Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, the fourth the Democratic National Committee has held so far, was big. It was long — three hours that sometimes felt much longer — and absurdly crowded, with 12 candidates onstage, a record for a televised presidential debate.
But it was also arguably the most useful debate so far. It was unusually policy heavy, with spirited and detailed debates over automation and employment, the consequences of US withdrawal from Syria, wealth taxation, and more. It saw direct confrontation between candidates who had not previously squared off, like Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard, or Andrew Yang and Amy Klobuchar, or Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren. And in the process it sharpened distinctions between the campaigns on issues where their platforms were blurry going in.
Here’s who ended the night better off and who ended it worse off.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
Bernie entered this debate on the ropes. After spending most of the campaign solidly in second place behind Joe Biden in national polls, he is now a distant third behind Biden and Elizabeth Warren. He’s also in third in Iowa (which he nearly won in 2016) and in New Hampshire (which he won in 2016 in a huge landslide). By the numbers, he seems to be underperforming his last run, despite having a vastly more professional campaign infrastructure and not facing a juggernaut like Hillary Clinton.
As if that weren’t enough, his biggest liability — being 78 years old, 79 by the time he’d be inaugurated — came into sharper relief when he was hospitalized following a heart attack and had emergency surgery. It feels gross to hold someone’s health issues against them and I’m extremely glad that Bernie appears in good health now. That said, being president is an uncommonly demanding job and it’s reasonable for voters to wonder if a 78-year-old is up to it.
Sanders’s performance Tuesday night provided an answer to that worry. He was more animated and on his game than much younger candidates like Tulsi Gabbard or Amy Klobuchar. He was more effective than Warren at defending the Medicare-for-all plan they both support (but which, he’s quick to note, he wrote), replying to concerns about its realism, “I’m tired of people defending a system which is dysfunctional, which is cruel. 87 million uninsured. 30,000 people dying every year. 500,000 people going bankrupt. For one reason: They came down with cancer.”
That answer is not fully accurate — the uninsured (actually “uninsured plus underinsured”) and death numbers are roughly right, but the bankruptcy numbers aren’t just due to cancer — but it was powerfully made. Even more powerful was his off-handed, “I feel great!” two hours in, prompting Erin Burnett to ask how he’d reassure voters who worry about his age. Just watch my next rally, Bernie replied.
The rally might be persuasive, but he might not even need it. Bernie gave a commanding, memorable performance that might have been enough to neutralize the health issue going forward.
Winner: Elizabeth Warren
If there was any lingering doubt that Warren has ascended to frontrunner status, this debate put it to rest.
Warren was certainly treated like the frontrunner of the debate, judging by all the attacks she took. The Massachusetts senator has replaced Bernie Sanders as the preferred punching bag of lower-polling moderate candidates who are hesitant to go after Biden. From the get-go, more moderate candidates including Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg jabbed at Warren, trying to pin her on whether she’d raise taxes in paying for Medicare-for-all.
Later, Warren squared off against Sen. Kamala Harris, who wanted her to join Harris’s demand that Twitter deactivate Trump’s profile (Warren replied, “No,” and talked about breaking up big tech companies instead). There were also a couple weird moments with Tulsi Gabbard, who challenged the Massachusetts senator to adopt her pro-Assad and “anti-regime change war” stance in Syria, and confronted Warren on her commander-in-chief bona fides before the moderators cut to commercial.
In past debates, Warren has largely emerged unscathed while Biden was swarmed by the others. Tuesday night was different; at one point, Sen. Cory Booker rushed to Biden’s defense and blasted CNN’s moderators for asking Biden a question about his son’s business ties in Ukraine.
The attacks shifting from Biden to Warren was a telling realignment — and signals a new political reality.
Winner: Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg emerged on Tuesday night as the marquee candidate of the centrist Democratic party, and he did so by emulating a political move from an unlikely model: Bernie Sanders.
A great fun fact about Pete Buttigieg is that he once won a “Profiles in Courage” essay contest in high school with a piece celebrating his political hero: Sanders. And while the two are clearly running in different lanes in 2020, they have gone through a similar experience as candidates. Sanders began 2016 as a protest candidate, only partway through realizing that he could actually, truly win the whole shebang. He had to pivot from being a gadfly to a plausible nominee.
So too with Buttigieg, who probably knew when he entered the race that “mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana” is not a traditional qualification for the presidency. He began by doing interviews with anyone who asked and proposing flashy ideas like court-packing, and before he knew it he was out-fundraising the former vice president. He had to make the same pivot as his erstwhile hero, from longshot to serious contender.
