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Larry Donnnelly: The third Democratic debate was a ho-hum night in Houston

It was a debate with few shocks and, when the dust settled, the three frontrunnners had solidified their positions, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IF ONE WERE asked to sum up what transpired on the debate stage at Texas Southern University in Houston on Thursday night, it would go as follows: former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders came in as the top three contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. They left the same way.

Arguably the two most prominent issues dealt with by the ten candidates who qualified for this third encounter were health care and gun control. Some of the most telling and revealing moments, meanwhile, were precipitated by a question put to the seven men and three women as to what has made them resilient.

Here is an evaluation of the performance of each putative Trump vanquisher and an examination of where the race now stands.

The long(er) shots

Although he has attracted a dedicated following, entrepreneur Andrew Yang remains something of an unknown and a wildcard in his quixotic quest for the presidency. He has championed the idea of a universal basic income, something worth exploring, even if America mightn’t be ready for it.

election-2020-debate Source: David J. Phillip

But using his opening statement to pledge that he will give $1,000 a month to 10 randomly selected families will strike many as too far “outside the box” and downright bizarre. He didn’t help his chances.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, positioning herself eagerly as a moderate, opined that she didn’t think some of the proposals on healthcare offered by the other candidates, Sanders and Warren in particular, were good ones.

Her opening statement, in which she said “if you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics… you’ve got a home with me,” was strong and will resonate with voters who find themselves politically homeless as the two parties have moved further to the left and right. But she wasn’t much of a force in the debate and is unlikely to see a bump in the polls.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was articulate and solid, as usual, yet didn’t have any breakthrough moments. On the other hand, Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and cabinet secretary in the Obama administration, came out swinging for Joe Biden.

In the context of a dispute over healthcare plan details, Castro repeatedly and pointedly accused his 76 year old opponent of “forgetting what you said two minutes ago.” This is likely to backfire.

election-2020-debate Source: David J. Phillip

Many in the crowd booed him; high level Democrats immediately said it was “ugly” and “disrespectful”; and, while the party faithful may have their own doubts about whether Biden is up to the task, this line of attack will be deemed unseemly, especially on a night when many of the candidates rowed back on their earlier criticisms and were keen to recognise the accomplishments of the man Biden served alongside for eight years, Barack Obama.

Ex-Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke had easily his best showing in the three debates to date. Addressing the recent gun massacre in his native city of El Paso, he emotionally exclaimed:

Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow them (assault weapons) to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.

This was the line of the night and his advisers reported a significant uptick in fundraising in its wake. Whether it will be enough to kick-start a campaign that had been floundering is another matter. And even if one were to envisage O’Rourke suddenly catching fire and becoming his party’s standard bearer against the odds, such an emphatic statement in favour of taking people’s guns will be a sizable obstacle to his fulfilling a promise to “turn Texas blue.”

The mid-tier

The two candidates occupying the fourth and fifth positions well behind Biden, Sanders and Warren – South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Senator Kamala Harris – were solid, but not spectacular.

Harris did well to continue to focus the attention on the task they are all united on: defeating the incumbent president. In so doing, she subtly again made the case that she is the best person to take the fight to Donald Trump.

Buttigieg delivered a compelling response to the closing question about resilience in which he reflected upon his almost dual existence as a military officer serving his country abroad and as a gay man.

election-2020-debate Source: David J. Phillip

 He wondered if “acknowledging who I was was gonna be the ultimate, career-ending political setback…I came back from my deployment and realised that you only get to live one life…What I learned was that part of how you can win and deserve to win is to know what’s worth more to you than winning.”

It was just the kind of searing honesty that has made him an important figure in this contest, notwithstanding the reality that he is very unlikely to win it.

The front runners

From the outset, Joe Biden went after the surging Elizabeth Warren and the ever-popular Bernie Sanders on the costs of their healthcare initiatives. He endeavoured to highlight the relatively reasonable price of instead building upon “Obamacare” and simultaneously allowing some 150 million Americans the option to retain the employer-sponsored healthcare coverage that many of them are quite happy with.

Sanders and Warren posited in response that most Americans are not fans of their current healthcare plan and that the highest earners would bear the financial burden of implementing the far-reaching changes they advocate, not the middle class. Biden’s deliberate go at both, who are clearly to his left on this and other issues, was effective in the first instance. He was unable to finish it off, though.

election-2020-debate Source: David J. Phillip

Sanders and Warren counterpunched effectively. It can be argued that Warren was more effective in this regard, given that Sanders was more upfront and expansive in terms of the rises in tax that wholesale reform will entail. He may have been more honest, yet the audience for full-throated backing of tax increases in the United States is a small one.

When asked what has made them resilient – a question that brings to the surface the crucial likeability factor – Biden and Warren excelled. Sanders cited bouncing back from disappointments at the ballot box early on in his political career. That won’t move many hearts and minds.

Warren, however, talked about her dream of becoming a teacher, which was imperilled first by her family’s lack of financial resources and then by the fact that she became pregnant when she finally achieved this dream. Warren’s story should resonate with the very voters in Middle America she will probably find it hardest to win over.

election-2020-debate Source: David J. Phillip

Biden, subsequent to an interruption by hecklers in the audience, spoke of the tremendous losses he has experienced in his long public life. Losing his wife and daughter in a car accident at a young age and then burying his son Beau just a few years ago have left an indelible imprint on him and his politics. And he was robust in saying that neither of these setbacks knocked him out of the arena. Indeed, he asserted that these tragedies only strengthened and helped define his commitment to public service.

The fallout

In short, last night’s debate changed very little, if anything, in this race. There are still three candidates well in front and still seven in the chasing pack. But two points are worth making.

First, it is rather curious – and a reason for those a distance away from the lead to keep plugging away – that Biden, Sanders and Warren, whose flaws as presidential candidates are manifest, remain, seemingly unshakably, at the top.

election-2020-debate Source: Eric Gay

Biden and Sanders are aged and afflicted, respectively, by a propensity for making politically lethal gaffes and an adherence to an ideology that is considerably to the left of the American mainstream. Warren is a Harvard Law School professor who resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts and falsely claimed Native American identity as she sought academic posts at Ivy League universities.

Second, in the longer term and assuming no one else emerges in the coming weeks and months (an assumption I am steadfastly and stubbornly unwilling to make!), Biden should hope and pray that Sanders and Warren stay in the race, and continue to divvy up the votes of more progressive primary and caucus voters, for as long as possible. This or a similar dynamic could pave his ultimate path to the nomination.

But for now, those who dream of kicking President Trump out of the White House next year will meet again in Ohio over one or two nights in mid-October.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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