Going into the third Democratic debate on September 12, one thing was evident: Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont were considered the “big three” of the race — the only three candidates to be polling in double digits. As such, all eyes were on these three candidates to see if one faltered or rose to the occasion.
Perhaps secondary was the possibility that someone else would break out from the crowded field and have a moment — because as primary season slowly inches on, so does the clock. Realistically, time is running out for candidates that are trying to make up lost ground and seize the narrative. While there were some differences in tone between this debate and the previous two, the state of the race largely stayed the same: Coming out of last Thursday, this remains a contest among Warren, Biden, and Sanders.
What was welcome was that, over all, this debate was more unifying in tone compared to past debates. There were stark ideological clashes between the moderate and the progressive bases of the Democratic party in previous months and, while what the party stands for and what it wants to be in the future is an important conversation to be had, it was a sobering change of pace to see the ten candidates at Texas Southern University sound a uniform, urgent call to action on the myriad issues that our nation is dealing with today.
Granted, this debate wasn’t without its moments of tension — among them, healthcare. Healthcare continues to be the most divisive issue in the Democratic primary. The one thing that will remain unchanged in this race is the ideological difference among the candidates on just how far the government should go regarding a public option that the public can opt in to, or universal single-payer coverage that guarantees health coverage to everyone. Biden sparred with Warren and Sanders over Medicare-for-all, claiming that the two Senators haven’t disclosed how much the proposal would actually cost.
In one of the more confrontational moments of the debate, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro seemed to imply that Biden’s memory was faltering when he pressed Biden about his health care plan. It came off as a low blow, because Castro was a bit misleading in the difference in his health care plan and Biden’s (Politifact rated Castro’s assertion as “Mostly False”). While Biden’s plan requires people to “opt in” to a public option, it’s important to note that once that paper work is filled out, no one can be rejected. That being said, as has been a trend in each debate so far, Biden, at times, was unclear and meandering with his responses throughout the debate, raising questions about just how effectively he’d be able to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump if he were to become the Democratic nominee. He’s still the frontrunner, but has shown signs of vulnerability. Meanwhile, Warren continues to gain ground and build an energized group of supporters.
Climate change, criminal justice reform (including reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders, allowing them voting rights and access to full services such as Pell Grants), and gun reform were some of the most pressing issues of the debate. In one of the night’s most memorable moments, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke from Texas proclaimed, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
While much of the Democratic field supports universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and a buy-back program, O’Rourke’s proposals for combating gun violence go considerable further; O’Rourke is calling for a mandatory federal buy-back program. According to ABC News, O’Rourke is also calling for banks and credit card companies to “stop processing assault weapons sales and firearm transactions without a background check…. This call appears to be the first of its kind among the Democratic candidates.”
In a refreshing change of pace this month, there was a single night of debate; the previous two debates were broken up into consecutive nights because of the twenty-plus candidates that were running for the Democratic nomination. While we got a single night of ten candidates who met the Democratic National Committee’s threshold, next month looks to return back to the two-night spectacle, as there are currently eleven candidates (Thursday’s ten plus Tom Steyer, who has been at the forefront of calling for Trump’s impeachment) who qualify for the October round.
The first round of primary voting takes place in Iowa on February 3, 2020, and the window for a candidate to alter the trajectory of the race is shrinking, and fast