We finally made it to the third Democratic Debate! Well, at least we made it. Over a dozen presidential candidates did not qualify, so this will be the first debate of the 2020 cycle that will only happen one night.
However, this one night promises to be a feisty one. Let’s see how this goes.
Preface: Where does everyone stand going into Houston?
Like the NBC Debate and the CNN Debate, tonight’s ABC News-Univision Debate features ten candidates on the stage. But unlike those debates, this one only features these ten: former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Kamala Harris (D-California), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former San Antonio (Texas) Mayor and federal HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and tech investor Andrew Yang.
Since the first debate, one thing has remained constant: Biden’s still on top, at least for now. Yet at the same time Biden hasn’t distanced himself further from the competition, and a few of those competitors have stepped up their game with more policies and plans, more of a ground game, and more money.
Earlier this week, Univision released a new Latino Decisions national poll of Latinx voters showing Biden and Sanders nearly tied, Warren, Castro, and Harris rising, and O’Rourke fading. That’s not all that far from the overall picture of Warren and Sanders catching up to Biden, Harris and Buttigieg further behind Warren and Sanders, and everyone else gasping for political air. Now that we’ve covered all this, let’s see whether tonight’s debate changes this state of play.
5:00 PM (Pacific): Let the debate begin!
Summer may be winding down, but it’s still hot enough here in Vegasland for me to stick with white wine tonight, so I’m sipping this Arroyo Seco-Monterey Chardonnay that has fresh notes of lemon and mineral. So ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, and Lindsey Davis joined with Noticias Univision’s Jorge Ramos to welcome us all to Houston, who reminded President Donald Trump and the rest of the nation that when it comes to Latinx Americans, “This is our country, too.”
Thankfully, the ABC and Univision crew aren’t wasting time like CNN did in July. Instead, just three minutes into the program, they gave Julián Castro the first opening statement. He declared, “There will be life after Donald Trump. However, our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump,” and he promised to fight for a Democratic “trifecta” government that will actually deliver on the lofty promises that many on that stage have been promising the audience.
“Houston, we have a problem.” OK, Amy Klobuchar’s “dad joke” did make me chuckle for a second. Beto O’Rourke followed with a more focused opening, more focused than what we saw from him in the previous debates, based on the recent white nationalist terrorist attack in his hometown. Cory Booker said something about the “unity of community”, mixed in with some of his standard stump speech lines on “building common purpose”.
Andrew Yang then turned the debate into an infomercial by offering a $1,000 per month prize to ten lucky winners, because if Donald Trump can bring reality TV hijinks to the Republican Party, why can’t Yang add some pizzazz on the Democratic side? (/snark, I think?) Pete Buttigieg tried to do a more “presidential” sounding statement, but I’m still thinking about Yang’s stunt. Kamala Harris then turned it around with a pointed “prosecution of Donald Trump’s record”, then added, “And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News.”
5:15 PM: More opening statements, then health care talk
Clearly battling the loss of his voice (at least at full strength), Bernie Sanders also gave a condensed version of his “political revolution” stump speech. Elizabeth Warren followed up by noting her three brothers served at military bases in Texas, and Warren herself attended college at the University of Houston, then pre-butted Joe Biden’s potential line of attack by saying, “I know what’s broken, I know how to fix it, and I can lead the fight to get it done.” Biden himself then said, “It’s no longer time to postpone,” and he rattled off a list of pinpointed items he wants to act on (like health care and climate change).
First off, Stephanopoulos asked Biden why he thinks Warren and Sanders are “going too far” with their calls for “big, structural change” and “political revolution”. Biden claimed he knows how to get things done, while Warren and Sanders can’t say how they’ll pay for their big change (actually, they have).
Warren responded by thanking former President Barack Obama for “fundamentally transforming health care in America,” then struck down Biden’s claim by explaining her proposed “wealth tax” will help pay for “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, which will then result in lower “Costs are going to go up for the wealthiest individuals, and costs are going to go up for the biggest corporations, and costs are going to come down for working families.”
Continuing on their “tag team” dynamic from the last debate, Sanders backed up Warren and reprised his big applause line, “I wrote the damned bill,” in explaining why he gets “Medicare for All” and Biden doesn’t. Biden then said, “It’s about candor, honesty. Let’s talk big ideas,” after Warren and Sanders just explained their big ideas. The money shot of Warren and Sanders looking at Biden (Warren chuckled, and Sanders shook his head) throwing that word salad at them is priceless.
5:30 PM: More health care
After Sanders declared, “‘Medicare for All’ will save Americans substantial sums of money,” Stephanopoulos asked Klobuchar who she was talking about when she claimed she offers a “middle ground between the two extremes” during her opening statement. She initially didn’t name names, but she then pivoted to attacking Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill for disrupting and ultimately abolishing private insurance.
