NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

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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