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Here are the best and most substantive answers of the third Democratic debate

Pete Buttigieg told his coming out story and Andrew Yang discussed his immigrant roots.

Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Beto O’Rourke may not be one of the top-polling candidates in the 2020 presidential primary, but at the third Democratic debate on Thursday, he did have one of the best and most moving answers on what has become one of the central issues of his White House bid: gun control.

The former Texas Congress member and US Senate candidate has turned his focus to gun violence in recent weeks in the wake of a mass shooting at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, in August. At Thursday’s debate, multiple candidates commended his focus on the issue — and O’Rourke delivered one of his strongest responses of the evening on it as well when asked whether he would institute a national gun buyback program in America.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. “We’re not going to let it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

O’Rourke isn’t the only candidate who had a good moment on Thursday. From Elizabeth Warren on the true costs of health care, to Andrew Yang on his family’s immigration story, here are some of the most substantive and significant responses from the evening.

Bernie Sanders turns a question on Venezuela into a defense of democratic socialism

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during the third Democratic primary debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Well, first of all, let me be very clear. Anybody that does what Maduro does is a vicious tyrant. What we need now is international and regional cooperation for free elections in Venezuela so that the people of that country can create their own future.

In terms of democratic socialism — to equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair. I’ll tell you what I believe in terms of democratic socialism. I agree with what goes on in Canada and Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right. I believe that the United States should not be the only major country on Earth not to provide paid family and medical leave. I believe that every worker in this country deserves a living wage and that we expand the trade union movement.

I happen to believe also that what, to me, democratic socialism means, is we deal with an issue ... we do not discuss enough, Jorge, not in the media, and not in Congress. You got three people in America owning more wealth than the bottom half of this country. You got a handful of billionaires controlling what goes on in Wall Street, the insurance companies, and in the media. Maybe, just maybe, what we should be doing is creating an economy that works for all of us, not 1 percent. That’s my understanding of democratic socialism.

Sanders on Thursday managed to take one of his critics’ main talking points on his politics — that he’ll seek to make the United States into Venezuela — and turn it on its head. When moderator Jorge Ramos asked him to explain the difference between his socialism and what’s being imposed in Venezuela by Nicolás Maduro, he made a clear distinction that equating the two is deeply unfair. And then laid out a full-throated endorsement of the vision for his campaign.

Pete Buttigieg tells his coming out story — a presidential candidate first

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg during the third Democratic presidential primary debate.
David J. Phillip/AP

You know, as a military officer serving under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and as an elected official in the state of Indiana when Mike Pence was governor, at a certain point, when it came to professional setbacks, I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I was was going to be the ultimate career-ending professional setback. I came back from the deployment and realized that you only get to live one life, and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out.

I had no idea what kind of professional setback it would be, especially because inconveniently, it was an election year in my socially conservative community. What happened was that when I trusted voters to judge me based on the job that I did for them, they decided to trust me and reelected me with 80 percent of the vote. And what I learned was that trust can be reciprocated, and that part of how you can win and deserve to win is to know what’s worth more to you than winning. And I think that’s what we need in the presidency right now.

We have to know what we are about. And this election is not about any of us up here. It is not about this president, even though it’s hard to talk of anything else some days. It’s about the people who trust us with their lives. A kid wondering if we’re actually going to make their schools safe when they’ve learned active shooter drills before they’ve learned to read. A generation wondering if we will actually get the job done on climate change. And if we hold to that, then it doesn’t matter what happens to each of us professionally. Together, we will win a better era for our country.

Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, responded to a closing question given to all of the candidates about what their biggest professional challenges were with a deeply personal answer about his sexuality and his decision to come out. It provided a unique insight into the shape his life has taken, politically and otherwise.

After all, until 2015, many states had constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman. To have a presidential candidate stand on a debate stage and tell his coming out story was a moment for the history books.

Julian Castro pokes at the Obama administration’s record on immigration

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro during the Democratic presidential primary debate.
David J. Phillip/AP

I agree that Barack Obama was very different from Donald Trump. Donald Trump has a dark heart when it comes to immigrants. He built his whole political career so far on scapegoating and fearmongering and otherizing migrants, and that’s very different from Barack Obama.

