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Winners and losers from the third Democratic debate

In the third Democratic debate on Sept. 12, the 10 candidates on stage shifted their focus from attacking President Trump to taking shots at one another. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Democrats met in Houston on Thursday night for the third Democratic debate of 2019, this time all on one night. After nearly three hours of sparring between the 10 candidates who qualified, here’s who won, who lost, and what it means moving forward.

Highlights from the Democratic debate


The Democratic Party: Given this was the first time the cream of the Democratic crop was all on the same debate stage, it took on added significance. The field was better than it has been. The absence of bomb-throwers who were at 1 percent in the polls helped keep things focused. But even beyond that, the candidates including former vice president Joe Biden — though he still had his poor moments — and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who fell apart somewhat in her closing statement, were generally sharper than they have been. I named President Trump a winner after a previous debate, given how so-so the Democrats were. Party leaders should be more encouraged by what they saw on Thursday.

Elizabeth Warren: She was not dominant, she had the best performance and, more importantly, the fewest tough moments. Warren seems to come into these debates with a clear game-plan and lots of ideas. And, somewhat inexplicably, it seems almost impossible for her opponents to attack. If that continues to be the case, she reaps the rewards from Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) taking hits. She’s also the only candidate with sustained upward momentum in this race. It’s difficult to see how that doesn’t continue after this.

Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg has been solid and even impressive at basically every debate, and although he may not have wowed anyone or knocked down his opponents Thursday, he was good again. He had perhaps the best argument against eliminating private insurance for Medicare-for-all, saying, “If we’re right as progressives that the public alternative is better, then the American people will figure that out for themselves.” He said of Trump’s trade war with China: “When I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he’d like to see me making a deal with Xi Jinping; I’d like to see him making a deal with Xi Jinping.” The crowd loved it when he said that, on public education, he would “appoint a secretary of education who actually believes in public education.” They might have been prepared lines, but they didn’t sound that way. Buttigieg is routinely and unfailingly prepared. And his closing answer on coming out as gay came off as genuine and had a real point behind it.

Barack Obama: The previous Democratic president found himself as something of an unlikely villain at the first two debates, as Democrats eager to go further left than his administration distanced themselves from his immigration record, his deals with Republicans and even argued that the Affordable Care Act is insufficient. But on Thursday night, in the first debate at a historically black college since 2007, Obama got more than his share of love.

We knew that would come from Biden, who launched a campaign ad shortly before the debate hailing his achievements with Obama. But the other candidates also embraced Obama’s legacy.

“The senator [Warren] says she’s for Bernie. Well I’m for Barack,” Biden said near the start. Warren parried that by saying, “We all owe a huge debt to President Obama [on the Affordable Care Act]. … Now the question is: How best can we improve on it?” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said of her more middle-ground approach on health care: “I want to do what Barack Obama wanted to do from the very beginning, which is a public option.” Julián Castro even invoked Obama to attack Biden, when he said Biden’s health-care proposal would leave 10 million people uninsured. “Barack Obama’s vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered,” Castro said. Harris also attacked Biden’s moderation by referencing Obama’s campaign slogan: “Instead of saying no we can’t, let’s say yes we can.” (The audience, though, didn’t seem to pick up on it.)

Thursday’s debate was “a step in the right direction” for Democrats worried about how their favorite candidates might shape up in debates against President Trump, says politics reporter Aaron Blake.


Castro’s big attack on Biden: The former housing secretary clearly came ready to go at this debate, and he went hard at Biden. But his biggest optical win didn’t have the substance to back it up. He accused Biden of saying his plan would not automatically enroll people in his public-health-care option. When Biden denied it, Castro was apoplectic. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” he said repeatedly, perhaps in a not-so-subtle jab at Biden’s age.

Well, we checked the tape, and Castro was wrong. Biden said that “anyone who can’t afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have, et cetera.”

Julián Castro said Joe Biden forgot his own health-care position during the Sept. 12 debate. It turns out on the substance of the question, Castro was wrong. (Video: The Washington Post)

Which candidates attacked the most during the third Democratic debate?

Prosecutors: Both Harris and Klobuchar, as former prosecutors, faced brutal questions about their records — particularly when it comes to racial justice. Harris responded to reservations about her tough-on-crime record by saying, “I made a decision that if I was going to have the ability to reform the system, I was going to have to do it from the inside,” but she admitted she had not done enough. Klobuchar was asked about an American Civil Liberties Union official who said she showed no interest in racial justice as Hennepin County, Minn., prosecutor. She did okay with the question, pointing to how she had prosecuted the killers of black children. But it was anecdotal, and it wasn’t great. We knew this was a hurdle, especially for Harris. That was certainly the case Thursday.

The ‘guys stop arguing’ line: One of the cheapest attempted applause lines at these debates is when candidates complain about their opponents arguing too much. Yes, certain types of attacks can go too far, and a couple of candidates tried to pull this out when there were real, substantive debates about big ideas. When Medicare-for-all was at issue, Harris said, “Frankly, I think this discussion is giving the American public a headache.” While Buttigieg was trying to make a similar point, Castro cut in and said, “That’s called an election.” He was right. You’re supposed to disagree, especially about things as significant as potentially spending $30 trillion in government funds to completely revamp American health care. Embrace the debate.

Harris’s zingers: Harris seemed to enjoy her “yes we can” line a lot more than the crowd and laughed pretty heartily. It wasn’t the only time she did that. At one point, she compared Trump to the Wizard of Oz. (Warning: Spoiler ahead.) “When you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” Harris said. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos responded, “I’m not even going to take the bait.” Harris said, again laughing, “It wasn’t about you!” (Stephanopoulos seemed to be referring to something besides his own small stature.) That’s not exactly disqualifying, sure, but the risk in this stuff is that it won’t necessarily land.

Yang’s gimmick: Yang previewed before the debate that he would be doing something unprecedented. It turns out, that was giving his proposed universal basic income of $1,000 per month to 10 lucky people who visited his website. But that may run afoul of campaign finance laws. It also appeared to draw patronizing laughter from his opponents. Yang is a serious candidate. He doesn’t really need to do that kind of thing.

Here's a roundup of 5 claims from the third Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect Castro’s interjection about the candidates’ disagreements. It wasn’t in response to Yang, though Yang also objected, but more specifically to Buttigieg.