Big themes of last night’s debate

Last night in Ohio, twelve Democratic candidates for president met on a single stage to debate a variety of topics. What emerged were some clear themes.

The big discussion topics, as set by the moderators, were impeachment, health care, foreign policy, tax policy, opioids, reproductive rights, court-packing, automation, jobs, gun control, and unusual friendships. Not kidding, that last one was the stand-in for a closing statement.

There’s also some important context heading into the debate about where the candidates stand in the polls. As we’ve discussed on this show, we now have essentially co-frontrunners in the polls, with Warren rising to join Biden. At the same time, the debate field is winnowing—for the most part, you have three candidates polling in the double-digits, and then you have everybody else. So if you fall into that “everybody else” category, you’ve gotta head into this debate thinking about how you can possibly move the conversation in a way that helps you. That’s a lot of what drove the lower-polling candidates to tackle issues the way they did.

On Monday this week I talked about the comparative reality of debate participants and this theory of Bugs Bunny versus Elmer Fudd. Throughout last night, to be honest, I didn’t see many Bugs Bunnies on that stage. Instead we had a lot of people stomping around and battling more like Elmer Fudd. And there’s still certainly value in that—conflict is obviously a key element in any debate. But if I had to give a one-word summary of last night’s debate it would be: exhausting.

Now, WHY? Well, it’s because of the intensifying clash between candidates who are more moderate and those who lean farther left. That divide also happens to show up SHARPLY in the overall polling—of the three top-polling candidates, two of them, Sanders and Warren, lean pretty far left. One, Biden, is closer to the center. So the other more moderate candidates have a real incentive to try to take Biden’s place and go after both Sanders and Warren for their ideology.

In particular, Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out swinging, pushing a clear moderate message throughout the night. So did Senator Amy Klobuchar. So did former Vice President Joe Biden, for that matter. But the dynamic in last night’s debate really flipped from what we’ve seen in the previous ones. Last night, when the candidates weren’t going after Trump, they were mostly going after Warren. In previous debates, Biden has been the main target. For most of last night, he was able to hang back and let other people squabble in front of him. Now, he DID get into the mix, and we’ll deal with that in the show, but for the first time, this wasn’t everybody-versus-Biden.

To demonstrate these differences, I’m going to cover a handful of notable exchanges. Let’s roll right into the first one.

The split on Medicare for All

Just 20 minutes into the debate, a notable exchange happened, and it set the tone for the night. Now, I’m tempted just to play you a ten-minute clip of the debate, because almost all of it encapsulates something about what happened. But I am going to cut it into pieces so we can talk about each segment and how the argument developed.

First up, the question and initial answer by Warren. The question is asked by moderator Marc Lacey. Listen in:

[CLIP-WARREN-1-QA]

Okay, so that’s the initial round. The moderator points out, as actually I have on this show quite a bit, that one of Warren’s hallmarks is specifying how she will pay for things. Not everything, but most of her plans have a clear section on that. So the moderator asks, specifically, will you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for Medicare for All? That’s a reasonable and relatively simple question. And Warren’s response sticks to an answer about overall cost. But it really does fail to answer the yes-or-no question, and that got people’s attention. Even if Warren’s point makes sense, it fell flat in this exchange. Okay, so let’s pick up and see where this goes next.

[CLIP-WARREN-2-BUTTIGIEG-REBUTTAL]

All right, so that’s very clear. There’s a three-part argument there. Part one: You’re not answering the question. Part two: adding a public option to Obamacare is probably easier to get done in this political environment—we’ll have more on that later. And part three: Buttigieg argues that most Americans prefer a public option anyway. That last one is debatable given what polling you’re looking at, but still, solid points by Buttigieg. Okay, so where does this go next?

[CLIP-WARREN-3-MESSAGE-DISCIPLINE]

Well, again, Warren does not directly address the tax thing. She’s doing a great job at maintaining message discipline about costs here, but the question is simple and explicit, and is not about cost. So this ends up creating a terrific opening for Buttigieg and anybody else who wants to get in on this, because as much as Warren believes that her answer is complete, it doesn’t come across that way.

So let’s check out the next part, in which Buttigieg hammers at Medicare for All versus a public option, while again emphasizing the pragmatic reality that a public option is much easier to accomplish. I should also give some context here—when Obamacare first came around, the idea of including a public option within it was so liberal that it was stripped out. So the Buttigieg plan here is what would be considered quite liberal less than a decade ago. Now it’s closer to the mainstream, and his argument is really clear about how he sees the practicality of doing his plan versus the biggest, boldest, do-it-all-in-one-move sweep. Let’s listen to both the Buttigieg articulation of that, and then we’ll hear Senator Bernie Sanders answer the original question. Listen in:

[CLIP-WARREN-4-SANDERS-ANSWERS]

Okay, so we are heading right into the eye of the storm. Buttigieg laid out a pretty good argument, and then Sanders articulated an EXCELLENT response that frankly should have been the initial response from Warren. It’s almost the same answer Warren gave, but phrased in a way that makes WAY more sense on a debate stage. He’s talking about overall cost, but he’s talking about in the context of actually answering the yes-or-no tax question that has been put forth. So the moderator gives Warren a chance to grab that and run with it. Let’s listen to that:

[CLIP-WARREN-5-KLOBUCHAR-ANSWERS]

Yeah. So Klobuchar gets in on this, and makes a really well-received point—you can hear the audience applaud. She’s offering roughly the same thing Buttigieg is, AND she’s fitting in this repeating message that comes up throughout the night, which is basically, hey, don’t tell us that moderate positions aren’t enough. But Warren is completely sticking with her answer. Despite being handed an opportunity by the moderator to say, you know, “I’m with Bernie on this one,” Warren returns to the overall cost thing.

