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Monday, September 16th, 2019

How did the leading Democratic presidential candidates fare in the third 2020 debate?

The September 12th debate in Houston was the first debate of the Democratic primary so far to be limited to a single night with only ten candidates on stage. This was the first time that all of the top–tier candidates were on stage together and, crucially, the first time that front-runner Joe Biden and surging rival Elizabeth Warren faced each other on the same stage.

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren listen to a moderator question (Courtesy of ABC News)

Most analysts (including me) expected a highly combative debate.

All the ingredients were there:

Warren and Biden’s decades-long dislike for each other could have led to sparks flying; Kamala Harris’ poor performance in the polls could have encouraged her to strike out at Biden again; Castro and O’Rourke standing next to each other could have led to another Spanish-language scrap like in the June debate.

Yet, the debate was remarkably well-mannered, substantive, even cordial.

The ABC moderators covered an admirably wide variety of subjects – and (unlike CNN) avoided consistently framing the issues using a Republican lens.

The Houston debate was everything that voters claim to want to see in a debate.

In spite (or perhaps because) of that, pundits are arguing that the takeaway from the third debate will be that it ultimately was not impactful.

The Guardian’s Baskar Sunkara described the debate as “boring,” and what’s more, the rules of the October debate mean that none of the candidates on stage were fighting for the chance to make a big impression or stay in the race.

Here’s how the three leading candidates did in the debate.

Joe Biden

In the words of Jacobin Magazine, former-Vice President Biden’s performance “cleared a very low bar” in the debate. As the front-runner, he was at the center of both the stage and the moderators’ attention, and he spoke more than any other candidate. However, he certainly didn’t dominate the stage in the way that a front-runner with his lead in the polling usually does.

Biden performed strongly in the opening act of the debate, which focused on healthcare and mainly involved a back-and-forth between him and Senators Warren and Sanders, who stood at lecterns on either side of him. His best line of the night came early; referring to the difference between Obamacare and Medicare for All, he quipped, “Senator Warren is with Bernie, well I’m with Barack!”

Though most expected a fierce clash between Biden, Sanders and Warren, this didn’t really materialize; Biden’s strongest opponents were – quite unexpectedly – his former colleague in the Obama administration, Julián Castro, and the ABC moderators. Moderators Jorge Ramos and Linsey Davis both grilled Biden over his controversial past record when it came to issues of race and immigration.

Unsurprisingly, though, Biden’s worst enemy in the debate was himself.

In the healthcare portion of the debate, Biden’s response to Bernie Sanders’ argument that Americans pay more for healthcare than any other country was a mumbled, “This is America.” Whether he was ironically quoting Donald Glover, or mistakenly giving a shout-out to any Republican plants in the Democratic crowd, that interruption sounded downright ridiculous.

Worse was to come from Biden’s mouth.

As the candidates discussed the issue of racial injustice and education, Biden’s contribution meandered from suggesting that black families need supervision when raising their children, to having “the record player on at night,” to the fact that he has met – of all people – Venezuela’s President Maduro.

However, it could have been much worse for Biden.

For the most part, he managed to avoid getting bogged down defending his own past like he did in the June debate, when he clashed with Harris. Instead, he steered his answers towards the future – a much safer proposition for a candidate whose past views are dangerously at odds with current Democratic voters’.

The debate ended with a question from the moderators about personal setbacks, and this is where Biden won back the audience.

The Vice President recalled losing family members to tragedy and finding purpose in his work. His answer was raw and emotional, but it also exposed (better than any political argument he could make) Biden’s core strength in the face of personal and emotional pressure – a great asset to any President.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren has done well in the debates so far, and the third was no different. She has a distinctive style of debating that is personable yet very details-oriented (although as John Delaney can tell you, she can sting when she wishes to), and it was well suited to the cooperative atmosphere in Houston.

Though some expected the debate to be dominated by a Biden-Warren grudge match, this never emerged; the closest that came to happening was during the debate over healthcare. While Warren held her own in that portion of the debate, many of the strongest arguments were made by Bernie Sanders.

Warren avoided a directly combative approach for the whole of the debate, by avoiding an explicit progressive versus neoliberal or left versus right mindset, framing the issues in insightful ways.

On healthcare, for example, instead of directly taking on Biden’s assertions that people don’t want to change to a public plan, she pointed out — with gusto — that nobody actually likes their healthcare insurance company (i.e. United Healthcare), framing her position as a “cut out the middlemen” approach.

On foreign policy, Warren argued for withdrawal from Afghanistan while simultaneously praising (and playing up her family connections to) America’s armed services: “They will do anything we ask them to. But we cannot ask them to solve problems that they alone cannot solve.”

In this debate, Warren managed to position herself as the most progressive candidate in the field – which must have surprised Bernie Sanders’ team.

Warren led the field on addressing climate justice, creating progressive trade policies, and calling out big money in politics. This was less to do with clever maneuvering by Warren and more to do with Sanders not being given opportunities, but Warren’s team will certainly be pleased with the result.

When asked about personal setbacks, Warren recalled losing her dream job as a public school teacher when she became pregnant.

Her story of overcoming that obstacle, going to law school, and becoming a professor was an effective way to dismantle the critiques portraying Warren as an ivory–tower elitist. Not only that, but Warren’s story will likely resonate with a lot of white, middle income women – a key demographic for Democrats in 2020.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’ performance was largely consistent with his earlier performances, going back to 2016, but more and more it seems that the other candidates have got the hang of how to deal with the socialist firebrand’s rhetoric.

The seventy-eight year-old senator had a rough start to the debate, with his voice sounding painfully hoarse, but he warmed up as the night went on.

However, that may have been because he spoke less; despite being central to the healthcare debate, overall Sanders spoke the third least of any candidate.

Sanders was strongest in his defense of Medicare for All, arguing fiercely with Joe Biden and effectively laying out the many problems with the American healthcare system. However, Sanders was less effective in communicating his other big ideas; the short discussion of climate action was led by Elizabeth Warren, despite the fact that Sanders’ plan is arguably the most far-reaching of any candidate’s.

There was also a surprising moment when Sanders passed up an opportunity to condemn the filibuster, the Senate’s ridiculous practice of allowing the few to override the many, while other candidates such as Warren favored eliminating it.

Unsurprisingly for a socialist on American television, Sanders was subjected to unfair comparisons by the ABC moderators (that the other candidates were spared from). In this case, Jorge Ramos asked Sanders how his brand of democratic socialism is different from the tyrannical policies of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

(As if to demonstrate the ridiculous framing of this issue, the Republicans aired a political ad during the debate that compared Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the genocidal Khmer Rouge of Cambodia). At first, Sanders laughed out loud, then to his credit he denounced Maduro’s dictatorship and patiently explained how his politics can be better compared to those of Canada and Northern Europe.

Sanders often struggles to make himself a sympathetic figure, and his answer to the ABC question about personal setbacks illustrates that.

He started by briefly mentioning his childhood in a rent-controlled New York apartment, but quickly went to talking about his early days as a socialist political candidate – days when he lost elections by gigantic margins.

Sanders’ recitation of his comeback story probably thrilled his supporters. But he left out the part about falling short in his last presidential bid to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sanders’ campaign was a lot more successful than many pundits anticipated it would be, and it had a huge impact on Democratic politics.

But it didn’t get Sanders the nomination.

Although Sanders is again seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, he still identifies as an independent, as a well as a socialist. With so many other candidates to choose from, will Democratic voters looking for a change agent who can defeat Donald Trump turn to Sanders in next year’s primaries?

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