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Democratic presidential hopefuls moments before the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

5 winners and 3 losers from the September 2019 Democratic presidential debate

It was a pretty good night for the Texas candidates.

Thursday night was a milestone in the 2020 presidential election. It marked the first time that the three leading candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders — debated on the same stage. And because of tightened eligibility rules, they were joined not by marginal candidates like Rep. Tim Ryan and former Rep. John Delaney, but by the candidates just behind them in polling, including Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Going into the debate, the most eagerly anticipated matchups were between Warren and Biden (who’d never shared a stage before) and Warren and Sanders (who are in a closely fought battle for the party’s left base). But neither dyad wound up in open conflict. Instead, the event was defined by a two-on-one health care scuffle between Warren and Sanders on the one side and Biden on the other, and by aggressive shots against Biden by former housing secretary Julián Castro.

Here’s who ended the night ahead, and who ended up behind.

Winner: Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke speaking during the Democratic debate.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks during the Democratic presidential debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Beto 2020 campaign has, for the most part, been a bitter disappointment. At the end of 2018, in the wake of his shockingly good performance in the Texas Senate race, he was hovering around 10 percent in national polls, as good or better than presumed frontrunners like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Now, he’s an also-ran, averaging 1-3 percent, around the level of support enjoyed by Cory Booker and Andrew Yang.

“Drop out and run for Senate” has become a rallying cry of O’Rourke skeptics for good reason: This presidential run thing is just not working out.

He badly needed a win, and he got one, at least partially, on Thursday night. Instead of standing on stage irrelevantly like an Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker, O’Rourke was repeatedly praised by fellow candidates for his leadership on gun control and opposing white nationalism in the wake of the El Paso mass shooting.

“I want to commend Beto for how well he has spoken to the passion and the frustration and the sadness after what happened in his hometown of El Paso. He’s done a great job with that,” fellow Texan Julián Castro offered.

“The way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful,” Biden added. “To look into the eyes of those people, to see those kids, to understand those parents, you understand the heartache,” he said, apologizing along the way for calling him “Beto” rather than “Congressman O’Rourke.”

“Beto’s good,” Beto replied.

His deep personal connection to that crime also added potency to O’Rourke’s message on white nationalism, the motivating ideology behind the El Paso massacre. His comments on the topic were genuinely moving and elegant.

It was not a theatrical, come-from-behind smash victory. I don’t even know if O’Rourke will see a poll bump from it. But it was a dignified, solid performance that earned respect from fellow candidates, and that’s a win when your campaign is flailing. And for what it’s worth, the fundraising numbers appear to reflect that, according to his digital director:

Dylan Matthews

Winner: Barack Obama

In the first half hour of the debate, three out of the top four candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris — all went out of their way to praise Obama’s accomplishment in passing Obamacare. When Julián Castro (a former Obama Cabinet member) attacked Biden on health care, he did so by accusing Biden of betraying Obama’s moral vision.

This marked a shift from previous debates, when some candidates’ indictments of the political and policy status quo were so searing that it didn’t really sound like the president before Trump was from the same party as the people on stage. Headlines declared that “2020 Democrats Face Deep Divide On Obama’s Legacy” and “The Fiercest Democratic Debate in 2020 Is About Barack Obama.”

Former President Barack Obama prepares to speak to students at the University of Illinois.
The man no one wants to run against.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The September debate was different. Candidates from every wing of the Democratic Party, from centrists like Biden to progressives like Warren, went out of their way to praise Obama’s record. The argument wasn’t over whether Obama’s record was good — everyone agreed it was pretty great overall. Rather, the argument was over who could build on the 44th president’s accomplishments.

This is in line with what actual Democratic voters think. A 2018 poll found that 97 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Obama (as did 66 percent of Americans overall). When given the option, a plurality of Democrats were much more likely to describe themselves as “Obama Democrats” rather than “democratic socialist” or even “progressive.”

Obama’s Democratic influence on the Democratic Party remains alive and well, a much more powerful influence than media coverage and the Twitter discourse might lead one to think — and that showed on Thursday night.

—Zack Beauchamp

Winner: Julián Castro

Julián Castro’s campaign for president is not going well. In the RealClearPolitics average of the polls, he’s at 1 percent.