Okay, in the final part of this exchange, which, again, defines a huge part of what this debate was ABOUT, Warren starts to pivot toward her work in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That, in turn, was based on her work with Americans experiencing bankruptcy—which, no surprise, does come up again later. Listen to this, and how Klobuchar works in a zinger combined with her overall moderate-policy-is-acceptable message.

[CLIP-WARREN-6-FINALE]

Well, there you have it. We have the big structural change thing which Warren favors, versus the politically practical thing that is still much better than we have today, which is what, at least in the clips we just heard, both Buttigieg and Klobuchar favor. And so does Joe Biden, by the way.

Okay, so let’s end this segment and come back with another exchange.

The split on foreign policy

Next up, let’s talk foreign policy. During a discussion of the war in Syria, the two veterans onstage got into a tussle.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard called the situation in Syria a “regime change war,” which is genuinely a weird way to put it, when the issue is more about killing the Kurds, but we’ll leave that for the fact-checkers—see the show notes, by the way. And then she said she wanted to withdraw support for various military actions in the region.

She then asked Warren to join her in this, and Warren gave an answer that was basically, well, yeah, let’s get out of the Middle East, but it’s complicated.

And then this happened. I’m just gonna play you a solid three-minute clip here, and the reason I’m choosing this one is it highlights the differences between the two actual veterans on an actual military conflict going on right now.

These debates have so far been really light on foreign policy, so this topic has not gotten much coverage. Listen in:

[CLIP-BUTTIGIEG-GABBARD-WAR]

That exchange stood out to me, in part because Buttigieg brought such a strong response, but also because this was finally a chance for the Democratic field to talk about foreign policy on stage. At one point in the night, Biden talked about how he had the most foreign policy experience, and that’s true. But Buttigieg did an impressive job making the case that he understood the scope of the problem very well, and had clear ideas about what he would do about it as president.

The Biden vs. Sanders vs. Warren moment

Okay, the final big moment that helps us understand this debate is a major clash between Biden and Warren with a little Sanders in the middle. For time, I’m going to omit part of both Biden and Warren’s answers, and summarize the Sanders stuff. But here is the setup. Moderator Anderson Cooper speaks first. Listen in:

[CLIP-BIDEN-1-BIG-THINGS-DONE]

Okay, so Biden’s argument here boils down to issues of experience and practicality. Who on this stage has experience, and also, is Medicare for All actually practical in terms of paying for it? Now, I’m omitting this whole piece in the middle where Biden and Sanders hash out the Medicare for All stuff—yet again—and Sanders points out that Biden supported the Iraq war and a bankruptcy bill that he and Warren vehemently opposed.

But this next moment is really where things turned. It’s worth going and finding a clip of this—this all happened starting around 10:28pm Eastern time, if you’re looking up a video, and you got to see the three highest-polling candidates in a clear disagreement that did not go well for Biden. Okay, so listen to Warren’s response to Biden’s claim that he was the only one on stage who had gotten big things done.

[CLIP-BIDEN-2-WARREN-REBUTTAL]

And, I rest my case. Warren ends on what I think is THE theme of the night. She says, yet again, go big—go for the biggest policy, don’t let talk of practicality get you down.

But standing on either side of her are Biden and Buttigieg, both of whom had made strong arguments to the contrary. Both of them, among other more moderate candidates on the stage were sticking to THEIR guns and saying, hey, we think we can get practical things done that will make a difference.

So that is the choice that this debate embodied. That is the single thing I would suggest you take away from this debate.

Also, yes, there were a ton of people who spoke in the debate and I didn’t include them in today’s show audio, but I think you’ll agree, this has gone on long enough.

There are links in the show notes to summaries, including a pretty good highlight reel from the New York Times, and more analysis of this debate, including talk time and all that stuff. Overall, this was a messy night, and we kind of expected that with twelve people on stage. I hope that this analysis today has helped to boil down some of what happened, and give you a clear understanding of where some of these candidates stand.

Well, that is it for one more episode of the Election Ride Home. I have been your host, Chris Higgins. You can always find me on Twitter @chrishiggins. Okay, in the outro it’s a good time to, first off, thank you for playing Debate Bingo last night—it was a joy to interact with all of you, and see SO MANY PEOPLE sharing their cards on Twitter. Next, I am holding onto a giant pile of news, including all the money stuff, and a big endorsement for Sanders, and a pile of other stories. I’m going to try to cram those into the show tomorrow, and reminder, there will be no show on Friday, because I will be in the land of Tetris. So expect a kind of grab-bag show tomorrow of all the stuff that got pushed out by the debate on the first three days of this week. As always, thanks for listening, and I will talk to y’all tomorrow.