7 takeaways from the Democratic debate in Houston
Still sitting there, battered and benumbed?
Take 10 presidential candidates, put them on a stage for nearly three hours, and what you get is an onslaught of verbiage that taxed even the most stoic political devotee.
None of the two prior rounds, in June and July, did much to shake the fundamentals of the Democratic race, and it remains to be seen whether Thursday’s marathon session changes that equilibrium. It doesn’t seem likely.
Until that’s clear, here are seven takeaways from the long night’s journey in Houston.
Joe Biden goes the distance
The former vice president and Democratic front-runner turned in one of his strongest and most assertive performances. (Graded on a curve.)
He tossed out some of his usual word salad, especially as the evening wore on. But for the most part he credibly defended himself and delivered one of the punchiest zingers during an exchange with the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders over his support for a government-run, Medicare for all program.
Biden challenged the notion that projected savings enjoyed by corporations would make their way back to workers.
“As a matter of fact, they will in our bill,” the Vermont senator replied.
“Well, let me tell you something,” Biden shot back. “For a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.”
Warren faces incoming
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has enjoyed a steady and nearly unimpeded rise in the Democratic contest, pulling just behind Biden in some state and national polls.
She had the benefit in the first two debates of appearing on a stage without the front-runner, and went largely unchallenged. That changed Thursday night.
She was pressed — by Biden, among others — to defend herself on several fronts, including her backing of Medicare for all.
“She’s with Bernie,” said Biden, “I’m for Barack” — a turn of phrase that crystallized the choice facing Democrats, between revolution and restoration.
Warren remained unfazed, arguing that government-run healthcare — which Biden opposes — would have a significant impact on corporations and the rich but leave middle-class Americans with more money in their pockets.
O'Rourke shakes off the shackles
No candidate has fallen further from his position in early polling than Beto O’Rourke, who entered the presidential race on a tidal wave of hype and has been sinking ever since.
The former Texas congressman found renewed purpose after last month’s deadly mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, turning his campaign into a blistering crusade against President Trump and, he asserts, the president’s bigotry that has fomented violence across the country.
He’s vowed to pursue a path less traveled — away from the candidate-saturated early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire — and shun the usual niceties of political discourse, which has meant the occasional F-bomb (though not on Thursday night) and some of the rawest, most scalding rhetoric anyone has directed at the incumbent.
Indeed, O’Rourke all but accused Trump of having blood on his hands, saying the El Paso gunman — who targeted Latinos — was “inspired to kill by our president.”
Later, the Democrat drew cheers from the studio audience when he bluntly asserted, “There is a white supremacist in the White House, and he poses a mortal threat to people of color all across the country.”
O'Rourke was a far greater presence than in the first two debates, even winning praise from his rivals for his strong stand on gun control. He showed why so many Democrats were excited at the start of his candidacy.
Julián Castro swings below the belt
The overarching, but largely unspoken, question hanging over Biden’s campaign is his age — 76 — and acuity.
His penchant for gaffes and occasional stumbling over facts has resulted in a good deal of privately discussed but rarely vocalized concern among Democrats about whether the former vice president is, indeed, mentally fit for office.
Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro made the implicit quite explicit when he taunted Biden during a back-and-forth over healthcare, suggesting an embarrassing lapse of memory.
“Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?” Castro said, to groans from the studio audience and a fierce backlash on Twitter and other social media.
“I am fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you’re not,” Castro said of his support for “Medicare for all.”
“That’ll be a surprise to him,” the vice president responded, dryly.
It was a bold — and bald — attempt by Castro to stand out from the pack and risked no small backlash from voters who prefer the candidates to aim their fire at the occupant of the White House.
Worse, it was not an entirely clean hit, given some ambiguity in Biden’s statements.
Democrats love Obama
The nation’s 44th president didn’t have all that great a night the last time the Democrats gathered to debate.
In July’s session he was faulted for deporting too many people during his administration and was accused of falling short on healthcare by failing to deliver the more expansive universal coverage that candidates are touting this campaign.
All that changed Thursday night, as President Obama was repeatedly and fondly name-checked.
“I want to give credit to Barack Obama for really bringing us this far,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said before outlining her proposal to build on the former president’s signature Affordable Care Act.
Of course, no one was more fervent in his embrace than Biden.
After Castro mocked the former vice president for scampering to Obama’s side to take credit for his achievements while shrinking from criticism of the administration, Biden delivered his most steely look and resolute tone.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years,” he said. “Good, bad, indifferent.”
Kamala Harris makes nice
The senator was the breakout star of June’s first presidential debate when she attacked Biden in a searing exchange over race.
The two continued their wrangling in July’s installment, laying aside the professions of respect and mutual affection they had expressed before they became rivals.
But on Thursday night, Harris bantered cheerfully with Biden and directed her criticisms entirely at Trump, at one point likening him to “the small dude” behind the curtain “like in the Wizard of Oz.”
When Biden ignored one of the moderators, refusing to pause after going over his allotted time during a renewed discussion of race — “I’m going to go like the rest of them, twice over, OK?” — Harris could be heard chuckling off-camera.
Ten is still a crowd
The Democratic National Committee, which set the rules deciding who made the stage and who got left out, stiffened the criteria for Thursday night’s forum with an eye on culling the sprawling field of 20-plus contestants.
(Though one qualifying benchmark, a blink-and-you-miss-it 2% in the polls, didn’t exactly require a candidate to set the world on fire).
For the first two rounds, 10 contestants took the stage on consecutive nights. In Houston, there was just a single debate night — but, again, a floorboard-busting 10 candidates crammed lectern to lectern.
The result was a familiar combination of candidate cross-talk, beat-the-clock sound bites and marginalized hopefuls disappearing for long stretches of time.
Not everyone was asked, or required to answer, the same question; in short, it was largely a debate in name only.
And three hours was torture, for the candidates and viewer alike.
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