As sure as summer turns to fall, so do presidential primary debates eventually transform from polite discussion of issues to carefully planned offensives on their chosen targets, whether that means taking aim at their brothers or sisters on stage or the incumbent president.
Thursday night in Houston. Heated exchanges over healthcare right out of the gate set a decidedly more contentious tone than in the first two rounds. The field has narrowed from 20 candidates and two-night affairs in those first two rounds to the top ten qualifiers in a single debate, but that doesn’t mean there was any less drama. Two-thirds of the top tier of candidates – Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) – defended the “damn bill” (his own words) Sanders authored to end private health insurance in favor of a single-payer government-run system, Medicare-for-All. Frontrunner Joe Biden repeated his pledge to protect and expand Obamacare. And that’s when things got testy, as others joined in with stinging criticism of the Sanders/Warren plan.
Biden, who later called Sanders a socialist (as opposed to Bernie’s own moniker of democratic socialist), would clearly appear to be the beneficiary of the argument as the only candidate on stage with both a realistic shot at the nomination and a plan that does not strip some 150 million Americans of their private health insurance. This can hardly be discounted when polls reveal that over 80% of Americans profess to be happy with their current plans and almost the same number are opposed to a single-payer plan (not in principle, but once they are told the details).
Pete Buttigieg’s Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It and various other iterations of universal coverage and public options flowed freely from the anxious lips of second- and third-tier candidates – such as Julian Castro, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) – desperate for a viral moment. Nevertheless, Warren and Sanders forcefully defended their position, betraying no sense of compromise or accommodation. They did not go after each other: a scenario thought to be inevitable once the competing progressive titans near the finish line.
Debates along the way also provide opportunities for candidates to correct the record or reverse perceptions. Evidently stung by criticism of their tepid defense or complaints about President Obama’s policies in the previous debates, the candidates poured on the praise for Obama this night almost as often as they attacked President Trump for being a racist and white supremacist. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) even attempted to revive the 2008 Obama slogan, “yes, we can.”
On the matter of praise, and contrary to the often combative tone of the proceedings, many of the candidates somehow felt compelled to praise longshot Beto O’Rourke throughout the evening for his public appearances in his hometown of El Paso following the recent mass shooting there. O’Rourke, once thought to be the next big thing before fading badly in the previous debates, came roaring out of the gate loaded for bear. He claimed in his opening remarks that Trump “inspired” the mass shooter in El Paso, continuing with all manner of vicious attacks on the president, and at one point during a diatribe on gun control declared, “hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15 and AK-47.”
As is typical on a crowded debate stage, each candidate tried to establish a lane of his or her own, none more clearly than Harris. The prosecutor-turned-social justice warrior, thought to be the prime beneficiary of the party’s identity politics, once appeared on her way to the top tier but now is widely viewed as a likely choice for the number two spot on the ticket. She employed a similar strategy to O’Rourke, going after Trump hammer and tong, appearing intent on demonstrating the attack dog mentality ideally suited for a vice-presidential candidate.
Biden, sitting at a steady 30% in the polls with a comfortable lead since his entry in the race in April, was predictably forced to defend his record and his moderation, but also his much-discussed mental capacity. The upstart Castro, trolling for an opportunity to capitalize on Biden’s penchant for embarrassing gaffes, launched a blistering rapid-fire attack on the former vice president at one juncture, saying over and over that Biden had forgotten what he said on a matter of healthcare minutes earlier. It was a naked attempt to transmit the message that ol’ Joe is over the hill, a relic of days gone by.
Admittedly, Biden often smiled at the wrong time and, as is his wont, stumbled frequently but seemingly without consequence. Long labeled a classic old-time liberal, he continues to stand by himself in this field as the lone non-progressive, hard as he tries to sound like one at times. His lead would appear to be safe for the time being. But in delivering a third consecutive strong and, at times, commanding performance, Warren could be on the verge of expanding her advantage over the perpetually infuriated Sanders and establishing herself as the undisputed leader among the field’s many progressives.
If you missed the show, worry not. There are nine more debates scheduled before the nomination is settled.