Houston – Democratic debate night No. 3: Attacks and counter-attacks. Love for one former president, loathing for the current one. A 76-year-old front-runner essentially got called old, and he turned around and called another rival a “socialist.”
But will it change the fundamentals of a nominating fight that remains remarkably stable at the top with five months until voting begins? Here’s a look at some takeaways and potential answers:
STATUS QUO PREVAILED
The third Democratic debate seemed to end in a 10-way tie.
Former Vice President Joe Biden was sure-footed (until the end), at least for him and compared with the previous two debates. There were more attacks on President Donald Trump than on each other. No one dominated.
Biden took on the most fire, but parried it and, as front-runner, benefits the most from a no-decision. Sen. Bernie Sanders faced sharp criticism about his universal health care plan from several candidates, but his base has demonstrated its loyalty. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was more in the background than in prior debates but didn’t damage herself, and she closed with a compelling personal story. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were both crisp but got lost on the crowded stage at times.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar helped form a sensibility caucus, offering pragmatism and civic-mindedness. Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur, spoke eloquently about immigration and assured himself a mention with his proposal to give 10 families $1,000 a month, from his campaign. The normally mild-mannered Julián Castro, a former Housing secretary, decided that attacking Biden, often in personal terms, was one way to get noticed.
The likely result: little change in a primary that has been remarkably static for months.
FIGHT THAT DIDN’T BREAK OUT
The first matchup between Biden and Warren had so much anticipation — and so little fireworks.
There were a few criticisms of Warren on health care, though she not directly answer whether her plan would raise taxes on the middle class.
During a discussion on trade, Biden even said he agreed with Warren’s call to bring labor to the table.
Certainly, the head-to-head confrontation will come if Biden continues as the front-runner and Warren maintains her momentum as perhaps the most likely progressive alternative. But perhaps the two campaigns were right after all when they said privately before the debate that September — five months before the Iowa caucuses — isn’t necessarily the time for a titanic fight at the top of the field.
BERNIE BATTERED ON HEALTH CARE
Sanders took heavy fire on his single-payer health insurance proposal, with Biden and others hammering the Vermont senator for the cost and the political palatability of effectively eliminating the existing private insurance market.
The former vice president went hardest at Sanders when the senator argued that his estimated $30 trillion cost over a decade is cheaper than the “status quo,” which he put at $50 trillion — with most of the money being what Americans spend privately on premiums, co-pays and out-of-pocket costs. Sanders’ argument is that most U.S. households would pay less overall under his system, even if their taxes go up.
Biden roared that Sanders would effectively be handing Americans a pay cut, arguing employers who now pay a share of workers’ premiums would pocket that money instead of giving workers raises if the government were to cover all health care costs. Biden punctuated the point with one of the quotes of the night: “For a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.”
Buttigieg piled on Sanders, too. Buttigieg said he “trusts the American people to make the right decision” between private insurance and a public option. “Why don’t you?” he asked Sanders.
OF AGE AND EXPERIENCE
At the center of the debate stage were three candidates in their 70s who have had a collective headlock on the upper tier for months. Of the seven younger contenders, Castro, 44, was most explicit in arguing it was time for a new generation — and he specifically targeted the front-runner, 76-year-old Biden.
“Our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump,” Castro said in his opening statement. “We won’t solve them by embracing old ideas.”
Castro also seemed to allude to speculation about Biden’s mental acuity during an exchange about health care. When Biden denied that his health plan required people to buy into Medicare, Castro exclaimed, “Are you forgetting what you said 2 minutes ago?” He continued to suggest Biden didn’t remember what he’d just said about his own plan.
Later, during a discussion about deportations under the Obama administration, Castro mocked Biden for clinging to former President Barack Obama, but then saying he was only vice president when Obama’s conduct was questioned. “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not answer any questions,” Castro said.
MONEY FOR NOTHING
Yang is an unorthodox candidate, and he came to the debate with an offer to match his persona: a proposal to use his campaign funds to pay 10 randomly-selected families $1,000 a month.
Yang announced the maneuver in his opening statement. It’s intended to illustrate the center of his quixotic campaign, to provide monthly $1,000 payments to all Americans 18 and over. After lamenting how the country is in thrall to “the almighty dollar,” Yang, 44, urged viewers to go to his campaign website and register for the contest to win the money.
His offer drew cheers from the audience and chortles from some of the other candidates onstage. “It’s original, I’ll give you that,” Buttigieg said.