The third Democratic presidential debate covered health care, racism, guns and immigration, with candidates touting their records and arguing over how far left the party should go.
The candidates facing off are former vice president Joe Biden; Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang; former congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas; and former Obama Cabinet official and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro.
The debate opened with a clashes on health care and the direction of the party: Biden, Warren and Sanders opened the debate with a clash over health care that was a proxy for an argument over the future of the Democratic Party.
The conversation made clear the divisions in the party, with Warren and Sanders arguing that Medicare-for-all would save Americans money; Biden, joined by the more moderate candidates, made a case against a wholesale overhaul of the health-care insurance industry as too expensive. It was part of a broader divide onstage, between candidates who favor less sweeping but more attainable goals and those calling for huge structural change.
Health care is a top concern of voters, and the core of the debate on the topic was among the polling leaders.
“How are we going to pay for it?” Biden asked, saying his idea of improving the Affordable Care Act was better than Medicare-for-all. “As far as my distinguished friend, the senator on my left (Warren) has not come forward and said how she’s going to pay for it. I lay out how I will pay for it, how I will get it done, and what we will do going forward.”
Although they attacked Biden, several Democrats openly praised a former president.
“I want to give credit first to Barack Obama for really bringing us this far,” Warren said. “We would not be here if he had the courage, the talent or the will to see us this far.”
All the Democratic candidates want to go further than the current system, arguing for the expansion of coverage but disagreeing over whether allowing people to buy in to Medicare and keeping a private insurance system or getting rid of the private industry is the best path. It’s part of a debate over how far left the party should go, and whether a more liberal turn brings in more voters or turns off moderates.
Here are some of the issues the candidates discussed:
– Segregation and education
Yang has previously accused Democrats who vehemently oppose charter schools of “jumping into bed with teacher’s unions.” At the debate, he said “I am pro good school.”
The other candidates took the opportunity to expound on their own education proposals. Warren said her 2 cent wealth tax would ensure universal pre-K and free college tuition and cancel student debt. Harris said the ranks of teachers need to be more diverse.
Biden, who has taken heat for being an opponent of busing early in his political career, said the best way to deal with the legacy of slavery is to invest in poor and mostly minority schools. Booker said the nation needs “a holistic solution to education from raising teacher salary, fully funded special education, combating the issues of poverty, combating the issues of racial segregation.”
The debate took a turn for the personal when co-moderator Jorge Ramos brought up Booker’s diet: The New Jersey Democrat has been a vegan since 2014.
After pointing out that some have advocated eating less meat as a way to combat climate change, Ramos asked Booker, “Should more Americans, including those here in Texas and in Iowa, follow your diet?”
Booker responded: “You know, first of all, I want to say, no.” Then, in a nod to the occasional linguistic forays that those onstage have made during the debate, he added: “Actually, I want to translate that into Spanish: No.”
Booker then took aim at factory farming before going on to discuss the war in Afghanistan and finally turning to the treatment of veterans – an impressive pivot after a question about veganism and climate change.
– Afghanistan and Iraq
As the candidates debated withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, Sanders said the difference between his stance on the Iraq War and Biden’s was that he “never believed what (Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush) said about Iraq.”
But most of those questioned agreed that there shouldn’t be a blank check on troop deployments.
Warren said she strongly supported bringing troops home from Afghanistan, but thought that military tools were not the only ones the United States should bring to bear.
“The problems in Afghanistan are not problems that can be solved by a military,” she said. “. . . We need to work with the rest of the world we need to use our economic tools we need to use our diplomatic tools we need to build with our allies, and we need to make the whole world safer, not keep troops bombing Afghanistan.”
Buttigieg, a veteran who served as an intelligence officer in the Navy reserves, said the United States should not have “an open-ended commitment of ground troops.”
The second half of the debate opened with the Democrats taking turns hammering Trump over his trade policy with China. Several pointed to the cost to American consumers of the trade war, while others slammed Trump’s actions as erratic. The president did, after all, abruptly announce Wednesday night that he will postpone the next increase of tariffs on Chinese goods for an additional two weeks as a “gesture of good will.”
But it was Buttigieg who landed the most memorable line of the round.
“You know, when I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he’d like to see me make a deal with Xi Jinping,” Buttigieg said. “I’d like to see him make a deal with Xi Jinping.”
Castro, who remarked in a previous debate that China is the most serious national security threat facing the country, was asked what kind of leverage he would seek to use against Beijing in trade negotiations. He did not directly answer the question but noted – in a departure from Trump’s policy – that he would put a greater emphasis on human rights if elected president.
Castro also mentioned the Chinese government’s mass detentions of Uighurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic minority in China’s far western Xinjiang region. And he accused Trump of “elevating a dictator” by meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“We need to stop that,” Castro said. “We need to return to ensuring that America leads again on human rights.”
The former vice president has frequently reminded voters that he served alongside Obama. But on one issue – immigration – Biden has repeatedly struggled to defend Obama’s legacy, and he did so again Thursday night.
Co-moderator Jorge Ramos asked Biden about the more than 3 million deportations that took place over Obama’s two terms in office. “Why should Latinos trust you?” Ramos asked.
Biden first said it is “outrageous” to compare the records of Trump and Obama on immigration. He then pointed to Obama’s efforts to find a pathway to citizenship for the millions of young people brought to the United States illegally as children. “I’m proud to have served with him,” Biden said, before pivoting to attack Trump’s record and call for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Ramos pointed out that Biden hadn’t answered the question. “Did you make a mistake with those deportations?” he asked. After Biden responded that Obama did the best he could, Ramos continued to press him: “How about you?”
