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3 Things We Learned From the Third Democratic Debate Last Night

September 13, 2019, 4:34 PM UTC

Once again, the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates took to the debate stage Thursday night, this time in Houston, Texas. It was the first time, however, that the top three vying for the job—Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—were able to square off together.

As the frontrunners clashed on healthcare, one of the most controversial and complicated topics in American politics, the others vied for their moment in the spotlight to grab the attention of potential voters and break what has consistently been a three-way race. 

Here’s what we learned last night: 

1. Biden is a target for every candidate 

As the polling leader, Barack Obama’s second-in-command has frequently been at the receiving end of one-liners and attacks on his long voting record and time as vice president.

It was in the first debate when Senator Kamala Harris confronted Biden about not supporting busing earlier in his career, the policy which integrated many public schools and afforded Harris herself the opportunity at a better education. During the town halls focused on climate change, Biden was called out by potential voters for his plan to take money from a fossil fuel executive, which he had previously said he would not do. Last night, it was former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro’s turn.

Castro accused the 76-year-old Biden of reversing his stance on healthcare by asking him more than once: “Are you forgetting already what you said two minutes ago?” about some people needing to buy into his proposed healthcare plan. 

However, Castro got it wrong.

Biden actually said: “If you want Medicare, if you lose the job from your insurance company, from your employer, you automatically can buy into this…You don’t have—no pre-existing condition can stop you from buying in. You get covered. Period.”

But, it almost did not matter that Castro, the lowest-polling candidate on the stage last night, had mischaracterized Biden’s comment. The damage was already done. Social media lit up with accusations and jokes about ageism and Biden’s history of gaffes, particularly recently when he confused two different mass shootings, appeared confused about which state he was in, and was caught off guard about the fossil fuel executive. However, it was Castro who was wrong about Biden’s comments. 

Biden’s high polling numbers may be based on his name recognition, association with Obama, and his storied career, but last night proved the latter could be his downfall as well. It was unclear why he brought it up himself, but Biden noted he had made a mistake when he voted for the war in Iraq under President George W. Bush. Sanders saw the comment as an opportunity to say: “The truth is, the big mistake, the huge mistake, and one of the big differences between you and me…I never believed what [Vice President Dick] Cheney and Bush said about Iraq and voted against the war in Iraq and helped lead the opposition.”

2. Healthcare dominated the conversation

Over the course of the two-hour debate, an overwhelming 35 minutes was devoted to the issue of Medicare-for-all and the candidates’ various proposals. If there really are single-issue voters, the candidates think this is their way to get their vote. 

It is also the issue that made clear distinctions between moderates and progressives on the stage. Biden advocated for a public option rather than Medicare-for-all, another point of contention between Castro and him—both former Obama officials during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. 

Biden went on the offensive as well, criticizing both Sanders and Warren about the $3.2 trillion annual cost of their proposed versions of Medicare-for-All. “How are we going to pay for it? I want to hear that tonight,” he said, then saying taxes would have to be raised on the middle-class to the tune of $5,000 a year. 

Warren quickly noted that though taxes would go up, they would basically replace the insurance premiums people are paying now. Biden’s plan would cost approximately $740 billion and allow those who receive coverage through their employers to keep their coverage rather than having a single-payer system like Medicare-for-all. 

But Sanders’ signature issue for years, as he said he “wrote the damn bill” on it, is universal coverage. Sanders attacked Biden, saying the former Vice President’s plan would still leave millions of people uninsured or in dire straits should they have a medical emergency and would result in “$100 billion a year in profit for the drug companies and the insurance companies.”

Where Sanders focused on accusing Biden of trying to keep a broken system in place, Warren made the policy argument for Medicare-for-all despite being unclear about her stance early in her campaign.

“What we’re talking about here is what’s going to happen in families’ pockets, what’s going to happen in their budgets. And the answer is Medicare for all. Costs are going to go up for wealthier individuals and costs are going to go up for giant corporations. But for hard-working families across this country, costs are going to go down and that’s how it should work under medicare for all in our healthcare system,” she noted. 

3. Questions remain on what Democrats’ foreign policy looks like 

Political scholars and Washington insiders have argued for years that the U.S. has not instituted a truly left-leaning or liberal foreign policy agenda. Last night seemed to confirm that though policy wonks on social media pointed out the scant mentions of the United Nations Security Council and Warren’s confirmation that foreign policy should be based around climate change. 

While Harris hit out at President Donald Trump for “conduct[ing] trade policy by tweet, frankly born out of his fragile ego,” there seemed to be no real alternatives proposed by anyone on stage regarding issues like trade, conflict intervention, human rights, and global development. 

It is true, most American voters do not rank foreign policy as a high priority issue when voting for president, but the fact remains it’s still a big part of the job in the Oval office. What we heard last night was that they actually support Trump’s action to place tariffs on goods from China, in particular. 

Biden accused America’s biggest trading partner of stealing intellectual property and even tech CEO Andrew Yang, who is among the more progressive candidates, said he would not repeal the tariffs. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg noted he would use the tariffs as “leverage” to broker a deal with China, but did not offer a specific plan. 

But, Buttigieg did admit: “this is a moment when American leadership is needed more than ever, whether it’s in Hong Kong, where those protesters for democracy need to know that they have a friend in the United States, or anywhere around the world where increasingly we see dictators throwing their weight around.  The world needs America, but it can’t be just any America.” 

The question remains though, when will voters hear about that vision in the debates or on the campaign trail from all the candidates? 

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