The Democratic debate featured both great highs and steep lows. This time around, there was only one stage and it featured about half of the candidates. So what did we learn this third time around?
Ten candidates met the qualifications determined by the Democratic National Convention to participate. The criteria, which had to be reached by the end of August, was that candidates had to be at two percent in four recent polls and have at least 130,000 individual donors.
The debate was held at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. It was fitting, then, that the two Texans of the group, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, stood next to each other.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) were on the far left of the stage. Both senators have had a hard time breaking into the top tier of candidates. Their performances last night did not appear strong enough to take their campaigns to the next level, although only time, and voters, will tell.
The middle six included the consistent frontrunners of the election thus far, as well as the two biggest surprises. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. was the first rising star of the 2020 race. But it is now Andrew Yang, the New York entrepreneur, making the headlines for his unexpected success. Yang managed to outcompete other, more conventional candidates to earn a spot yesterday.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was most successful in the first debate. The boost she got from directly confronting former Vice President Joe Biden, however, did not stick. Her opening and closing remarks last night. were strong. However, her overall appearance seemed tense and some of her quips were met with awkward silence.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), with a hoarse voice, was the only supporter of a solely public healthcare system in America last night. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) spoke more than any other candidate except for the former vice president. However, her appearance was much like her previous ones: fiery, articulate and avoiding saying that her plan would increase taxes for the middle class.
Big Night for Biden
Biden, the perpetual frontrunner, has struggled in previous debates. He has had the highest profile career of all the candidates. This means his competition has plenty of ammunition to try and knock him out. Last night looked to be no different as Biden was surrounded by progressives.
However, he emerged as the star of the debate. In his opening statement, Biden called on the nation to remember everything we have accomplished. When Sanders began to talk about the healthcare system in Canada, which is the inspiration behind Medicare for All, Biden quickly reminded him that, “This is America.”
He called for the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which expired earlier this year. The law is one of his trademark pieces of legislation. He also signaled that his administration would push for stronger research into cures for Alzhiemer’s and cancer and would make the United States the leader in combating climate change.
The former Vice President’s strongest moment came at the end of the night. The last question was on the nature of resilience and professional setbacks. Biden chose to instead focus on personal tragedies including the car crash that killed his first wife and baby daughter shortly after his initial election to the Senate. He also spoke of the loss of his son Beau from brain cancer while he was serving as vice president.
While others talked of professional obstacles they overcame or tough ethical decisions they made, Biden connected with every American whose life has been affected by cancer or car accidents. When he spoke of finding a cure for cancer, it was apparent that his passion was fueled by his own grief.
The “Yang Gang” Hype: Inaccurate or Spot-On?
Andrew Yang’s campaign seemed to take-off overnight. His unique pitch of a “freedom dividend” was at first confusing. After hearing him explain it in previous debates, however, many voters are now joining the “Yang Gang.”
Yang was the only candidate on stage with no prior political experience. Instead, his background is in business, which was was on full display last night. In many of his answers, Yang championed the power of the dollar. He questioned America’s ability to rebuild nations, reminding the audience of Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggles. He also spoke of the isolation of failure when asked about his resilience, an answer that was both strong and moving.
However, his triumphs were also met with blunders. Yang’s humor tends to be self-deprecating. However, one of his quips last night bordered on offensive, even though he was acknowledging a common stereotype about his race. “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” he said.
His immigration story about his Taiwanese parents now having a presidential candidate for a son, which is the embodiment of the American dream, is powerful. Yet, when he told other immigrants to come because, “the water is great,” I could not help but think of Flint and Newark, two American cities with poisonous water.
His opening statement was definitely unique. Yang promised to give 10 families, who applied through his website, $1,000 a month for a whole year. However, the money would come from fundraising and the legality of his pledge is tenuous. It will be interesting to see if the hype surrounding his campaign continues going into October or if it is all a fluke.
Other Observations from Last Night
Julián Castro’s performance last night ensured he will not be the nominee. His answers were weaker than his competitors and he did little to actually explain what his administration would look like. The final straw was his ageist, mean shot at Biden. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago,” he repeatedly said during the health care portion of the debate.
The debate format is not set-up to really educate voters about what each candidate’s presidency would be like. The questions seemed pointed towards creating conflict, which is what a debate essentially is. Yet, some candidates remarked that there should be a debate solely on health care, much like former candidate Jay Inslee wanted a climate change debate. Perhaps someday debates will be shorter and focused on a single issue.
Former President Barack Obama received a lot of mentions last night, as did the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The debate seemed to be less about exact plans and goals. There seemed to be more talk about the moral backgrounds of each candidate and the values of America. The nominee, it seems, will be based less on who Democrats believe is the right one and more who they see as saving the essence of the United States.