Warren again came through with the rebuttal: “Let’s be clear about this: People will have access to all of their doctors, all of their nurses, all of their hospitals, including rural hospitals.” And once more, Warren described the purpose of single-payer this way: “This is about ensuring we have the most efficient way possible of [handling insurance costs] in this country.”
Buttigieg jumped into the debate and said, “I believe we have to go far beyond tinkering with the ACA,” but then basically endorsed mostly tinkering by claiming Sanders and Warren “take away choice” by doing away with baseline private insurance (though the bill seems to preserve supplemental private insurance will be an option, as Canada currently does).
Harris tried to sidestep the “Medicare for All” debate, and especially the criticism from the moderates and the progressives on her “Medicare for All” public-private hybrid plan, by refocusing the talk on Trump’s ongoing efforts to blow up the ACA entirely. Yet when she said, “This debate is giving the American people a headache,” she may have scored some points with Democratic voters who may want to hear more about how to stop Trump’s destruction of the health care system and less squabbling over Congressional “sausage making” process.
5:40 PM: Even more health care, then El Paso and racial justice
O’Rourke claimed Sanders and Warren are offering Democrats a “false choice” between no change and single-payer, then spoke about the same public option plan that Buttigieg is promoting. Castro then spoke of his own mother getting care on Medicare and declared, “I want every single American to have a strong Medicare plan available.” Castro then claimed Biden also wants to offer Medicare for everyone after he previously said he wants a public option for people to opt into, though he overshot and mischaracterized what Biden actually said.
After several of the candidates argued with each other, Buttigieg then jumped in and said, “This is why presidential debates have become unwatchable.” Yet in explaining how the Cleveland Clinic delivers better care more efficiently by eschewing a for-profit care system, Yang actually delivered a good point that didn’t involve his universal basic income (UBI) plan.
Davis then pivoted the discussion to institutional racism. O’Rourke gave a pretty woke statement on the nation’s disturbingly long history of institutionalized racism, but Castro and Booker really took this time to shine and go into further detail on what this problem entails and what must be done to fix it. Buttigieg tried to follow up on O’Rourke’s “woke white guy” moment, but his own record in South Bend continues to give Democrats reasons to question how dedicated Buttigieg is to his own “Douglass Plan”.
Davis then confronted Harris on her own sketchy record on criminal justice. She tried to diffuse the matter by focusing on the progress she made in California in tackling institutionalized racism, but she didn’t really address her own record of attempting to maintain “middle ground” between fealty to police interests and citizens demanding an end to police brutality.
5:55 PM: Criminal justice reform, then gun violence
After Klobuchar tried to explain her own prosecutorial record in Minneapolis, Biden claimed his start as a criminal defense attorney means he gets what must be done to fix this problem. But just like Harris, Biden tried to sweep away his own record of promoting the “war on drugs” and other 1980’s and 1990’s “tough on crime” programs that led to the criminal justice crisis we face now.
Booker then jumped in and gave the best line of the night thus far in saying, “Our criminal justice system is so savagely broken. […] So much of this comes down to privilege.” In Congress, Booker has already scored a major win here in getting Trump (??!!) to sign the First Step Act into law last year.
Muir then shifted the conversation to gun violence. Biden graciously thanked O’Rourke for the way he’s been sticking up for his community in the month since the El Paso Shooting. Harris followed that up by stating in clear terms the toll gun violence takes on the nation, then she rebutted Biden’s dismissal of her proposed executive action in saying, “Hey Joe, instead of saying no we can’t, let’s say yes we can!”
After Harris also thanked O’Rourke for his work in Texas since the shooting, he promised to take action on background checks and assault weapons and delivered a great zinger on guns in saying, “Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15. If it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on the battlefield, we’re going to buy it back.” Klobuchar then called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to take up her domestic violence bill and the two House-passed background checks bills and pleaded, “Let’s not spare another innocent life.”
6:05 PM: More on gun violence
Booker noted how inner-city communities of color have often been on the front line on gun violence and noted, “This is a crisis of empathy in our nation,” because it’s taken more gun violence affecting white suburban areas for more politicians to take this seriously. Yet when Muir pressed him on how he’ll get his gun violence agenda passed into law, Booker said, “We must awaken more courageous empathy in this country.”
Muir then asked Warren how she’ll get something passed. She declared, “When we’ve got this much support [for gun violence prevention legislation], the answer is corruption, pure and simple,” then added, “We’ve got to get rid of the filibuster.” She, Harris, and Buttigieg support filibuster reform, while Biden, Sanders, Booker, and Klobuchar are all against.
