The Big Moments from the Third Democratic Debate - Rolling Stone
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The Big Moments from the Third Democratic Debate

The third Democratic presidential debate in Houston was… really quite good

ABC NEWS - 9/12/19 - Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, "World News Tonight" Anchor and Managing Editor David Muir, ABC News Correspondent Linsey Davis and Univision Anchor Jorge Ramos moderate the Democratic debate from Texas Southern University's Health & PE Center in Houston, TX on Thursday, September 12 on ABC and Univision (8-11 ET). (Walt Disney Television/Heidi Gutman)BERNIE SANDERS, JOE BIDEN, ELIZABETH WARRENABC NEWS - 9/12/19 - Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, "World News Tonight" Anchor and Managing Editor David Muir, ABC News Correspondent Linsey Davis and Univision Anchor Jorge Ramos moderate the Democratic debate from Texas Southern University's Health & PE Center in Houston, TX on Thursday, September 12 on ABC and Univision (8-11 ET). (Walt Disney Television/Heidi Gutman)BERNIE SANDERS, JOE BIDEN, ELIZABETH WARREN

Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television

The third Democratic presidential debate in Houston delivered. The diverse field — narrowed to the top 10 candidates, all sharing the same stage — engaged in a spirited disagreement about Medicare for All, grappled with the party’s (and Barack Obama’s) record on immigration and deportation, as well as shared personal stories of family loss, professional struggle and coming out as a gay man in a state governed by Mike Pence. 

The debate was also marked by standout exchanges — including bold declarations on gun control, attempted dunks on the aged, and a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-styled giveaway only the YangGang could love. 

Below we present the biggest moments from Thursday’s great debate in Texas.

Biden, Warren and Sanders Duke It Out over Medicare for All

Thursday night’s debate was always going to be a clash of the titans: the first time all three of the top-polling candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — shared the stage. Biden drew an early distinction between himself and Warren, trying to cast her views as extreme and his as mainstream: “I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack. I think the Obamacare worked.”

Warren didn’t let the charge of being anti-Obama go unanswered, taking pains to compliment and credit Obama. “We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America and committed this country to health care for every human being, “ she said. (Candidates bending over backwards to praise Obama became a running theme of this third debate.) “The question is,” Warren continued, “how best can we improve on it?”

Biden declared Medicare for All a pipe dream that would cost $30 trillion; Sanders shot back that the status quo over the same period would cost the country $50 trillion, and, more to the point, that under the current system a cancer diagnosis often means financial ruin. Biden, whose son died of cancer, bristled at the accusation. “Every single person who is diagnosed with cancer or any other disease can automatically become part of this plan. They will not go bankrupt because of that.”

Joining the fray, Amy Klobuchar decried the fact that Sanders’ Medicare for All bill would do away with “private insurance as we know it… 149 million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance…in four years. I don’t think that’s a bold idea, I think it’s a bad idea,” she said.

Warren’s reply? “I’ve actually never met anybody who likes their health insurance company. I’ve met people who like their doctors. I’ve met people who like their nurses. I’ve met people who like their pharmacists. I’ve met people who like their physical therapists. What they want is access to health care.”

From there — with the notable exception of Cory Booker, who plainly affirmed his support for Medicare for All — each of the candidates offered their own spin on a half-measure somewhere betwixt the ACA and M4A. Or, as Beto O’Rourke put it, between “forc[ing] people on to Medicare” and “incrementally” improving what we have. His answer? “Everyone who’s uninsured… insufficiently insured, cannot afford it, can move over to Medicare.”(Everyone else keeps their plan.)

Buttiegeg: “Medicare for all who want it.”

Castro: Automatic enrollment in Medicare for anyone who is uninsured; the rest can “hold on to strong, solid private health insurance.”

Harris: “Under my Medicare for All plan, people have the choice of a private plan or a public plan.” (::Thinking emoji::)

Beto Says “Hell Yes” He Wants to Take America’s Assault Weapons

O’Rourke’s campaign took on a new tenor after a gunman killed 22 people in a Walmart in his home town of El Paso early last month. He skipped out on a high-profile trip through Iowa to stay in Texas and console former constituents, and he started speaking with more fiery language about the need to enact meaningful gun control legislation. He soon announced that as president he would institute a mandatory buy back of assault weapons.

He removed any doubt about his position on the issue Thursday night, answering in the affirmative when asked whether he wants to confiscate certain guns from Americans. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.”

In not shying away from the idea that the government should “confiscate” assault weapons from Americans, O’Rourke leaned into one of the right’s favorite talking points in the gun control debate: that Democrats are coming to take your guns. Republicans on Twitter quickly pounced on O’Rourke’s response, but it drew the biggest applause of the night in Houston. This shouldn’t be surprising. A Quinnipiac poll released late last month found that 71 percent of Democrats support a mandatory assault weapons buyback, and that a whopping 60 percent of all voters, including 37 percent of Republicans, support a nationwide ban on the guns.

What once was a radical position is slowly becoming the default stance of the Democratic Party, thanks in part to O’Rourke ramping up his rhetoric over the past six weeks. That’s what happens when, as he detailed Thursday night, you meet a mother who had to watch her 15-year-old daughter bleed to death after getting shot with an AR-15.

Andrew Yang’s Big Money Sweepstakes

Andrew Yang’s campaign had been teasing an “unprecedented” move in the build up to the debate. And he delivered — in a weirdly predictable way. Yang promised to launch a demonstration of his $1,000-a-month universal basic income to 10 supporters, paid out with campaign contributions. 

