By Briana Brady—Asst. Features Editor; Logan Rader—Opinion Editor
Awkward laughs. Heated exchanges. Recycled campaign slogans. All of these memorable moments took place during the third Democratic Debate of the 2020 Presidential Election cycle, which was hosted by HBCU Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. Moderated by journalists working for ABC News and one from Univision, the debate covered some highly-contested topics (like healthcare and gun control) but notably omitted others (such as access to abortions and paid maternity leave).
Standout moments in the debate included conversations around gun control, stemming from an impassioned Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose hometown of El Paso recently experienced a massive tragedy at the hands of a deranged gunman. His remarks about gun control peaked when he commented, “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15s and AK-47s,” and continued by noting the common ground he’s found with gun dealers at gun shows in the deep south.
Other conversations around race and criminal justice also evoked passionate discourse from the candidates, spearheaded with conviction especially by Senator Cory Booker. Not only did he staunchly advocate for environmental justice in marginalized communities, but he also urged his fellow candidates to join him in committing to grant clemency to thousands of non-violent offenders serving prolonged jail sentences. Booker constantly referenced the people in his lower-income Newark community — in which he currently lives — and the theme of the debate for him seemed to revolve around a message of community mobilization and fighting for social justice; essentially, as he stated towards the end of the debate, Booker’s (and perhaps reminiscent of a young Obama’s) mentality was: ”Don’t give up on the people and the people won’t give up on you.”
Too noteworthy to omit, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Castro and former Vice President Biden engaged in a heated exchange earlier in the debate as well, in which he asked Biden, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Ironically, Castro was the one who misrepresented Biden’s statement. This exchange was visibly awkward for everyone on the stage, and most candidates commented post-debate that they thought the remarks by Castro were uncalled for and destructive for the party as a whole. Some candidates, including Senator Amy Klobuchar, even compared his personal targeting to that of Trump’s rhetoric.
While some focused on targeting their criticisms at other candidates on the stage, Senator Kamala Harris kept her eyes set on President Trump. First, by looking directly at the camera and addressing President Trump by name, Harris told him in her opening statement that he has “used hate, intimidation, fear, and over 12,000 lies as a way to distract from your failed policies and your broken promises,” but yet, Americans “have so much more in common than what separates us.” Then, in a mic-drop-like statement, she told Trump he could cease paying attention and return to watching Fox News.
After beginning with such a strong start, Harris also expertly defended a tough question about her past as a California prosecutor. She discussed how her personal experiences led her to seek to reform the system by working from the inside out, and also specifically noted her accomplishments while she served as California D.A. From there, though, Harris’s comments didn’t always land as well as she might have intended.
Not only did she turn Obama’s “Yes we can!” slogan on Biden’s more conservative estimate about practical gun violence policies, but she also tried to implement a Wizard-of-Oz joke into her statements on trade policy, trying to connect Trump to the “really small dude” behind the curtain.
Senator Elizabeth Warren didn’t really have any “standout” moments in the debate, but nevertheless stuck to her policies and held strong against criticisms from more moderate candidates. Unsurprisingly, she has remained steady in the list of top-three contenders, inching her way up in the polls. Warren continuously attempted to make herself seem more personable by harking back to stories of her earlier life, both as she referenced her humble Oklahoman roots, her brothers in the military, and her former career as a public school teacher. She didn’t appear to be stronger in any one area as compared to another, but still came out of the debate having “won” regarding overall performance.
Notably, the only questions surrounding the economy were centered around trade policy. Many, like Senator Amy Klobuchar, noted the brazen approach by President Trump through tariffs issued by tweet and swift reversals thereof. In a lengthy critique, the Minnesota senator accused Trump of running the economy and US trade policy as chips in one of his bankrupt casinos. Further, during the healthcare portion, Klobuchar has emerged from the debate seen by punditry as having some of her best moments. Some will remember Senator Bernie Sanders’s famous line “I wrote the damn [Medicare for All] bill.” Klobuchar fired back in Houston when referring to a page which articulates doing away with private insurance altogether, saying “I don’t think that’s a bold idea. I think it’s a bad idea.”
Moreover, on trade, the Democratic Party seemed united on how they’ve seen the endless pile of trade wars as incredibly harmful policy to the entirety of America. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and Senator Booker, among almost all others on stage, lambasted Trump’s America-first, haphazard, nonsensical trade policies, calling it “trade by tweet,” and “isolationist.”
On foreign policy more broadly, themes of executive power in deploying armed forces, the US’s role in failing democracies like Venezuela, and ratcheting down US presence in countries like Afghanistan were all brought to bear between the candidates on stage. Warren emphasized the importance of maintaining diplomatic alliances with countries in Africa and South America through bolstering the State Department and pushing economic investment in developing countries. Senator Sanders, once again, trumpeted his record of never having been for any war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of the candidates asked were adamant that the rest of the world — most notably our historically unshakable allies like Britain, France, and Canada — are watching the president play blind checkers with our reputation on the world stage, and most committed to reaffirming the positive American presence in global diplomacy.
The debate ended in an unusual format, both in order and content. Instead of asking for closing statements in order of lowest-to-highest polling candidate, the moderators began the final round with Biden and ended with Castro. More uncharacteristically, though, rather than asking for a formalized, prepared closing statement, ABC asked candidates to discuss their biggest professional setback and what they learned from it. While some candidates addressed the question more than others, all candidates seemed to have a little difficulty of answering that question while also rounding out their debate performance with a striking or memorable remark. Some, like Mayor Buttigieg, told harrowing stories of past experiences shaping their personhood and views today. The Indiana mayor discussed his experience in the military under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and serving as a homosexual mayor under former Governor Mike Pence.
Did the debate fall a little flat, especially considering the hype that came with the event being the first time all remaining ten candidates joined together on one stage? Perhaps. Did the poll statuses change following the night? Hardly. And three hours later, did many people’s opinions change? Probably not. The top tier remains at the top, the bottom largely remains at the bottom, but boy, do we still have a long way to go.
When watching these debates, we ask that you don’t let them singularly define your vote. These nationally televised contests are designed to spur civic engagement while making viewership more likely for the networks. It isn’t the media’s fault because we, the American people, watch and demand this sort of content. These debates are ways for candidates to peak your interest, and if you were struck by Warren’s many detailed plans, Pete’s rhetorical statesmanship, Klobuchar’s midwestern realism, or Biden’s experienced pragmatism, you still have roughly six months to cast your vote for the Democratic nominee.
And that’s not even half the battle, as the race for 2020 comes in November against President Donald Trump.