris’ zingers: Harris seemed to enjoy her “yes we can” line a lot more than the crowd, laughing pretty heartily. But it wasn’t the only time she did that. At one point, she compared Trump to the Wizard of Oz. (Warning: spoiler ahead) “When you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” Harris said. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos responded, “I’m not even going to take the bait.” Harris responded, again laughing, “It wasn’t about you!” (Stephanopoulos seemed to be referring something besides his own small stature.) Not exactly disqualifying, sure, but the risk in this stuff is that it won’t exactly land.
Andrew Yang’s gimmick: Yang previewed before the debate that he would be doing something unprecedented. It turns out that was giving his universal basic income ($1,000 per month) to 10 lucky people who went to his website. But as the New York Times reports, that may run afoul of campaign finance laws. It also seemed to draw some patronizing laughter from his opponents. Yang is a serious candidate; he doesn’t really need to do that kind of thing.