“When you donate money to a presidential campaign, what happens?” Yang asked during his opening statement. “The politician spends the money on TV ads and consultants and you hope it works out. It’s time to trust ourselves more than our politicians. My campaign will now give a freedom dividend of $1,000-a-month for an entire year to 10 American families, someone watching this at home right now,” Yang added. “If you believe that you can solve your own problems better than any politician, go to and tell us how $1,000 a month will help you do just that.” (A visit to the website promises a chance to win, “No Strings Attached,” replete with fine print about the “promotion” being “void where prohibited.”)

The reception on stage was icy. Mayor Pete — flashing an eye roll that was every bit McKinsey-consultant-reacts-to Van Wilder, responded: “It’s original, I’ll give you that.” Kamala Harris responded in a different way — with a peal of laughter that seemed to last for 30 seconds, delaying the continuation of the debate. 

Yang’s proposal is already drawing questions of legality: “When donors give, they have a reasonable expectation that their money will be used on a campaign and not on somebody’s car payment,” a former FEC lawyer told the New York Times. But Yang continues to play a unique game, breaking the fourth wall of politics, and rejecting the stodgy norms of professional politics. His salesmanship has Trumpian overtones — appealing to the American love of a sweepstakes, balloons and poster-sized checks. The strategy may be risible to elected politicians. But Yang, who has already outlasted a pair of governors, and continues to polling above several of the “serious” candidates in the race, may yet have the last laugh. 

Castro Goes After Biden’s Mental Acuity 

Former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro was acting more like the Secretary of MUD slinging (::dodges a hail of tomatoes::) on Thursday night.

Castro, who earned praise after ethering Beto O’Rourke in the first debate, fumbled his attacks on Joe Biden in Houston. Castro sought to differentiate his health care plan from Biden’s by emphasizing the uninsured would be automatically enrolled in his plan. Biden protested, saying his plan did the same, and Castro responded with a less than subtle swipe at the former vice president’s advanced age. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that,” Castro said.

It would have been a brutal own… if it were true. But Castro was the one who had it wrong: Biden had not said anything to that effect. And beating up on the handsy former vice president earned him scowls and scolds from both Buttigieg (“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable”) and Klobuchar (“Yeah!”)

Castro shook off the calls to play nice (“That’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete”), but no sooner had the debate ended, than the cable-broadcasted civility lectures commenced. “I just thought this was not cool,” Klobuchar said later on CNN.

Left unsaid was the uncomfortable truth raised by Castro’s comments: Joe Biden is quite old, and over the course of this campaign he has stumbled over his words, mixed up his points, lost his train of thought and forgotten key details of stories — and those are things voters should be considering and his rivals should be asking questions about as he auditions for one of the most important jobs in the world. They should probably, however, get their facts straight first. 

Biden Invokes a Record Player

Joe Biden’s record on race has been an albatross of his campaign, especially on the debate stage. In June, he was eviscerated by Kamala Harris over his history regarding school bussing and his recent praise of a segregationist lawmaker. He didn’t fare very well on Thursday night, either.

When moderator Lindsey Davis told Biden she wanted to talk to him about “inequality in schools and race,” the frontrunner guffawed. Davis went on to bring up when in 1975 Biden told a reporter that he’ll “be damned” if he’s going to “feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago,” regarding slavery. Biden continued to smirk as Davis then asked him what responsibility Americans have today to repair the legacy of slavery

His response did not include any sort of apology or qualification of the comment mentioned by Davis. Instead, Biden offered a bizarre prescription centered around the need for more school psychologists, and also more…words.

“Social workers help parents deal with how to raise their children,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t know what to play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there.”

Mayor Pete Talks about Coming Out

The ABC and Univision moderators closed an already solid performance with a question about overcoming professional adversity. And the candidates delivered with a string of moving personal stories. Biden discussed the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident, Warren mentioned the struggles of being a pregnant woman at a time when that was a disqualifier for employment, Klobuchar discussed the difficult birth of her child and her fight for the right of mothers to stay with their infants in the hospital, Beto returned to the scenes he’d witnessed in El Paso, and several candidates hit on the difficulties of growing up in poverty.

But Pete Buttigieg offered a first in the history of U.S. presidential debates when he told the story of his decision to come out to his constituents.

You know, as a military officer serving under “don’t ask/don’t tell,” and as an elected official in the state of Indiana when Mike Pence was governor, at a certain point, when it came to professional setbacks, I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I was, was going to be the ultimate career-ending professional setback.

I came back from the deployment and realized that you only get to live one life.

And I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out. I had no idea what kind of professional setback it would be, especially because inconveniently it was an election year in my socially conservative community.

What happened was that, when I trusted voters to judge me based on the job that I did for them, they decided to trust me and re-elected me with 80 percent of the vote. And what I learned was that trust can be reciprocated and that part of how you can win and deserve to win is to know what’s worth more to you than winning.

This is a bleak time in American politics, driven by a white nationalist president’s daily efforts to bend the arc of the moral universe away from justice — and millions of followers eager to join him. But at a time when so much energy is spent just to slow the rate at which past progress is eroded, it’s worth marking a moment that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago: A viable presidential candidate on Thursday night told his coming out story.

He’s the first presidential candidate to do it, but he won’t be the last.


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