Democratic debate recap: This is still anyone’s game

Luke Basham, '20, is the Democratic party analyst for Mock Convention 2020.

Luke Basham

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Luke Basham, ’20, is the Democratic party analyst for Mock Convention 2020.

Thursday night, ABC hosted the third Democratic Debate of the 2020 campaign cycle at Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston. Once again, the pressure was on for the race’s front-runner— former Vice President Joe Biden— who has maintained a modest lead in polling since the campaign’s commencement. Under fire for recent gaffes and proving a formidable target for his opponents in previous debates, Biden went on the offensive, distinguishing his policy proposals and political ideology from the others, at one point quipping “for a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do” to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Once again, he fiercely defended the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s legacy, except for on the issue of deportations, from which he attempted to distance himself. Despite this, a handful of awkward moments, and a fumbled question on race relations, Biden and his position atop the Democratic field seem somewhat safe— for now.

Notably, the ABC debate included only 10 of the Democratic candidates, in stark contrast to the first two debates, hosted by NBC and CNN, which featured 20 over a two-night period. The candidates’ position on stage was predetermined by their respective rank in polling; Biden and Warren occupied the center, Sanders, Buttigieg, Booker, and Klobuchar to Biden’s right and Harris, Yang, O’Rourke, and Castro to Warren’s left. To qualify for the debate, candidates had to register at least two percent in four of the DNC’s 21 qualifying polls and receive at least 130,000 individual donations by August 28th. Billionaire Tom Steyer recently qualified for the upcoming October debate, becoming the eleventh candidate to do so, but did not meet the requirements for the September debate in time.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), presently neck and neck for second place, both stayed on message and gave their supporters little reason to jump ship. Warren navigated the debate’s waters with ease and avoided attack, while Sanders reiterated his message on economic inequality which nearly propelled him to the nomination four years ago. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who briefly jumped to second place after attacking Biden in the first debate but has since fallen back to fourth, offered a conflicting performance. Her opening message was strong and she again defended her record as a prosecutor well but she also had a few awkward moments, like her attempt to make a joke comparing President Trump to the Wizard of Oz.

Harris was not the only candidate who attempted to make light of the debate through humor. Early in the debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told the Texas State audience “Houston, we have a problem.” Later, Andrew Yang earned chuckles with the line “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors” during the healthcare debate. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), famously bald, joked, “I’m the only person on this stage who finds Trudeau’s hair menacing.”

Some of the night’s most memorable moments came not from the frontrunners, however, but the race’s dark horses and those on the periphery. When asked what resilience means, Mayor Pete Buttigieg told the moving story of his decision to come out five years prior. He became the first candidate from either party to discuss coming out on a debate stage, and his courage was showered with praise from pundits and social media users alike. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke garnered perhaps the most applause of the night when doubling-down on his proposed mandatory gun buyback program. “Hell yes,” he said, “we’re going to take your AR-15.” The other Texan on stage— former HUD Secretary Julián Castro— also attracted attention by repeatedly attacking Biden, once questioning his memory, a remark which garnered some criticism. Perhaps the most bizarre and memorable of the underdog moments was Andrew Yang’s pledge to give $1000 a month to 10 American families over the course of a year, putting his universal basic income plan— around which he has centered his campaign— to the test.

In all, the debate was an entertaining showcase of the top 10 candidates in what is the largest primary field in the history of either party (surpassing the 2016 Republican field for that distinction). In my estimation, the third debate will do little to shake up the field as it presently stands. But even if it does, the candidates will have to survive nine more debates before making it to Milwaukee for the Democratic National Convention in July. Accordingly, the nomination is still anyone’s to take.