Former housing secretary Julián Castro (right) shake hands with former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke as they arrive on stage for the third Democratic primary debate.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday night, Castro attempted to change that with several jabs at Biden. When the former vice president wavered on whether people would have to buy into his health care plan, Castro responded, “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” Later in the debate, Castro argued Biden was trying to have it both ways when it comes to his time as vice president in the Obama administration:

Every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, [Biden] says, ‘Oh, I was there, I was there, I was there, that’s me too.’ And then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, well, that was the president. I mean, he wants to take credit for Obama’s work, but not have to answer to any questions.

And after one of Biden’s long, rambling answers, Castro landed another snarky hit: “Well, that’s quite a lot.”

Some Democrats took exception to these attacks, seeing them as too mean and too divisive — at a time when the party is hoping to come together with the goal above all, based on the polls, to defeat Trump.

But it is exactly because Castro is polling at 1 percent that these moments may work for him. What Castro really needs at this point is anything to stand out. Going after the current frontrunner in the polls is a tried-and-true way to achieve that. (See: Kamala Harris’s big moment in the first round of debates.)

Castro’s criticisms also speak to a key concern that Democrats have about Biden: that he is too old, and his age may be catching up to him. The other candidates have shied away from this point (due to worries it’s ageist). Castro did not.

Castro also had several good moments, including his reference to the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting as an attack on “people who look like me” and his retelling of his story from a kid in a single-parent household to a prominent national politician. But it’s his attacks on Biden that will likely draw attention after Thursday night.

Will this gamble work? It’s too early to say. But since Castro is already polling at 1 percent, he doesn’t really have anything to lose.

—German Lopez

Winner: 10 randomly selected families who give Andrew Yang their emails

Andrew Yang kicked off the debate by making a surprise announcement: He’ll give away $1,000 a month for a year to 10 randomly selected families, no strings attached. All they have to do to qualify is go to his website and put their names down. “If you believe that you can solve your own problems better than any politician,” Yang said, “go to Yang2020.com and tell us how $1,000 a month will help you do just that.”

Democratic presidential hopeful and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang during the third 2020 Democratic primary debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

It was a hell of a thing to announce on live television during a presidential debate. “That’s original, I’ll give you that,” said Pete Buttigieg.

The surprise announcement actually encapsulates a centerpiece of Yang’s platform: universal basic income (UBI), the idea that the government should dispense a guaranteed, regular stipend to every single citizen. Yang says that if he becomes president, the government will send a check for $1,000 per month ($12,000 annually) to every American adult above the age of 18. He calls it the Freedom Dividend. (And it’s not the first time he’s pulled this — back in June, Yang teased this idea by promising to give a $12,000 basic income to a random Twitter follower.)

The announcement had its desired effect — Twitter loved it and Yang started trending, and kept on trending for hours. It did have a gimmicky feel to it, especially coming moments after Sen. Klobuchar slammed President Trump for “running our country like a game show.”

Some questioned whether offering money like this constituted a bribe. A few experts have said Yang’s tactics don’t appear to violate any campaign finance laws, since you don’t need to donate a cent to his campaign in order to be eligible, and the winner can vote for any candidate. However, a former FEC commissioner said the Freedom Dividend could count as a gift, which is against the rules.

So, it remains to be seen whether the giveaway is in fact legal. But one thing’s clear: It certainly got people’s attention. And now 10 families may just have a much better year.

—Sigal Samuel

Winner: foreign policy

Foreign policy has gotten pretty short shrift in the summer debates, but that was not the case Thursday night. The segment on foreign policy offered a glimpse at the consensus forming within the Democratic Party on national security issues, along with some pretty troubling weak spots.

Trump’s trade war with China came up first. All criticized the president’s handling of negotiations with China. But no one really offered a concrete alternative to what Trump is doing — which is try to make a deal with China, somehow. And some, including Yang and Buttigieg, suggested they’d continue to use tariffs as leverage.

And while Buttigieg defended the Hong Kong protesters and Castro condemned China’s abuses against China’s Uighur population, few offered novel policy solutions to the challenge of China.

A protester carries an American flag during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China, on September 8, 2019.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Then there’s America’s war in Afghanistan, now in its 18th year. Many candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, have pledged to end America’s endless wars. The candidates on stage largely reiterated that promise, though most dodged the question on whether and when and how they’d withdraw troops from Afghanistan. There was one glaring exception: Warren said she’d withdraw troops from Afghanistan, even if a peace deal with the Taliban hadn’t been reached.