But my problem with Vice President Biden — and Cory [Booker] pointed this out last time — is every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, he 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.

I was the first candidate in early April to put forward an immigration plan. You know why? Because I’m not afraid of Donald Trump on this issue. I’m not going to back pedal. I’m not going to pretend like I don’t have my own vision for immigration.

So we’re not going to give up DACA. We’re not going to give up protections for anybody. I believe that on January 20, 2021, we’re going to have a Democratic president, we’re going to throw out Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn and have a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House, and we’re going to pass immigration reform within the first 100 days.

Castro, who served alongside Biden in the Obama administration as the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave a nod not only to Trump’s shortcomings on immigration but also on the Obama administration’s.

He highlighted his own plan, one of the boldest in the Democratic field and that is also deeply contrasted with Obama’s. As Vox’s Nicole Narea explained, Obama deported over 3 million immigrations from 2009 and 2016 and was labeled by immigrants rights groups as “deporter in chief.” Obama set up temporary housing not all that different from the shelter the Trump administration has at the border amid its own migrant crisis in 2014 and struggled to strike a balance between humanitarian efforts and enforcement.

While Castro was talking about Obama’s record, he also used it as an opportunity to take a swipe at Joe Biden — one of multiple attacks leveled at the former vice president on Thursday.

Andrew Yang weaves his family’s immigration story into the American immigration story

Democratic presidential candidate and former tech executive Andrew Yang speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

My father grew up on a peanut farm in Asia with no floor, and now his son is running for president. That is the immigration story that we have to be able to share with the American people.

If you look at our history, almost half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by either immigrants or children of immigrants, and rates of business formation are much higher in immigration communities. We have to say to the American people, immigrants are positive for our economic and social dynamism, and I would return the level of legal immigration to the point it was in the Obama-Biden administration.

I think we have to compete for talent, and I am the opposite of Donald Trump in many ways. He says, “Build a wall.” I’m going to say to immigrants, “Come to America, because if you come here, your son, your daughter can run for president. The water is great. And this is where you want to build a company, build a family, and build a life.” This country has been a magnet for human capital for generations. If we lose that, we lose something integral to our continued success, and that is where I would lead as president.

Yang tried to make a splash at the start of the evening by announcing he would be paying 10 lucky Americans his $1,000 “freedom dividend” for a year, but perhaps his most moving response of the evening came when discussing a separate topic: immigration. The entrepreneur made the point that he, a child of an immigrant, was able to grow up and run for president and put together an argument with personal, political, and economic strains.

Amy Klobuchar makes the case against Medicare-for-all

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) responds to a question during the Democratic presidential primary debate.
David J. Phillip/AP

First of all, Senator Sanders and I have worked valiantly to bring down the cost of pharmaceuticals. That was a Klobuchar-Sanders Amendment to allow for drugs to come in from less expensive countries like Canada.

We have worked to bring down the cost by fighting to allow 43 million seniors, that’s a bill I lead, to negotiate for better prices under Medicare. I figure that’s a lot of seniors and they should be allowed to get a better price.

But when it comes to our health care and when it comes to our premiums, I go with the doctor’s creed, which is, do no harm. And while Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill. And on page eight — on page eight of the bill, it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. And that means that 149 million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance.

That’s in four years. I don’t think that’s a bold idea, I think it’s a bad idea. And what I favor is something that what Barack Obama wanted to do from the very beginning. And that is a public option. A non-profit choice that would bring down the cost of insurance, cover 12 million more people, and bring down the prices for 13 million more people. That is a bold idea.

The first segment of Thursday’s debate — like the first two Democratic debates — dealt with health care. But this time around, the candidates came to the stage with sharper elbows and clearer arguments about the best way forward.

Klobuchar, a moderate, took clear aim at Sanders and Warren with a criticism of the Medicare-for-all bill. It surely won’t be that popular with the left wing of the party, but Democratic voters aren’t necessarily all-in on Medicare-for-all and Klobuchar gave those voters’ hesitations a voice.