Sanders claimed, “I will not wait for 60 votes to pass [major] legislation,” and claimed budget reconciliation can do the job. The problem there is that under current Senate rules, reconciliation is only allowed once a year, and it can only be used for bills that can somehow be tied to the budget.
6:10 PM: Immigration reform
Ramos then shifted the conversation to immigration, and asked Biden whether he and Obama made a mistake by offering hundreds of billions of dollars of “border security” and ramping up deportations during Obama’s first term in exchange for a more conservative-friendly comprehensive immigration reform package. Biden claimed, “The president did the best thing that could be done.”
Ramos then shifted to the other person who served in the Obama White House: Castro. Castro said on Biden, “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work, but not take any questions [on blemishes in Obama’s record].” Castro then promised he’ll push hard for humane immigration reform during his first 100 days in office.
Ramos asked Warren about the recent ICE raids and how she’ll change the nation’s enforcement regime. Warren confirmed she wants “big, structural change” here, change that goes from a shifting enforcement priorities to expanded paths to citizenship for immigrants with undocumented status. She repeated an answer she gave to our question in April in saying, “A system that can’t tell the difference between a terrorist, a criminal, and a 12-year-old girl fleeing for her life is a system that fails to keep us safe.” She also deftly pointed out how U.S. actions (and in the case of withdrawing humanitarian aid, inaction) have contributed to the refugee crisis at the border now.
After Yang explained why Trump gets it wrong on immigration, Buttigieg responded to Ramos’ question on GOP support for Trump’s deportation regime in declaring, “Anyone who supports this supports racism.” After Buttigieg gave another of his “values talks” to avoid further specifics on immigration, O’Rourke offered to reform America’s visa agreement with Mexico in alignment with what we already have with Canada to better handle issues like visa overstays.
6:30 PM: Trade and foreign policy
When asked about Trump’s alleged “tough on China” approach to trade, Buttigieg responded that Trump’s “inability to keep his word or follow through on his plans” is hurting America’s standing and pocketbooks. Klobuchar followed and said, “He’s treated this country like his bankrupt casinos. If we’re not careful, he’ll bankrupt this country.”
Castro pointed out Trump’s failure to get “tough” on the Chinese and North Korean government’s respective human rights abuses. Warren then pointed out, “Our trade policies have been broken for decades, and they’ve been broken because of multinational corporations.” Warren promised a trade and foreign policy agenda that pushes for better labor, environmental, human rights standards here and abroad.
After Harris pivoted to criticizing Trump (again), Sanders made a much more focused critique of Biden’s past embrace of “free trade” that undercuts his “Middle Class Joe”/“union guy” mystique. Biden tried to deflect with faint praise for Warren.
Booker then pointed out, “Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policies are actually an America isolated agenda.” He called out Trump’s (mis)use of “emergency powers” to slap tariffs on Canada, his refusal to act with the rest of the United Nations on climate change, and his love for dictators that are counterproductive (to say the very least).
6:45 PM: War and peace
When Muir asked Warren whether she’ll withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan without a peace deal with the Taliban, she said yes and explained why: “What we’re doing in Afghanistan is not helping the security of the United States. […] We can not keep asking our military to solve problems that can not be solved militarily. We need to treat terrorism as a global security problem that must be solved with our allies.”
When Muir pushed back, Warren pushed back on his skepticism of her plan and said, “Show me what winning looks like. No one can describe it.” Buttigieg, the one person on the stage who served in Afghanistan, took apart Trump’s “tough” persona and pointed out the danger of his erratically selfish foreign policy: “As a military officer, the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Do not let these people down.’ [Trump] has let these people down.” Buttigieg also offered universal Congressional votes before attempting war and a three-year sunset on military authorization laws.
Biden finally said he was wrong to vote to authorize military action in Iraq in 2002, but then claimed what he wanted in Iraq was not what then President George W. Bush ended up doing. Sanders retorted, “The big difference between you and me is that I never believed what Bush and Cheney said!” Both were in Congress at that time: Both voted for the initial 2001 use of force authorization that Bush used for Afghanistan, but Sanders voted against the 2002 Iraq authorization bill while Biden voted for it.
6:55 PM: More foreign policy
When pressed by Ramos on fears among some Latin American immigrants that Sanders’ brand of “democratic socialism” sounds too close to the dictatorships they fled, Sanders retorted, “To equate the democratic socialism I believe in with what’s happening in Venezuela is extremely disingenuous.” Sanders made clear his proposals for expanding the social safety net are rooted in expanding democracy, not taking it away.
Castro then promised a “21st Century Marshall Plan” to aid Latin American countries in need, as this addresses the root problem of the Central American refugee crisis (see above) while also countering other superpowers’ attempts to use aid and development programs to expand their spheres of influence (as China has done with its “Belt and Road” program).