And this is an especially critical moment for that transition, as Elizabeth Warren has overtaken Joe Biden as frontrunner, who appears to be fading. That leaves a huge opening for a center-left candidate who opposes Medicare-for-all and avoids clear class conflict language (and gets the big donor support that comes with that) to take Biden’s place and emerge as the primary alternative to Warren (and, to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders).
He’s running as an Indiana pragmatist, not the heir to Sanders’s legacy his teenage self would’ve been excited about. And while this surely annoys Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar, he is the candidate in that lane with the most fundraising prowess and the most plausible path to the nomination in the polling (especially in Iowa, where he’s in fourth, but not that far down from first). If Biden fades out, Buttigieg stands to take his place.
Buttigieg used Tuesday night to make an argument for himself in that role. He attacked Warren on Medicare-for-all. He decried Beto O’Rourke’s gun control platform as unrealistic. He also decried Tulsi Gabbard’s approach to Syria, not because she’s de facto pro-Assad but because he thinks “American leadership,” by force if necessary, is important. In fact, it’s hard to identify a time this evening he made an identifiable argument from the left.
And yet he convened the centrist rally with focus and verve, and the effort seemed to win the in-person audience over. It probably won’t be enough to win him the nomination. But it might be enough to displace Biden.
Winner: opioid epidemic activists
Before Tuesday, we had gone through three debates with no substantial mention of the opioid epidemic. That changed tonight, when the moderators asked multiple candidates about what they would do about the crisis.
It certainly wasn’t perfect. The candidates mostly focused on cracking down on pharmaceutical companies for their role in causing the opioid epidemic, with Harris and Castro calling for locking up pharmaceutical executives — a grabby way to talk about the issue, but one that sidesteps the other serious discussions we need.
I would’ve, for one, preferred a more substantive conversation about the dire state of addiction treatment. This is a big part of the problem: Treatment is both inaccessible, with just one in 10 people with a drug use disorder getting specialty care, and often of poor quality, failing to follow evidence-based practices like offering medications for addiction. (For more on this, follow Vox’s Rehab Racket project.)
But given the issue’s absence in previous debates, it is good the opioid epidemic got some attention on the national debate stage.
In 2017, America hit a new record for annual drug overdose deaths at 70,000 — a figure so high it contributed to the third year in a row of declining or stagnating life expectancy. (Some preliminary data suggest that 2018 was a bit better, with a 5 percent decline in drug overdose deaths. But that would still make 2018 the second-worst year of all time for drug overdose deaths.)
President Donald Trump, however, has not done much on this issue. He’s committed only a few billion dollars here and there in additional funding, which is far from the tens of billions experts say is needed. And the bulk of his focus has been on policy proposals — like executing drug traffickers or building a wall — that most experts say would do nothing to combat the epidemic.
The Democratic candidates have promised to do better, putting out a range of plans to that end. And on Tuesday, they finally got to talk about those plans to a national audience.
Winner: universal basic income
If Andrew Yang decided to run for president in order to promote universal basic income — the idea that the government should dispense a guaranteed, regular stipend to every single citizen — then he’s already won.
His campaign, whose version of a UBI is called a “freedom dividend,” has already elevated the idea in our policy discourse. On Tuesday night, UBI got an unusual amount of attention on the debate stage.
Yang — who’s long said that if he becomes president, the government will send a check for $1,000 per month ($12,000 annually) to every American adult — argued that we need a UBI because of impending automation-induced job loss. But he also said we need it because it’ll recognize the value of caregiving work, “the work of people like my wife, who’s at home with our two boys, one of whom is autistic.”
We have a Freedom Dividend of $1,000 a month, it actually recognizes the work that is happening in our families and our communities. It helps all Americans transition. … When we put the money into our hands, we can build a trickle-up economy — from our people, our families and our communities up. It will enable us to do the kind of work that we want to do.
He cleverly framed his proposal as a “positive vision in response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” a term for the ways AI, robotics, and emerging technologies are changing life and work. And he emphasized that he’d be putting money directly into the hands of individual Americans so people can do with it whatever they think is best.
He wasn’t alone. Julián Castro touched on the idea: “I believe that we need to address communities that are being impacted by automation. I’m even willing to pilot something like UBI and to see how that will work.” And Tulsi Gabbard embraced it as well. “I agree with my friend Andrew Yang,” she said. “I think universal basic income is a good idea to help provide that security so that people can have the freedom to make the kinds of choices that they want to see.”
