The third Democratic presidential debate—and the first with the top 10 candidates together on one stage for one night—was lively and often substantive, although not without its share of oddball moments. Below is my subjective list of some key moments from and elements of the debate. All quotes are taken from The Washington Post’s debate transcript.
Candidates: former Vice-President Joe Biden, Senator Cory Booker, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former tech executive Andrew Yang.
The shadow of gun violence: Two shootings in Texas last month, including the white supremacist terrorist attack in El Paso, loomed over the debate, which took place in Houston. Several candidates praised Beto O’Rourke’s response to the El Paso attack, and O’Rourke defended his support for a mandatory buy-back of all AR-15 and AK-47 weapons.
Tough questions: Moderator Linsey Davis, of ABC, asked Kamala Harris about criminal justice reform:
Senator Harris, you released your plan for that just this week. And it does contradict some of your prior positions. Among them, you used to oppose the legalization of marijuana; now you don’t. You used to oppose outside investigations of police shootings; now you don’t. You’ve said that you changed on these and other things because you were, quote, “swimming against the current, and thankfully the currents have changed.”
But when you had the power, why didn’t you try to effect change then?
Harris argued that she did try to effect change during her legal career, but it remains to be seen whether those who want to fundamentally change a racist criminal justice system will be able to trust Harris. Davis also questioned Amy Klobuchar’s response to police killings of black Americans during her time as a prosecutor.
To Joe Biden, Davis said:
Mr. Vice president, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?
Biden said in part, in the context of improving educational outcomes, “[w]e bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.” The response was heavily criticized by Time Magazine editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas, who wrote on Twitter, “[a]sked about his past comments denying responsibility, as a white man, for America’s sins, he gives an answer insinuating that black parents don’t know how to raise kids.” (h/t to this Politico article).
Jorge Ramos, of Univision, was also tough:
Vice President Biden, as a presidential candidate, in 2008, you supported the border wall, saying, “Unlike most Democrats, I voted for 700 miles of fence.” This is what you said.
Then you served as vice president in an administration that deported 3 million people, the most ever in U.S. history. Did you do anything to prevent those deportations? I mean, you’ve been asked this question before and refused to answer, so let me try once again. Are you prepared to say tonight that you and President Obama made a mistake about deportations? Why should Latinos trust you?
Biden later said that “[t]he president did the best thing that was able to be done at the time.” Julián Castro argued that Biden “wants to take credit for Obama’s work, but not have to answer to any questions.” Biden replied, “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent. That’s where I stand. I did not say I did not stand with him.”
Ramos also asked candidates about their foreign policy in regard to Latin America, beginning with Bernie Sanders:
Senator Sanders, one country where many immigrants are arriving from is Venezuela. A recent U.N. fact-finding mission found that thousands have been disappeared, tortured and killed by government forces in Venezuela.
You admit that Venezuela does not have free elections, but still you refuse to call Nicolas Maduro a dictator — a dictator. Can you explain why?
And what are the main differences between your kind of socialism and the one being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua?
On Venezuela, Sanders replied:
Well, first of all, let me be very clear. Anybody who 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 make — can create their own future.
For the most part, the candidates have not yet laid out specifics for how they would respond to global issues like the crisis in Venezuela. Where do they stand on sanctions? Drone strikes? Response to genocide and other atrocities?
Warren on foreign policy: One of the most specific discussions about foreign policy in the debate was on the war in Afghanistan. Elizabeth Warren made an important contribution, and her response outlined some larger themes in her approach to foreign policy. Asked whether she would “bring the troops home starting right now with no deal with the Taliban,” she responded:
Yes. And I’ll tell you why. What we’re doing right now in Afghanistan is not helping the safety and security of the United States. It is not helping the safety and security of the world. It is not helping the safety and security of Afghanistan. We need to bring our troops home.
And then we need to make a big shift. We cannot ask our military to keep solving problems that cannot be solved militarily.
We’re not going to bomb our way to a solution in Afghanistan. We need to treat the problem of terrorism as a worldwide problem, and that means we need to be working with all of our allies, our European allies, our Canadian allies, our Asian allies, our allies in Africa and in South America. We need to work together to root out terrorism.
It means using all of our tools. It means economic investment. It means expanding our diplomatic efforts instead of hollowing out the State Department and deliberately making it so we have no eyes and ears in many of these countries. We need a foreign policy that is about our security and about leading on our values.
In response to a follow-up question, Warren continued:
I was in Afghanistan with John McCain two years ago this past summer. I think it may have been Senator McCain’s last trip before he was sick. And I talked to people — we did — we talked to military leaders, American and local leaders, we talked to people on the ground and asked the question, the same one I ask on the Senate Armed Services Committee every time one of the generals comes through: Show me what winning looks like. Tell me what it looks like.
And what you hear is a lot of, “Uh,” because no one can describe it. And the reason no one can describe it is because the problems in Afghanistan are not problems that can be solved by a military.
I have three older brothers who all served in the military. I understand firsthand the kind of commitment they have made. They will do anything we ask them to do. But we cannot ask them to solve problems that they alone cannot solve.
We need to work with the rest of the world. We need to use our economic tools. We need to use our diplomatic tools. We need to build with our allies. And we need to make the whole world safer, not keep troops bombing in Afghanistan.
Climate crisis shortchanged: After a promising CNN town hall on the climate crisis earlier this month, there were only a few minutes of questions about climate during this debate. Given the magnitude of the issue and the important differences between the candidates’ climate plans, activists are continuing to call for a climate debate. For now, these are a few resources for determining candidates’ positions on climate: My Climate Candidate, Greenpeace rankings, 350 Action rankings.