“I’m the vice president of the United States,” Biden said.
He soon drew another sharp rejoinder from Castro, who reminded the crowd that he, too, served in the Obama administration. “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions,” he said of Biden.
Several candidates lauded O’Rourke for his public, emotional statements about gun control after a mass shooting that targeted Hispanics in his hometown, El Paso.
O’Rourke used to routinely assure owners of assault weapons that he wouldn’t take their guns away if elected. But he said he had a change of heart in August when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso and killed 22 people.
“Hell yes, we are going to take away your AR 15, your AK 57,” O’Rourke said. “We’re not going to allow them to be used against your fellow Americans anymore.”
But while the candidates agreed on the need for stiffer gun control measures, they disagreed on how, exactly, to get those measures passed.
Biden argued that it was unconstitutional to take guns away from people, and that people who disagree should “speak to constitutional scholars, if in fact we could say, by the way, you can’t own the following weapons period.”
But Harris criticized him, saying his stance was too gloomy, and she used an oft-repeated line by Obama: “I would say, Joe, yes we can.” Then she referenced Trump: “Look, obviously he didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.”
Booker, who has introduced a gun licensing proposal, didn’t directly answer a question about how he would get that proposal passed, even when asked a follow up question. “We get this done by having a more courageous empathy.” Warren said the only way to pass such legislation was to eliminate the legislative filibuster in the Senate that requires at least 60 to get anything done.
– Criminal justice
Harris and Klobuchar, the two former prosecutors, were asked pointed questions about their records.
Harris, for instance, has released a criminal justice plan that parts ways with her previous positions on issues such as marijuana legalization and investigations into police-involved shootings. Harris had recently told The New York Times that she had been “swimming against the current, and thankfully the currents have changed.” During Thursday’s debate, she said there had been “distortions” of her record and spoke broadly of her efforts to change the system “from the inside.”
Klobuchar, meanwhile, was asked about criticism that during her years as a prosecutor in Minnesota, she often sided with police in cases of police shootings of black men. She, too, countered that “that’s not my record,” then pivoted to discuss what she would do as president, including reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders and expanding efforts to allow felons to vote after their release from prison.
Biden, too, was asked to defend his civil rights record – a topic on which he has frequently been criticized by his Democratic opponents. He made a bold declaration – “Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime,” he said – but the fact that Klobuchar and Harris were put on the defensive first seemed to take some of the pressure off the former vice president.
All the candidate tried to paint themselves as best equipped to tackle matters of race, from the animus at the heart of the mass shooting in El Paso to economic and criminal justice disparities that disproportionately affect African Americans.
O’Rourke and Castro both spoke of the taint of slavery. But Booker, who is black, said it’s more important to change racist issues baked into American institutions.
“We have systemic racism that is eroding our nation, from healthcare to the criminal justice system,” he said, touting his proposal for a White House office that would deal with white supremacy. “It’s nice to go back to slavery, but we have more African Americans who are under government supervision today than all the slaves in 1850.”
Buttigieg spoke of his plan to invest in historically black colleges and universities and in black entrepreneurs. “It’s not enough to just take a racist policy, replace it with a neutral one and expect things to get better on their own.”
– Castro vs. Biden
Barely half an hour into the debate came one of the most combative moments so far in any of the three Democratic face-offs.
During a back-and-forth over health care, Castro accused Biden, 76, of having had a memory lapse – a not-so-subtle swipe at the former vice president’s age and penchant for gaffes.
“Are you forgetting already what you said two minutes ago?” Castro said.
The sparring didn’t stop there. Biden and Castro went on to do battle over which of them is carrying the torch for the former president.
Castro was blunt. “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not,” he said.
Biden, without missing a beat, fired back: “That’d be a surprise to him.”
Some of the other candidates onstage responded with surprise, others with words of caution that Democrats should not be attacking each other so fiercely.
“This is what we’re here for,” Castro replied. “It’s an election.”
In opening statements, few of the Democratic candidates mentioned President Donald Trump – who, as the debate kicked off, was addressing House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore.
The most stinging rebuke of Trump came from Harris, who directly addressed the president as she spoke straight to camera. The only reason Trump hasn’t been indicted, Harris said, is because of long-standing Department of Justice guidance barring charges from being brought against a sitting president.
“And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News,” Harris said to burst of cheers as she wrapped up her remarks.
Sanders and Biden, too, took on Trump in their remarks, as did Klobuchar, who said the president “would rather lie than lead.”
To qualify, candidates were required to have at least 130,000 individual donors and receive at least 2 percent support in at least four state or national polls. Three candidates were on the cusp – Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, author Marianne Williamson and billionaire Tom Steyer – but seven candidates fell well short.
The candidates who met none of the requirements, all Democrats, were Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio; former congressman John Delaney of Maryland; Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam; Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio; and former congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania.
The qualifications for the debate in October are the same, and more candidates may qualify. Steyer appears to have reached the polling to qualify. Gabbard and Williamson still need additional polls to carry them past the threshold.
The DNC has not announced a debate partner or a location for the fourth debate, but it will be held Oct. 15 and, if necessary, Oct. 16, somewhere in Ohio.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Felicia Sonmez, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Matt Viser ·