Elizabeth Warren makes the case for Medicare-for-all

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the third Democratic primary debate.
Robyn Beck/FP/Getty Images

Look, what families have to deal with is cost, total cost. That’s what they have to deal with. And understand, families are paying for their health care today. Families pay every time an insurance company says, sorry, you can’t see that specialist. Every time an insurance company says, sorry, that doctor is out of network, sorry, we are not covering that prescription.

Families are paying every time they don’t get a prescription filled because they can’t pay for it. They don’t have a lump checked out because they can’t afford the co-pay. 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 on 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 health care system.

When responding to a moderator question about middle-class tax hikes to pay for Medicare-for-all, Warren delivered one of her strongest responses on the night. Warren speaks eloquently on the policy which she, along with Sanders (who “wrote the damn bill”), support.

Warren brought the question back to her strength: talking about the lived experience of working-class families and their pocketbooks.

Beto O’Rourke makes the case for taking guns away

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke speaks during the third Democratic primary debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

I am [proposing to take away guns] if it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield. If the high impact, high velocity round, when it hits your body, shreds everything inside of your body, because it was designed to do that, so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield and not be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers.

When we see that being used against children, and in Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland, there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time, hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.

And I want to say this. I’m listening to the people of this country. The day after I proposed doing that, I went to a gun show in Conway, Arkansas, to meet with those who were selling AR-15s and AK-47s and those who were buying those weapons. And you might be surprised, there was some common ground there, folks who said, I would willingly give that up, cut it to pieces, I don’t need this weapon to hunt, to defend myself. It is a weapon of war.

So, let’s do the right thing, but let’s bring everyone in America into the conversation, Republicans, Democrats, gun-owners, and non-gun owners alike.

O’Rourke has become increasingly strident in his remarks around gun violence in America — particularly since a shooting at an El Paso Walmart claimed the lives of 22 people. It’s clear about how deeply disturbed he is by gun violence. On Thursday, he did not mince his words when asked whether he would, indeed, require Americans who own highly deadly weapons to sell them back to the government.

But while he made an argument about taking guns away — something sure to fire up NRA lobbyists — he also indicated that, while this is presented as an intractable problem in the media, “there’s some common ground there.” O’Rourke served as something of a more conservative congressman than most Democrats during his time in Congress, so it’s not surprising he tried to bring his full-throated defense of gun control back to bipartisanship.

Kamala Harris gets to the heart of the matter on trade — it’s about selling stuff

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

We’ve got a guy in the White House who has been erratic on trade policy, he conducts trade policy by tweet, frankly born out of his fragile ego. It has resulted in farmers in Iowa with soybeans rotting in bins, looking at bankruptcy.

When we look at this issue, my trade policy, under a Harris administration, is always going to be about saying, we need to export American products, not American jobs, and to do that, we have to have a meaningful trade policy.

I’m not a protectionist Democrat. Look, we need to sell our stuff. And that means we need to sell it to people overseas. That means we need trade policies that allow that to happen. You asked earlier about China, it’s a complicated relationship. We have to hold China accountable. They steal our products, including our intellectual property. They dump sub-standard products into our economy. They need to be accountable. We also need to partner with China on climate and the crisis that presents. We need to partner with China on the issue of North Korea.

I’m on, and the only person on this stage, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and we need a partner on the issue of North Korea. But the bottom line is this, Donald Trump in office on trade policy, you know, he reminds me of that guy in The Wizard of Oz, when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude.

While Democrats as a whole have been expressing more trade skepticism than they did under the Obama administration, Harris made it clear that she isn’t joining them. She distanced herself from other Democrats, like Sanders and Warren, who have expressed more protectionist views, but also Trump, who has turned conventional Republican free-trade-ism on its head.

Harris laid out a succinct and easy-to-understand case for her own stance: “We need to sell our stuff.” She also identified the nuances of the US’s relationship with China — yes, it’s important to address its trade aggressions, but it’s also important to work with it on North Korea and climate.

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