Who Won the Democratic Debate Last Night—And 7 Standout Moments
Make no mistake, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) appears to be the new frontrunner for the Democratic presidential race after surging ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden in a handful of recent polls.
Warren, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off once again, while lower-tier candidates continued the fight to pull their status center stage. Warren was attacked ranging from her leftist views to providing a clear answer about whether her “Medicare for All” health plan would lead to tax hikes for the middle class.
But political experts said while Warren had a strong showing, they didn’t think she was the winner of last night’s debate.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was a big winner by standing out early and holding his ground throughout the evening, CNN political commentator Aisha C. Moodie-Mills told Fortune.
A more aggressive Buttigieg went after Warren, challenging her on why she won’t give a straight answer on if her “Medicare for All,” plan would raise taxes for middle-class Americans. Buttigieg also clashed with former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s plan on how to get assault weapons off the streets.
“He was fired up, passionate, and combative in a good way. He finally showed up to a debate and debated,” said Moodie-Mills about Buttigieg. “I think this keeps his fundraising flowing strong, but I’d be surprised to see a jump in the polls from it.”
But it’s now Warren wearing a bullseye, said Brian Sobel, a San Francisco Bay Area political analyst. “These campaigns have identified her as the leader and they’re looking at how they can disrupt her,” Sobel said.
Overall, Warren had “a good performance,” in her initial frontrunner status, Sobel said. While Warren has been sharp and polished in previous debates, Sobel said, her continuous reluctance to give a solid reply to tax increases for her health plan has become an “Achilles heel.”
“She’s sputtered a bit and she hasn’t been able to correct it after now four debates,” Sobel said. “She’s facing a different dynamic.”
Moodie-Mills agrees about Warren’s position.
“She held her own and was steady, she’s solid as a rock and not easy to topple, she has a response for almost everything, and if not always pivots back to her key message which is that billionaires are bankrupting the rest of us and we need to restore fairness,” Moodie-Mills said.
Sobel called Biden his winner during Tuesday’s debate. Biden was able to give “a strong performance,” without the pressure of being the perennial frontrunner since he entered the race in the spring.
Biden’s moderate stance stuck out during his exchange with Warren near the end of the debate, Sobel said. At one point, Biden took some credit for getting several congressional votes to help Warren’s plan for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) happen.
“I agreed with the great job she did, and I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill,” said Biden, in reference to the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 that established the CFPB. “I convinced people to vote for it, so let’s get those things straight too.”
Irritated and apparently taken aback, Warren then gave praise to the former vice president’s boss at the time.
“I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law,” said Warren to a smiling Biden.
“You did a hell of a job in your job,” Biden replied.
“Thank you,” Warren countered.
Sobel said Biden was also able to deftly give his remarks about the controversial phone call this summer when President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
“I think (Biden) was able to pretty much swat it away. I’m surprised that some of the candidates didn’t take the bait and take him up on that issue,” Sobel said. “The candidates allowed him to say his peace, but in a head-to-head debate with Trump, he won’t get off so easily as his campaign will see it as a weak spot. The Biden camp still has to work on his responses.”
Here are seven other standout moments from last night’s Democratic debate:
1. Klobuchar Targeted Warren’s Healthcare Messaging
Both moderators and candidates on Tuesday attempted to get Warren to state the Medicare for All plan she supports will raise taxes on the middle class (Warren states taxes on the rich will go up and overall costs for middle-class families will go down). Klobuchar also joined in a moment early on that earned her some clout.
“At least Bernie is being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” said Klobuchar. “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 moderate Democrat went on to voice her support for a public healthcare option that would build on former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “That is what we should be doing, instead of kicking 149 million people off their insurance in four years,” she said.
2. O’Rourke and Buttigieg Went Head to Head On Gun Control
O’Rourke has been the poster boy for gun control since a mass shooter opened fire on his hometown of El Paso in August, prompting the candidate to pronounce “Hell, yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47,” at the next debate.
He continued championing a mandatory buyback program of such weapons Tuesday night, but was challenged by South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg argued the U.S. is too close to passing gun control laws already on the table to get “wrapped around the axle in a debate” over another proposal.
“We are this close to an assault weapons ban. That would be huge,” he said.
O’Rourke argued such legislation is not mutually exclusive to a buyback program. “Let’s decide what we are going to believe in, what we are going to achieve, and then let’s bring this country together in order to do that,” he said, citing the bold moves of young activists as inspiration.
Buttigieg earned applause from the audience with a jab at O’Rourke—”I don’t need lessons from you on courage”—and an attack on the National Rifle Association. “The problem is the National Rifle Association and their enablers in Congress,” he said, “and we should be united in taking the fight to them.”
O’Rourke stood his ground in favor of a buyback program: “When you, Mayor Buttigieg, describe this policy as a shiny object, I don’t care what that meant to me or my candidacy, but to those who have survived gun violence, those who lost a loved one to an AR-15, an AK-47 … that was a slap in the face.”
