Third Democrat Presidential Debate Produces Fireworks but Little Light

Candidates fight over how far Left to take the party.

As the field of potential candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for president has winnowed down, ten who made the cut in achieving the required threshold poll and donation numbers participated in Thursday night’s debate in Houston. The current front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, was positioned between Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. They are the only candidates currently in double digits in the Real Clear Politics’ average of polls. Flanking them on the debate stage were California Senator Kamala Harris, South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former housing secretary Julián Castro. The four moderators of the 3-hour debate were George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, Linsey Davis and Jorge Ramos. There was relative decorum during the debate until near the end when left-wing protesters tried to shout Joe Biden down, chanting "Three million deportations" in reference to the illegal immigrant deportations during the Obama administration.  

Coming into the debate, Senator Warren was the one candidate showing what President George H. W. Bush used to call the Big Mo. Joe Biden continued to be ahead in various polls but appeared to be plateauing. Sanders has lost some support to Warren, but he entered the debate still a contender to be reckoned with. The other candidates have been treading water. While there may be some fluctuations in the poll numbers during the period immediately following the debate, the fluctuations are likely to be temporary. Some of the lower tier candidates such as Senator Booker, Mayor Buttigieg and Senator Klobuchar had a good night, but they are unlikely to break through. It’s still largely a 3-way race among Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Biden put on his strongest performance to date, although he rambled somewhat as the debate wore on. Warren displayed her mastery of details and trotted out her usual attacks on big corporations and monied interests. However, she held her punches against her opponents, including against Biden. She spent a fair amount of time instead talking about her personal story, stressing her early ambition to become a school teacher. Sanders railed against the billionaire class as usual. He challenged Biden on three major issues - health care, trade policy and Biden’s vote as senator to authorize the Iraq war launched in 2003. "The truth is, the big mistake—the huge mistake—and one of the big differences between you and me, I never believed what Cheney and Bush said about Iraq and I voted against the war in Iraq and help lead the opposition," Sanders said.

The prize for the lowest blow of the night goes to Julián Castro, who called into question Biden’s memory regarding the details of his own health care proposal. "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?" Castro asked Biden. "I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you're not," Castro added. “That,” Joe Biden replied, “would be a surprise to him.”  It turns out that Biden was right, and Castro was wrong, on the issue of whether Biden’s proposal would require people to buy in as opposed to being automatically enrolled.

The Democrat presidential contenders were united in their strong denunciations of President Trump. He was their convenient punching bag for virtually every problem imaginable. Terms like “racist” and white supremacist” were thrown around. Some blamed President Trump for the mass shooting in El Paso. “Obviously [Trump] didn’t pull the trigger, but he certainly been tweeting out the ammunition,” said Senator Harris. Later on, she delivered an obviously prepared joke that President Trump “reminds me of that guy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude.” One of the candidates also went after President Trump’s supporters. In response to a question from Univision anchor Jorge Ramos whether he thought that people who supported President Trump and his immigration policies are racist, Mayor Buttigieg said that “Anyone who supports this is supporting racism.” Despite the frequent barbs aimed at President Trump, however, the word “impeachment” was never uttered.

The overall state of the economy did not come up during Thursday’s debate. No wonder, considering the historically low unemployment rate, including for African Americans. Instead, the debate devolved into just how far the Democrat candidates would go in imposing fundamental structural changes on the U.S. economy, political system, and society. It became a fight over how far left the candidates were willing to take the Democratic Party. Even the most “moderate” candidates were to the left of mainstream America.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were the primary representatives of the far-left stratum of the Democratic Party where virtually all the energy of the party’s base resides today. They literally want to revolutionize the country’s economic, political and social systems and wasted no time drawing sharp contrasts with their more “moderate” rivals who prefer the approach of taking one step at a time. Health care provided the prime example.

Sanders, more than Warren, took the fight to Biden on health care. Rather than defend the “status quo,” which Sanders accused Biden of doing, Sanders said that "We need a health care system that guarantees health care to all people as every other major country does, not a system which provides $100 billion a year in profit for the drug companies and the insurance companies." He said that Biden would have “to defend the fact that 500,000 Americans are going bankrupt.”  

