The Democratic candidates met in Houston on Thursday night for a third round of televised debates. This time the format was limited to a single night with 10 participants, which meant that for the first time, all the top-tier candidates were onstage together.
At the third Democratic party presidential candidates debate, the sparred over hot-button issues such as health care and immigration. Aside from Biden’s generally strong performance, he compellingly and convincingly delivered his core message of restoring, protecting and rebuilding the Obama-Biden record.
This was the first time that frontrunners Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden shared the debate stage. At the end of the night, Joe Biden emerged as the winner and Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders were the surprise losers, according to many analysts.
Warren and Biden exhibited stark differences on style, policy and vision for the Democratic Party, embodying two opposing theories of what the party should be. This divide was apparent during an explosive debate over health care, during which Biden went on the attack against Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for the hidden costs associated with their “Medicare-for-all plans.”
Warren deflected when asked if middle-class taxes will go up to pay for “Medicare for all,” saying total costs would go down – but not explicitly stating whether taxes for middle-class families would increase. “What we’re talking about here is what’s going to happen in families’ pockets,” Warren said. “This is about candor, honesty,” Biden retorted. “There will be a deductible – in your paycheck … someone making 60 grand with three kids, they’re going to end up paying $5,000 more.”
Though many were watching Warren expecting her to deliver a knockout performance, the senator fell somewhat short of that expectation. While this will likely not impact Warren’s standing in the presidential race at this early stage – which according to most polls is a close second behind Biden – she did not have the debate moment that many were anticipating. She was a surprise loser when the evening was over.
Unlike prior debates, where Biden struggled for words and seemed surprised by criticism from fellow Democrats, he largely delivered crisp, aggressive responses. He called Sanders “a socialist,” a label that could remind voters of the senator’s embrace of democratic socialism. And Biden slapped at Warren’s proposed wealth tax.
A two-term vice president under Barack Obama, Biden unequivocally defended his former boss, who came under criticism from some candidates for deporting immigrants and not going far enough on health care reform.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent,” Biden declared. His vulnerabilities surfaced, however, in the final minutes of the debate, when he was pressed on a decades-old statement regarding school integration. Biden rambled in talking about his support of teachers, the lack of resources for educators and at one point seemed to encourage parents to play records for their children to expand their vocabulary before segueing into talk of Latin America.
Sen. Kamala Harris pointed to her many uphill battles on her way to becoming a U.S. Senator: “I was the only black elected — woman black elected attorney general in the state, in the country. And each time, people would say, it’s not your time, it’s not your turn, it’s going to be too difficult, they’re not ready for you, and I didn’t listen.”
But most of the candidates in the field seem to be acting as if there’s some law of nature that will magically cause him to lose even without anyone really going after him in a persuasive way. The voters’ current views, however, seem very clear. A large minority of them want a left-winger like Sanders or Warren but the majority do not, and that more moderate majority sees Biden as their champion. Sanders or Warren could change that dynamic by trying to assuage Democrats worries that they are too far left, but currently they are too locked in a Cold War with each other to do that.
And, crucially, the Democratic Party primary electorate as a whole is more moderate than Biden’s two main rivals, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren and Biden used their stage time Thursday to remind voters of this, flanking Biden to his left — and left of the typical primary voter. The rest of the field by and large didn’t even bother to attack him. If these dynamics hold, Biden could easily cruise to victory.