October Democratic Presidential Debate: The Big Moments - Rolling Stone
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The Biggest Moments from the Democrats’ October Presidential Debate

There were more than 180 minutes of debate on Tuesday night. Here are some of the ones that mattered most

Sanders, Warren and Biden headline a dozen-deep field of 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidatesSanders, Warren and Biden headline a dozen-deep field of 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates

Sanders, Warren and Biden headline a dozen-deep field of 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates

Meg Kinnard/AP/Shutterstock; Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Shutterstock; Arnaud Andrieu/SIPA/Shutterstock

The fourth Democratic debate at Otterbein University, outside of Columbus, Ohio, featured the field’s new frontrunner on the hot seat. 

Elizabeth Warren was on the receiving end of barbs by an aggressive tag team of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, with an occasional pile on by Joe Biden. The contest spoke to Warren’s perceived strength in the Democratic field. And the subject matter — contesting the virtues of Medicare for All, a wealth tax, and the merits of “dream big, fight hard” approach to politics — underscored just how much Warren has shaped the terms of the 2020 debate.

While the Massachusetts senator was parrying attacks, the star of the debate shone with unexpected brightness. Bernie Sanders, just two weeks removed from suffering a heart attack, showed no ill effects from his hospitalization, and in fact delivered one of his more energetic and eloquent debate performances, arguing that “we cannot afford a billionaire class, whose greed and corruption has been at war with the working families of this country for 45 years.”

The three hour debate, moderated by CNN and the New York Times, offered viewers lofty speeches about the president’s impeachable high crimes, a spirited debate about Syria and U.S. foreign policy, as well as several defining moments. 

Below we unpack five memorable fights, introductions, and hat tips worth remembering — as well as one moment that didn’t happen but should have.


The consequences of Warren’s momentum were on display during the debate’s health care discussion, as lower-polling candidates zeroed in on her for criticism. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar tried to carve up Warren over Medicare-for-All, accusing her of lacking candor about how she planned to pay for it.

Sanders, author of the legislation to socialize U.S. health insurance, has acknowledged paying for his plan will mean raising taxes, thought caveating that middle-class households will end up paying less total for health coverage. Warren has also made the argument about total cost, but she won’t take the bait on the “raise taxes” framing, repeatedly declining to say.

When she dodged the question twice in succession on Tuesday, Buttigieg pounced. “A yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” he said. “Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.”

Sanders jumped in to reiterate that taxes would go up, making sure to note that the increase would in the end be less than Americans would save by not having to pay out-of-pocket for health care, Buttigieg, who supports a Medicare-for-All Who Want It” plan that retains the private insurance industry, praised Sanders’ “straightforward answer.”

So did Klobuchar. “At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” she said. “And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”

“The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done,” added the senator from Minnesota.

UBI Gets Some Love — and Andrew Yang Some Respect

Andrew Yang — despite his heady fundraising and decent poll numbers — hasn’t gotten a lot of respect through the first three debates. That changed Tuesday in Ohio. His proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) got a broad airing, with multiple candidates either endorsing his policy outright; calling for it to be studied; or taking pains to show how their anti-poverty programs work in a similar fashion.

Yang kicked off the discussion by contrasting his UBI proposal to Bernie Sanders’ pitch for a federal job guarantee. Yang made the argument that his “Freedom Dividend” of $1,000 a month would give Americans more freedom and self-determination — without saddling them with the bureaucratic hassles of working for Uncle Sam. Yang added that a UBI also values the work that takes place outside of the confines of traditional employment, for example the labor of women who stay home to raise children, as Yang’s wife does caring for their young sons, one of whom has autism.

Nobody tried to dunk on Yang like he was bringing up a cockeyed idea. Gabbard, in fact, came right out and endorsed Yang’s proposal: “I think universal basic income is a good idea to help provide that security so that people can have the freedom to make the kinds of choices that they want to see.” Julian Casto insisted the idea was worth testing to combat the displacement of workers by automation, seeming to surprise himself by saying: “I’m even willing to pilot something like UBI and to see how that would work.”

Booker tipped his hat to Yang, though he insisted a $15 minimum wage would be more effective. Kamala Harris, speaking of the struggles of breadwinners sacrificing their attendance at their kids’ soccer games to make a few extra bucks driving for Uber, pitcher her LIFT Act, which she insisted would act as a form of basic income by giving “the American family who makes less than $100,000 a year a tax credit of up to $6,000 a year that they can take home at up to $500 a month.” 

