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“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AK-47s” – but otherwise a low-drama debate

If nothing else, the third Democratic presidential primary debate showed just how far Democrats’ consensus has shifted.  

By Nicky Woolf

Andrew Yang was the wildcard – the Marianne Williamson – of the third Democratic primary debate, held in Houston on Thursday night. Before it started, Yang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur running on a platform of Universal Basic Income, made headlines by announcing a “pilot programme” lottery giveaway of $120,000 to ten randomly selected families. 

But the headlines were more confused than laudatory. When he announced it on the stage, the bemused reaction from South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg about summed it up: “It’s original, I’ll give you that”.

Williamson’s energy was missed somewhat from Thursday’s debate. Yang’s slightly out-there proposals aside – the investor suggested solving the problem of money in politics by giving everyone in the country “100 democracy dollars” each to give to candidates they like – Thursday’s ABC News debate was largely, well, boring. 

That’s no bad thing. It was boring in the best possible way: it lacked drama. Proceedings were interrupted briefly by protesters near the end, but overall there were few fractious exchanges, few shouting matches. It was ten grown-up candidates, all excessively qualified, having a substantive debate about the issues.

One exception was Julián Castro, who decided to follow senator Kamala Harris’s strategy from the first debate of attacking former vice president Joe Biden. That served Harris well in June, but Castro didn’t land it as well this time around. In a testy exchange about the difference between opt-in structures in their healthcare policies, the former secretary of housing and urban development seemed to inflect an “are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago” in a way that made it sound a lot like a dig at Biden’s age, following it up with “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you’re not”. 

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Later, he continued his attack, saying the former vice president “wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions”. But Biden didn’t take the bait; he leaned back and absorbed the blows, and Castro ended up coming across looking a little petty and mean-spirited.

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Because previous debates have been split in two, this was the first time the three major frontrunners – former vice president Joe Biden, and senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – were all on one stage together, as the more restrictive qualification standards winnowed the field down to ten candidates. 

That excluded most of the outside-shot candidates, like New York mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose position in the polls incentivise them to take pot-shots at the frontrunners. But for the most part, there was little in the way of fireworks between those who made the debate-stage either, Castro’s swipes at Biden aside.

That’s not to say they didn’t clash. Bernie, Biden and Warren got into the weeds early over the differences between their healthcare plans. A divide emerged among the moderates like Biden and Buttigieg and the more radical candidates like Warren and Sanders – Buttigieg summed up the difference pithily as “medicare-for-all” vs “medicare-for-all-who-want”. 

Biden asked Sanders if he really thought companies would return money no longer spent on insurance to their employees. “Matter of fact, I do,” Sanders said. “For a socialist, you have more faith in corporate America than I do,” Biden quipped back.

But the three frontrunners – in fact, all the candidates on the stage – largely agreed on a lot of the fundamentals. As New Jersey senator Cory Booker said early on: “We’ve got one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president, and we cannot lose it by the way we talk about each other and degrade each other”. The candidates seemed for the most part to take that ideal to heart.

In the case of healthcare, all the candidates agreed that everyone should, in one way or other, be covered; in the case of climate change, they all agreed it represents an existential threat demanding immediate action. Much of the debate was an exercise in highly-qualified, informed people arguing affably over how exactly to fix problems they all agreed need to be fixed. (It is a shame, though, that ABC did not ask, in three hours of debate, a single question about abortion rights.)

There was disagreement, but it was impressively substantive and unmessy – almost bizarre to watch after so many years of politics being a never-ending clown show. The sense one got was that pretty much any of these candidates would make an able president.

There weren’t that many obvious slip-ups, either. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris came under scrutiny from the moderators for their prosecutorial records, and were on the defensive, though Harris put in by no means a lacklustre performance. Booker seemed to be having the most fun, and had some of the best jokes. Warren was steady and energetic. Sanders, despite a distressingly croaky voice, managed to land a few good lines too. 

In the end, Thursday’s debate is likely to do little to move the needle much in terms of the positioning in this primary race – though Castro may suffer for the harshness of his attack on Biden, and it may prove to have been fatal for Yang’s campaign to have failed to break through even with his gimmicky cash giveaway. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose poll numbers have been slipping recently, had a solid night that may shore up his support, but otherwise nobody over-performed enough to move dramatically upward, no major candidate messed up enough to lose significant ground. 

Biden, the frontrunner, probably had the best night on points. Obama’s former vice president came out strongly, mounted a forceful defence of his policies and past in a way that has seemed to escape him in previous debates. He wasn’t entirely without his gaffes – he wouldn’t be Biden without them – at one point saying that children growing up should listen to “the record-player”. 

But the night was interesting in terms of what it showed about just how dramatically the Democratic consensus has shifted to the left in the Trump era on lots of issues. Universal healthcare coverage – in some form or other – had unanimous consensus on stage.

Biden had the most jaw-dropping moment after a question on criminal justice with the pronouncement not only that “we are in a situation now where so many people are in jail who shouldn’t be in jail,” but further that “nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime”. 

That is genuinely impressive; a right and courageous, even truly radical, thing to say on a national debate-stage. If Biden meant it as he said it, he should be commended – though it remains to be seen whether his moderate base, let alone the general electorate, are ready for so revolutionary a policy. Some of his answers at the debate were a bit… rambly. It’s possible we will see the line walked back in the coming months. 

The biggest applause of the night was also something that would have been unthinkable from a mainstream Democratic candidate even four years ago: O’Rourke, whose home town of El Paso was recently the site of one of America’s worst mass shootings, said: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AK-47s. Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15s”. And the room went nuts.

It is worth noting, though, that Republicans will likely make much electoral hay out of both of those lines come the general election.