Joe Biden, casting himself as the more adult establishmentarian on the debate stage, stuck to his script of urging incremental improvements to existing laws and policies rather than advocating revolutionary changes. He continued to hitch his wagon to Barack Obama’s legacy. “I’m for Barack,” he said, while discussing health care and saying that Senator Warren was “for Bernie.” Biden added, “I think the Obamacare worked.” Senator Warren avoided the trap Biden was trying to set in pushing her into having to choose between embracing Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment and dismissing it as totally inadequate. Warren praised Obama for having “fundamentally transformed health care,” but outlined her notion of how to improve on it. Her solution? “Costs are going to go up for giant corporations, but for hard-working families across this country, costs are going to go down,” Warren said. Senator Sanders would agree with Warren’s prescription but avoided making any positive remarks about what Obama had accomplished with Obamacare.

Biden differentiated himself from his more progressive rivals by contrasting the price of adding a public insurance option to Obamacare that he supported with the single-payer “Medicare-for-all” system, backed by Warren and Sanders who would ban private insurance. Biden said that Senator Warren needed to discuss honestly how she would pay for her expensive plan. When asked how she would pay for her ambitious Medicare-for-all program, Warren said, “We pay for it, those at the very top, the richest individuals and the biggest corporations, are going to pay more. And middle class families are going to pay less.” She evaded a question on whether taxes would have to be raised for the middle class, claiming like Bernie Sanders that their total cost of health care will not increase. Mocking Sander’s suggestion that companies would pay more to their workers if they did not have to pay for their health-care coverage, Biden retorted, "For a socialist, you have a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do."

Joe Biden was not the only candidate to criticize the Sanders-Warren version of Medicare-for-all. Mayor Buttigieg said, for example, that such a plan demonstrates a lack of trust in the American people to make their own decisions. Senator Klobuchar said that taking away the right of Americans to keep their private insurance plans against their will was “a bad idea.”

On gun control, the candidates were more aligned with each other in calling for tougher gun control laws. Senator Warren would eliminate the Senate filibuster to push through more far-reaching gun control measures. Exploiting the El Paso mass shooting tragedy, Beto O’Rourke came right out and said what others may have been thinking. When asked to confirm his past statement that Americans who own AR-15s and AK-47s should have to sell them to the government, O’Rourke said “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” Such gun confiscation is a direct challenge to the Second Amendment.  

On trade, the candidates criticized President Trump’s reliance on tariffs as leverage to secure better trade deals but offered no practical alternatives. Castro said he “would immediately begin to negotiate with China to ratchet down that trade war.” How original!  Senator Warren thought she had a better strategy. “I want to negotiate trade with unions at the table,” Senator Warren said. “I want to negotiate it with small farmers at the table. I want to negotiate it with environmentalists at the table. I want to negotiate with human rights activists at the table.” Biden agreed with Warren up to a point but added that, with China, “the problem isn't the trade deficit, the problem is they're stealing our intellectual property." He lashed out at China’s “corrupt practices,” and said, “You need to organize the world to take on China.” Senator Sanders played his usual role as the disgruntled critic, complaining that “for decades, we have had disastrous trade policies.”  He singled out Joe Biden for supporting such trade policies in the past.

Joe Biden came under attack for the Obama administration’s record on immigration, particularly deportations. He refused to criticize in retrospect what the administration had done. “We didn’t lock people up in cages, we didn’t separate families,” Biden said. “The president did the best thing that was able to be done.” He said that he could not do much to change the policy as vice president. Castro once again went after Biden personally, essentially accusing him of taking credit for the good things that the Obama administration accomplished while distancing himself from the more  questionable policies. In a strong response, Biden said that “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years. Good, bad and indifferent.”

When the debate finally came around to foreign policy, there was not much to distinguish the candidates on today’s crises. They all agreed, for example, that it was time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan after 18 years of war. On that point, they are also in agreement with President Trump.

When the debate was all said and done, the Trump campaign unleashed its critique by focusing on the far left end of the spectrum. “Democrats’ big government socialism would force a government takeover of healthcare, eliminate private insurance, provide free healthcare to illegal immigrants, kill millions of jobs by ending the fossil fuel industry, disarm the American public, and raise taxes to pay for their radical agenda,” said Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump campaign national press secretary. “President Trump’s record of accomplishment easily eclipses any of these weak candidates. Thank you to ABC and the Democrat Party for another infomercial for President Trump!” Over the host city of Houston, the campaign flew banners saying, “socialism will kill Houston’s economy.”

Game on.

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