3. Castro Called Out Police Gun Violence
In a discussion around the best way to remove weapons of war from civilian hands, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Julián Castro argued in favor of a voluntary buyback. He argued mandatory buybacks aren’t enforceable unless police officers go door-to-door.
“In the places I grew up in, we weren’t exactly looking for another reason for cops to come banging on the door,” he added. Castro elicited applause by mentioning the recent police shooting of a Black woman in Texas. Atatiana Jefferson was inside her home in Fort Worth when a white police officer shot through her bedroom window, killing her.
“She was in her own home,” he said. “I am not going to give these police officers another reason to go door-to-door in certain communities because police violence is also gun violence, and we need to address that.”
4. Harris Championed Women’s Reproductive Rights
Thirty minutes into the debate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) earned cheers from the audience for pointing out the lack of questions related to women’s reproductive healthcare despite the “full-on attack” it faces around the country. Several states—including Ohio—have passed highly restrictive abortion laws this year; all face legal challenges.
“It is not an exaggeration to say women will die. Poor women, women of color will die because these Republican legislatures in these various states … are telling women what to do with their bodies,” said Harris. “People need to keep their hands off of women’s bodies and let women make the decisions about their own lives.”
Later in the evening, moderators asked how candidates would prevent states from restricting abortion. Harris said her administration’s Department of Justice would prevent any state law that violates the Constitution and Roe v. Wade from going into effect.
“That’s called preclearance,” she said. “This is still a fundamental issue of justice for women in America. Women have been given the responsibility to perpetuate the human species. Our bodies were created to do that and it does not give any other person the right to tell a woman what to do with that body.”
Nearly every candidate said they would codify Roe v. Wade. “Women should not be the only ones taking up this cause and this fight,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. “People deserve to control their own body.”
5. Buttigieg Negated Gabbard’s Claims About U.S. Involvement in Syria
Every candidate strongly condemned Trump’s recent and sudden withdrawal of troops from Syria, which left the door open for Turkey to invade U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) criticized this decision, but also decried overall U.S. participation in the conflict.
“The slaughter of the Kurds being done by Turkey is yet another negative consequence of the regime change war that we’ve been waging in Syria,” said Gabbard.
Buttigieg, the only other veteran on stage besides Gabbard, strongly negated her statement.
“Respectfully, Congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong,” he said. “The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence. It’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.”
Buttigieg recalled his own service in Afghanistan, saying “one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word, and our allies knew it, and our enemies knew it. You take that away, you are taking away what makes America, America.”
6. Moderates and Progressives Deliberated a Wealth Tax
“Show me your budget, show me your tax plans, and we’ll know what your values are,” said Warren, addressing the concentration of wealth in the top 1%.
She reiterated the policy plan that’s become a cornerstone of her campaign: a wealth tax collecting two cents on every dollar over $50 million. Warren claims this tax could raise enough funds to erase student debt for 95% of those who have it, provide universal childcare and pre-K, invest $50 billion into historically Black universities and colleges, and much more.
“Let me finish, please,” said Warren when moderator Erin Burnett of CNN attempted to keep her to the time constraints. “My question is not ‘Why do Bernie and I support a wealth tax?’ It’s why is it that everyone else on this stage thinks it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation of Americas?”
Her comment was rejected by a handful of her opponents. “No one is supporting billionaires,” said Biden off camera.
“It could work. I am open to it,” Klobuchar said of Warren’s wealth tax. “But I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires. We just have different approaches.”
Klobuchar was referencing billionaire philanthropist and 2020 candidate Tom Steyer, who supports a wealth tax and the repeal of Republican tax cuts for corporations.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang argued that a wealth tax “makes a lot of sense in principle,” but has failed to be effective in several European countries. He instead proposed a value-added tax to fund a universal basic income for every American adult.
7. Sanders Showed a Softer Side
Sanders debated with his usual fervor Tuesday night, despite having suffered a heart attack two weeks prior. “I’m healthy. I’m feeling great,” he said, interrupting the moderator’s question about his health to continue the prior discussion on big pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic.
When CNN’s Erin Burnett returned to the subject of his recent heart attack, Sanders, 78, said he would show voters he’s up to the stress of the presidency by “mounting a vigorous campaign across this country.”
“But let me take this moment, if I might, to thank so many people from all over this country—including many of my colleagues up here—for their love, for their prayers, for their well-wishes,” he continued. “I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I’m so happy to be back here with you this evening.”
He received cheers from the audience and even applause from his opponents.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—What we learned from last night’s Democratic debate
—Who is Tom Steyer? 2020 Democratic candidate debates for the first time tonight
—Will the candidates debate over health care for gig workers?
—The four candidates at risk in tonight’s Democratic debate
—For big gig economy companies, California is no longer a Golden State
—As the steel industry falters, will Trump pay a political price?
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