What we learned from the 2020 debate in Houston
Published 5:00 AM EDT Sep 13, 2019
The top 10 showed spirit, but the breakout moments were scarce.
The leading Democratic presidential candidates appeared on stage together for the first time at Thursday night’s debate — and the field was feisty.
The intra-party debate on how to revamp the health care system remained the dominant issue. Candidates offered some of the most emotional moments discussing their visions for tightening gun laws following two mass shootings in Texas last month.
And for the third straight debate, former Vice President Joe Biden faced the toughest and most persistent barbs from his fellow Democratic White House hopefuls.
Here’s what else we gleaned from the stage in Houston:
1: Biden once again takes licks but keeps standing.
In a pointed exchange, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro attacked Biden for selling himself as Barack Obama’s wingman and partner when it’s convenient, but shying away from the former president’s more controversial decisions, including Obama’s record on deportations of undocumented immigrants.
That was after Sen. Bernie Sanders slammed Biden’s proposal to expand health care as shortsighted amidst the former vice president’s contention that Sanders Medicare for All would be too costly.
“Well, Joe said that Medicare for All would cost over $30 trillion,” said Sanders, who repeatedly referred to Biden by his first name. “That’s right, Joe. (But) status quo over 10 years will be $50 trillion. Every study done shows that Medicare for All is the most cost-effective approach to providing health care to every man, woman, and child in this country. I, who wrote the damn bill, if I may say so …”
In perhaps the most sharp exchange of the night, Castro accused Biden of forgetting what he had said two minutes earlier as they contrasted health care plans — a not so subtle dig at Biden’s penchant for gaffes.
Sharp exchange: Castro appears to misrepresent Biden’s health care plan during debate
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But a few of Biden’s Democratic rivals came to his defense, suggesting Castro’s digs went too far.
“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” South Bend, Indiana Mayor Peter Buttigieg intoned. “This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other that — my plan, your plan. Look, we all have different visions for what is better.”
At the first debate in Miami, Biden was called out by rivals for comments at a fundraiser about segregationist lawmakers and Sen. Kamala Harris landed the biggest blow over his opposition to busing to integrate schools during his time as a senator.
Biden took plenty of punches Thursday, but he walked away, once again, fairly unscathed.
2: The much anticipated Elizabeth Warren-Joe Biden showdown didn’t happen.
Soon after he entered the race in April, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts noted Biden’s ties to the credit card industry during his time in the Senate. He voted for legislation that tightened rules on who could qualify for bankruptcy protection and benefited credit card companies.
On the trail, she’s not so subtly dinged Biden for suggesting if he wins the White House, he will bring bipartisan comity to Washington.
“If they dream at all, they dream small,” Warren said in June at the California State Democratic Party Convention, using a version of a line she’s repeated on the trail. “Some say if we’d all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But our country is in a time of crisis. The time for small ideas is over.”
But in Houston, with Biden and Warren standing on the debate stage together for the first time, the sub-primary between moderate Biden and progressive Warren was fairly tempered.
Early in the debate, Biden criticized Warren and Sanders’ embrace of Medicare for All as policy that would raise taxes on middle-income people and force millions of Americans to give up their employer-provided insurance that they might like.
But Warren was ready.
“So, let’s be clear,” Warren said in a line that received sustained applause from the audience, “I’ve actually never met anybody who likes their health insurance company.”
The moment alone marked the most substantive back-and-forth between the two candidates over the course of the three-hour debate
Wizard of Oz: Kamala Harris calls Trump a ‘little dude’ and other moments from the Democratic debate
3: Democrats are united in keeping the press on Trump on gun control.
With Texas enduring two mass shootings last month, Democrats’ push for stricter gun laws got plenty of attention.
Rivals were united on the need to bolster background checks and renew an assault weapons ban. They also heaped praise on former Rep. Beto O’Rourke for his reaction after a mass shooting in El Paso last month. O’Rourke stepped off the trail for several days last month as his hometown grieved for 22 people killed by a gunman who posted an anti-immigrant screed online shortly before carrying out the rampage at crowded Walmart.
In one of the more heightened moments of the debate, O’Rourke reiterated his promise if elected to require owners of military-style weapons, such as the AR-15 and AK-47, to turn over the firearms to the government.
O’Rourke recalled meeting the mother of a 15-year-old who was gunned down in an Aug. 31 shooting in Odessa and Midland, Texas, that left eight dead
“That mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland, there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time,” O’Rourke said. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
Gun control: Beto O’Rourke: ‘Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47’ to keep children safe
Trump was briefed on Thursday by senior advisers on various courses of action he could take on gun laws. He declined to detail where he stood in comments to reporters following the briefing.
“I think we made some good progress on background checks and guns,” Trump told reporters.
One thing is certain: 2020 Democrats will continue to hammer at Trump on gun control— an issue Democrats believe they’re aligned with vast majority of Americans on—unless he takes significant action.
Harris reiterated her belief — shared by some on the left — that Trump’s rhetoric disparaging undocumented immigrants played a role in the El Paso killings.
“Well, look, I mean, obviously, he didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition,” Harris said of Trump.
4: Candidates need to can some of the canned lines.
The canned line is a tried-and-true part of debates.
In 1984, the septuagenarian Ronald Reagan memorably addressed concerns about his age with humor as he faced off against Democrat Walter Mondale. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
But on Thursday, several seemingly rehearsed lines landed with a thud.
“For a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do,” Biden quipped at Sanders. The audience did not react.
Harris laughed enthusiastically — more than the audience — after she compared Trump to the man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Donald Trump in office on trade policy, you know, he reminds me of that guy in “The Wizard of Oz,” you know, when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude?”
Harris guffawed. Moderator George Stephanopoulos, a slight man, replied, “OK. I’m not even going to take the bait,” and moved on to the next question as Harris assured him the joke was not about him.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota elicited groans across social media when she offered some NASA-themed barb at Trump in the Space City.
“Houston, we have a problem,” said Klobuchar, using a popular but erroneous quote from the radio communications between the Apollo 13 astronaut John Swigert and Mission Control. “We have a guy there that is literally running our country like a game show.”
5: Andrew Yang had his moments, but will his shtick resonate?
The entrepreneur from New York teased before Thursday’s debate that he would deliver “something big,” never done before by a presidential candidate.
He delivered by vowing in his opening statement to shell out $120,000 to ten American families over the next year — a $1,000 per month “freedom dividend” that’s the linchpin of his longshot candidacy. The proposal will almost certainly face scrutiny from the Federal Election Commission from rival campaigns or citizens questioning of whether the scheme amounts to vote buying.
Freedom dividend: Andrew Yang reveals his debate surprise – $1,000 a month for 10 more families
Yang is the anti-politician. On the stump, he jokes about how he’s the only candidate whose uttered the “fourth industrial revolution” as he makes the case for universal basic income to blunt the trauma automation and artificial intelligence innovation is and will bring on truck drivers, clerks and call-center workers.
Another regular Yang zinger: “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”
But when Yang invoked his Asian heritage in a jokey way on the debate stage Thursday— “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors…”— the lighthearted attempt at the ethnic-tinged humor fell flat with the audience at Texas Southern University and faced scorn on social media for amplifying the model minority stereotype.
Ethnic humor: Andrew Yang on healthcare during the Democratic Debate: ‘I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors’
Yang’s ability to emerge from obscurity to a top 10 candidate appearing on a winnowed stage is certainly remarkable.
But he still has some ways to go before emerging from the fringe.