Even Elizabeth Warren nodded at Yang in discussing her plan to improve Social Security by giving beneficiaries an extra $200 a month. “It also has a provision for your wife,” she said to Yang, “for those who stay home to do caregiving for children or for seniors, and creates an opportunity for them to get credit on their Social Security.”

Perhaps even more striking were the pains fellow Democrats took to show Yang respect — underscoring the power of the constituency he’s cultivated in this campaign — with Beto O’Rourke calling him “Mr. Yang” and both Gabbard and Booker conspicuously referring to him as “my friend, Andrew Yang.”

Tom Steyer’s Richly Deserved Debut

Billionaire impeachment and climate activist Tom Steyer spent millions boosting his poll numbers with television ads so he could qualify for the Democratic debate stage. Although he got less than eight minutes of air time Tuesday, he made the most of his coming out party. 

Dressed in a smart tartan tie that left one of our writers wondering if he might also be wearing a kilt, Steyer got applause out of the gate with a shout out to his competitors: “every candidate here is more decent, more coherent, and more patriotic than the criminal in the White House,” he said. 

Steyer didn’t take swings at Elizabeth Warren as many others did, sticking close to his passions. He turned a question about Vladimir Putin into an answer about climate change, and the importance of American leadership in solving the “most important international problem” we face.

“We can’t solve the climate crisis in the United States by ourselves,” Steyer said. “We have to work with our allies and our frenemies around the world.” Steyer added: “We’re going to have to lead the world morally, we’re going to have to lead it technologically, financially, and commercially,” insisting that the that the need for collaboration proves the bankruptcy of Trump’s “America first, go-it-alone, trust nobody and be untrustworthy” strategy of for foreign relations.

Despite his wealth, Steyer joined his fellow Democrats in bashing of billionaires and highlighting his support for a wealth tax — while also playing up his business experience and the importance of American ingenuity. “We’re going to have to show the American people that we don’t just know how to tax and have programs to break up companies,” he said, “but also talk about prosperity, talk about investing in the American people, talk about harnessing the innovation and competition of the American private sector.” In fact, he argued, he is uniquely qualified to go “toe to toe” with Trump and “show him to be a fraud and a failure as a businessperson… and show that, in fact, he’s failed the American people, and he has to go.”

Tulsi Gabbard Takes Offense

Gabbard, the Hawaiian congresswoman who met with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad and whose campaign has received a curious signal boost from Russian media outlets, took on her critics aggressively Tuesday night. Training her fire on “the mainstream media, who have been championing and cheerleading” the war in Syria, Gabbard made plain her contempt for those who question her loyalties. “The New York Times and CNN have also smeared veterans like myself for calling for an end to this regime change war,” she said. “Just two days ago, the New York Times put out an article saying that I’m a Russian asset and an Assad apologist and all these different smears. This morning, a CNN commentator said on national television that I’m an asset of Russia.” Gabbard called the coverage, “completely despicable.”

The Missing Moment

Here’s a question your great-grandchildren will never ask you: “What across-the-aisle friendships were prominent in 2019, and what was the overall tone of politics?” Here’s one they might: “The climate is ruined now and so are our futures. Why didn’t you do something when you had the chance?”

Climate change, that little thing that requires immediate action to avert a global environmental catastrophe, didn’t get much mention on Tuesday night. There were passing references — notably, Sanders criticizing energy companies for continuing to operate under a climate-breaking business model — but given the scope of the crisis and the timeframe for action, the lack of focus on climate stood out as an ugly blemish on an, otherwise-substantive evening.

That an existential crisis can be so easily shunted to the margins is why many activists (and people who enjoy not dying in superstorms) were disappointed when calls for a climate debate were rejected by the DNC in favor of CNN’s (not half-bad) climate forum.

It’s certainly worthwhile to have candidates discussing health care, foreign policy and their thoughts on the potential impeachment of the president they’re asking to run against. But in three hours, was there really not room to let candidates grill each other on how they plan to stop the economy from acidifying the ocean and messing up water tables that sustain billions of human lives? Say, perhaps, by cutting a question to would-be leaders of the free world about “who your surprising friends are”?

In This Article: 2020 election, Democratic Debates


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