In Tuesday’s debate, Yang built on his surprise reveal during the September debate, when he announced that he’ll give away $1,000 a month for a year — no strings attached — to 10 randomly selected families who go to his website and put their names down. Regardless of where his campaign ends up, he’s already given the idea its widest exposure.
Loser: Tulsi Gabbard
The congresswoman from Hawaii has premised her entire candidacy on fierce opposition to US military adventurism abroad. Tonight, she had a chance to distinguish herself during a lengthy foreign policy debate — and made a series of blatantly false statements.
First, she described the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, which is controlled by America’s Kurdish allies, thusly: “the slaughter of the Kurds being done by Turkey is yet another negative consequence of the regime change war we’ve been waging in Syria.”
The US is not waging a war of regime change in Syria (as Biden pointed out later in the debate). American troops are in northern Syria assisting Kurdish forces in combating the ISIS presence in the country. The reason Turkey invaded the Kurdish-held territory is that it sees the Kurds as terrorists and doesn’t want them to have a quasi-state on its border. And it was able to launch the invasion because President Donald Trump pulled out US troops.
But Gabbard’s comment wasn’t a one-off error. Again and again, Gabbard called for an end to the “regime war in Syria,” which is simply not what’s happening there. She bizarrely blamed the “regime change war” for the Syrian refugee crisis, instead of the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has indiscriminately attacked populated areas.
When Buttigieg challenged her shaky analysis, saying that “the slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence, it a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal,” she accused him of supporting “endless war.” His response was succinct and devastating: “You can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump’s policy, as you’re doing.”
Loser: Joe Biden
Joe Biden’s campaign is not going as planned. He entered the race with a lot of confidence, consistently polling as the frontrunner. Over the last few weeks, that’s started to change — with several polls finding Elizabeth Warren ahead, and polling averages by RealClearPolitics and the Economist at times putting Biden in second place overall.
Tuesday night was Biden’s opportunity to stop the bleeding. That didn’t really happen.
First, Biden whiffed an answer that he should have been prepared for. Early on, moderator Anderson Cooper asked Biden about why it was okay for his son, Hunter, to be on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, while Biden was vice president, influencing policy in Ukraine.
Biden responded, “My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States in rooting out corruption in Ukraine. That’s what we should be focusing on.”
The answer missed the point. While there’s no evidence that Biden’s son did anything illegal, there’s still something a bit unsettling — even corrupt — about Biden’s son likely benefiting from his family name and maybe even his father’s policymaking. As Matt Yglesias put it, “That this kind of sleazy stuff has been going on for years doesn’t make Trump’s abuses of power okay, and it certainly doesn’t make his stepped-up and more-egregious forms of corruption okay. But Democrats are kidding themselves if they don’t think it helps explain why Trump’s corruption is tolerated.”
But Biden didn’t distinguish himself in any of these discussions. He made gaffes — like when he said he “would not have withdrawn the additional thousand troops in Iraq,” seemingly meaning Syria. And his other answers were frequently rambling and hard to follow, creating room for rivals like Buttigieg to step up.
Loser: free trade
Starting a trade war with China is perhaps the most distinctive and well-known part of Donald Trump’s economic policy. It’s also extremely unpopular: Multiple polls show that American support for free trade has hit all-time highs, most likely a backlash to the harm caused by Trump’s tariffs on China and other major global economies.
Democrats could run against that record, as defenders of free trade who would return to the global economy to the status quo ex ante. But that doesn’t seem like a popular play in today’s Democratic party. Seeming-frontrunner Warren, who talked about the issue the most, described America’s trade agreements as job-killing giveaways to greedy, unpatriotic corporations:
The data show that we have had a lot of problems with losing jobs. The reason is bad trade policy. The reason has been a bunch of giant multinational corporations who have been calling the shots on trade. Giant multinational corporations that have no loyalty to America. They have no loyalty to American workers. They have no loyalty to American consumers. They have no loyalty to American communities. They are loyal only to their own bottom line.
Warren’s rhetoric here would hardly be out of place in a Trump speech. And while she approaches the issue with far more nuance than the president does, her campaign’s aggressive trade policy clearly illustrates a shift in the Democratic Party’s trade politics.
Indeed, Warren’s trade skepticism wasn’t met with any pushback from other Democrats onstage. The party whose last two presidents pushed NAFTA and the TPP is going in a very different direction, a sign that what was once a bipartisan consensus on the benefits of free trade has thoroughly collapsed.