Nick Greenwood breaks down the biggest moments from the recent Democrat Primary debates, and assesses how the candidates performed.
Treading Water: The Democrat Debate in Houston
Primary debates rarely change anything. Those expecting fireworks from the Democrats’ third presidential debate on 12 September will probably have come away disappointed, although there is much to discuss coming out of Houston. There were higher stakes going into the debate than in the previous two; Houston marked the first time that the three front-runners – Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders – shared a debate stage. It’s important to remember that is exactly how commentators framed the event beforehand: the clash between Biden and Warren was imminent, and it would be bloody.
Except it wasn’t, really.
By the metrics of the expectations game, the Biden vs. Warren showdown was quite disappointing. But the debate was never supposed to be a two-person event: ten candidates stood on stage. Without further ado, let’s go over some of the key moments from Houston:
Andrew Yang’s Grand Offer
Andrew Yang is the candidate running on a platform advocating a universal basic income, aiming to give every American adult $1,000/month to prepare for automation and the coming robot apocalypse. He doesn’t mention the second bit. In his opening statement, Yang announced he would give 10 random families on his mailing list $1,000/month for an entire year. Think of the contact information that the Yang campaign has just gained from people entering the UBI lottery! With plenty of emails and phone numbers to canvass for small donations, Yang can quite happily keep the campaign going for, what, another couple of months? I’m going to look quite stupid when President Yang sends the robots after me.
Age is just a number – a potentially disqualifying one
All three of the Democratic frontrunners are septuagenarians. President Sanders would be eight months shy of his eightieth birthday on the day he assumed office; President Biden would be seventy-eight; President Warren would, by contrast, be a sprightly seventy-one. It isn’t unfair for questions to be raised about their capacity for office, especially given that Ronald Reagan is widely accepted to be suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease during his second term. The real question is how to approach the issue seriously, but without belittling experienced candidates.
Or you could just imply they’re senile on national television?
In response to a meandering answer by Biden, Julián Castro took this path. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?”, Castro queried, and then repeated the insinuation a further four times. It was the single stand-out moment of the debate, but it also split the audience. For some, the insinuation that Biden was senile was an unnecessary right hook in a relatively friendly primary campaign; for others, and indeed as Castro asserted after the debate, it was just politics.
Joe Biden: The Complicated Frontrunner
Everyone knows that Joe Biden has cultivated a reputation as a gaffe machine, and if his latest presidential campaign is anything to go by, nothing has changed.
In a rambling and almost incoherent answer, Biden managed to talk about ensuring poor children watched television to hear more words pre-kindergarten, corrected television to record player(that well-known modern contraption), implied African-Americans needed government assistance as they didn’t know how to raise their children properly, and abruptly changed tack entirely to discuss Venezuela. The question was about the legacy of slavery.
With a bit of thought, it’s clear what Biden meant. He offered the solution of increased funding for pre-kindergarten funding to close the racial gap, pivoting at the end to Venezuela as he had not been able to interject during an earlier discussion. His commanding poll lead indicates that Democratic voters are risk-averse heading into 2020, preferring a familiar face to a radical shift. But how safe would a Biden nomination be if he keeps putting his foot in his mouth?
You Don’t Need an Assault Rifle to Protect Against Burglars
The United States has too many guns. On the whole, the Democratic Party maintains a broad tent on the issue, but tends towards supporting increased regulation; the depressing frequency of mass shootings has, however, pushed many 2020 candidates into more vocal positions. Beto O’Rourke, former Democrat rock star and now middling presidential candidate, came into his own during the debate on the topic of mass shootings. O’Rourke hails from El Paso, where twenty-two people died just last month – and his furious response resonated with an electorate tired of being scared.
One of O’Rourke’s campaign themes is the mandatory buyback of every AR-15 and AK-47 in the United States; when questioned if he was advocating what critics have labelled ‘confiscation’, he launched into an impassioned story about a woman who had lost her daughter to military-grade weaponry in the El Paso shooting. “Hell yes,” O’Rourke exclaimed, “We’re going to take your AR-15s.” The Republicans will attack Democrats as conspiring to confiscate every gun in America, but they’ve been saying that for decades. With the rest of the world watching, sickened, at the all too familiar news alerts about an American mass shooting, we can only hope O’Rourke will shift the debate in a positive direction.
All in all…
The third Democratic primary debate was not the expected slugfest between Biden and Warren. What the debate did do, however, was raise interesting points to watch. Keep an eye on Biden’s ‘senior moments’, and Democratic movement on the gun issue, because you can be sure voters are doing the same. There will be big moments in the primary campaign before Iowa votes in February, the nature of the political fight makes that almost inevitable, but how voters respond to them depends entirely on the candidate preconceptions that debates help to form. A debate moment doesn’t have to go viral to change the shape of the race.