Booker concurred with Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg in declaring, “We have to make sure we’re not going to solve all our problems with this outrageous militarism”, and he promised greater focus on diplomacy and less reliance on military force to solve the nation’s and world’s problems.
7:00 PM: Climate change, then education
Ramos let O’Rourke talk about climate first, and he promised a collaborative approach to solutions that will deliver solutions regardless of who wants none of such. Klobuchar promised executive action to restore the Obama-era climate action programs that Trump took away.
Warren declared, “We have to act on climate change. It is the threat to every living thing on this planet.” She credited Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) for her climate plan to require universal new zero emissions buildings by 2028, universal carbon-neutral electricity by 2030, and universal zero emissions vehicles by 2030. Yang later backed up Warren’s plan here and her finding that political corruption is at the root of inaction.
Davis then asked Yang why he promotes charter schools and attacks Democrats who oppose school privatization. He tried to sidestep the question and avoid his own past ties to the for-profit college industry.
When asked whether Yang is right that she’s “in bed with teachers’ unions”, Warren retorted, “I think I’m the only person on this stage who’s been a public school teacher. Money for public schools should stay in public schools and not go anywhere else.”
7:15 PM: Racial justice and education, continued
Harris then sided with Warren, touted her own plan to invest more federal dollars in public schools across the nation, and spoke of how HBCU’s can be part of the solution. Harris stated that African-American students are more likely to make it through college when they see African-American teachers in their own classrooms, then said, “When we talk about investing in our public education system […] When we fix this, we fix so many other things.”
Moments later, Davis confronted Biden with his own past refusal to acknowledge past racial injustices. He responded by rattling off on everything from Venezuela to school “wrap-around services”. Ummm, OK?
Castro offered a much more focused answer on demanding better accountability from charter schools and fairer distribution of resources for schools and other public infrastructure serving communities of color. Booker quickly concurred and demanded “holistic solutions” for systemic poverty, segregation, environmental injustice, and educational equity.
7:30 PM: Closing moments
Stephanopoulos asked the candidates on their toughest “professional setbacks”. Biden then got one when a protest suddenly erupted in the room. Minutes later (and once the protesters were kicked out of the hall), Warren gave a condensed version of her stump speech in sharing her history as working-class girl who had to pay her way through college. Sanders talked about his past struggles getting elected to anything in Vermont before he made it to Burlington City Hall to begin what would become a long career of fighting “powerful special interests and standing up for working families”.
Harris recalled advice from her mother, “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are,” and alluded to her desire to provide hope and inspiration to black and brown kids living in these turbulent times. Buttigieg followed that up with his own story of serving as a soldier and a Midwestern Mayor when he decided to come out as openly gay.
Booker gave an interesting answer on his first campaign in Newark, as told in the documentary Street Fight. O’Rourke closed with one more plea for his neighbors in El Paso, and Klobuchar followed that up with a powerful retelling of her family story from her father being “pursued by grace” to her own fight for herself and her baby.
And finally, my grades for the ten Democrats!
Elizabeth Warren: A+
Cory Booker: A
Kamala Harris: B+
Bernie Sanders: B+
Pete Buttigieg: B
Beto O’Rourke: B
Amy Klobuchar: B-
Julián Castro: B-
Andrew Yang: C+
Joe Biden: C
Once again, Elizabeth Warren rocked it. Biden and his team suggested before the debate that he’d be coming for her. Yet when he tried, he swung and missed… And she turned around to hit that ball far out of the park. In addition, his attempts at a “two-for-one special” to take down Sanders as well only resulted in another round of Sanders delivering clear answers, though he wasn’t quite as cogent tonight as he was in Detroit in July.
Julián Castro could have succeeded at taking down Joe Biden the hardest by calling him out on health care and immigration, but he overshot and got unnecessarily dirty by questioning Biden’s memory, and Castro risks becoming the “fall guy” in landing the blows on Biden, only for Warren and/or Sanders to benefit because they weren’t always as direct in their attacks on Biden’s record. And speaking of Biden, he started out just fine, but once again tripped over himself and made it easier for the competition to land those blows by playing fast and loose with the facts, then by meandering all over the place when voters just want (and need!) clear and concise answers.
Cory Booker turned in another solid performance with his command of facts and use of emotion, and to a lesser extent Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke had some viral moments that might help them justify staying in the race for the rest of the year. But at this point, and especially with so many candidates still fighting for such little air time, it’s getting harder for everyone else to stand out as Biden, Warren, and Sanders increasingly break out as the “Top Three” who stand the best chance of making it past our Nevada Caucus and Super Tuesday.
Would anyone like to try harder to prove me wrong? If so, now is really the best and only time to do so.