It’s a debate, so dipping and dodging is to be expected, but moderators at least tried to force the candidates to deal with just some of the most pressing foreign policy issues that will almost certainly land on their desk on Day 1. It wasn’t perfect; for example, the moderators asked no direct questions about Iran or North Korea.

But unlike health care and gun control, foreign policy and national security are areas where the next president of the United States actually has the power and discretion to do pretty much whatever he wants. Trump has proven this during his tenure. His potential opponents need more chances to show what they’ll do, too.

—Jen Kirby

Loser: mid-tier candidates

Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg came into Thursday night’s debate needing a breakout moment. With polls putting them roughly in the middle of the pack but still in the single digits, they really needed something that would lift them to the double digits and into the arena with Biden, Warren, and Sanders.

That moment never came for either of them.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during the third Democratic primary debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Harris tried to land a few jokes and zingers (including an awkward line to Biden about how “yes, we can” do gun control), but she seemed to be the only one laughing at them. The moderators put her on the defense about her record on criminal justice issues, leading to an answer in which, speaking to her reform record as California’s attorney general, she admitted, “Was I able to get enough done? Absolutely not.”

Buttigieg didn’t perform as badly; the problem is he was just fine. His answers about health care, focused on creating a public option, were indistinguishable from Biden’s proposals. His plan to reform the criminal justice system is ambitious, yes, but it doesn’t really stand out in a race in which so many of the candidates are releasing highly ambitious plans to pull back mass incarceration and the war on drugs. This went on for all sorts of issues, whether trade or foreign policy or anything else.

Contrast that with the moments both candidates had in previous debates — from Harris’s confrontation with Biden to Buttigieg’s case for the need to political reform. These two are capable of standout moments, but they didn’t have them Thursday night.

—German Lopez

Loser: free trade

Free trade has, in recent years, surged in popularity with the American public. The share of Americans saying it’s mostly a good thing shot up from 51 percent to 64 percent between December 2015 and August 2019, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. The increase has been overwhelmingly concentrated among Democrats and independents, as they reject trade restrictionism after Donald Trump embraced it.

Yet when the 2020 contenders debated the topic, basically no one spoke up for free trade as it’s been traditionally pursued by presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Asked about Trump’s China tariffs, Andrew Yang brought up the injustice of Chinese pirating of American intellectual property and declined to promise to retract the tariffs immediately.

Amy Klobuchar attacked the tariffs in general but reiterated her support for steel tariffs specifically. Elizabeth Warren decried a trade policy shaped by “giant corporations.” Kamala Harris, like Yang, decried China for “stealing our products,” and Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden both echoed the point.

Rather than enthusiastically embracing the mantle of free trade, the candidates focused on how past deals have failed, on their eagerness to crack down on China’s behavior as a trading partner, and on how they would reform the trade regime. It’s a sign that the Clinton-Obama tradition of ambitious trade deals like NAFTA and TPP focused on extracting rents for US companies is ending within the Democratic Party.

Dylan Matthews

Loser: the courts

There were no questions about the judiciary in Thursday night’s debate, and the courts themselves received barely a mention from the candidates. That’s a stunning oversight, as a judicial branch increasingly stacked with President Trump’s judges and justices has the power to sabotage an entire presidency.

One of the biggest challenges — if not the biggest challenge — facing the next Democratic president will be the federal judiciary. In the near future, the Supreme Court is likely to give itself a veto power over federal regulations. Meanwhile, Republican state attorneys general have proved masterful at hunting through the federal judiciary for judges willing to block progressive policies — potentially before the policy even takes effect.

And with 160 Trump appointees now sitting on the federal bench, those attorneys general will have many sympathetic judges to choose from when they go looking for someone to block a Democratic president’s agenda.

President Trump greets Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch after the State of the Union address on February 5, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The next Democratic president, in other words, will need to have a plan for how they will react if judges start manipulating the law in order to prevent Democrats from governing. Will they sit back and hope to someday appoint enough new judges to counterbalance Trump’s appointees? Or are more radical tactics such as stripping federal courts of some of their jurisdiction — or even court-packing — on the table?

The debate gave us no insight into these questions. And if the next Democratic president does not have good answers, they’ll discover how difficult it is to govern when the courts are against you.

Ian Millhiser


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