A Report Card For Every Candidate From The Third Democratic Debate

Democratic presidential candidates are introduced for the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston. (Eric Gay/AP)
Democratic presidential candidates are introduced for the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston. (Eric Gay/AP)

Blessedly, we’ve moved into a new stage of Democratic Primary debate-dom. Gone are the super-long-shots, oozing desperation and scrabbling for TV time. Gone is the related compulsion to attack everyone else onstage. Gone is Marianne Williamson. Buh-bye, Marianne Williamson.

But some things stayed the same during Thursday’s ABC-Univision debate, which unfolded over three calm, grueling hours in Houston. Just as before, there were rehearsed lines that fell flat; awkward attempts to speak in Spanish; a combative debate about health care that managed to skirt nearly all of the reasons America’s health care system is actually broken. And, of course, there were some candidates who capitalized on the night’s opportunities and some who suffered from self-inflicted wounds. Here’s how they fared.

Joe Biden. In some ways, the former vice president actually looked better on Thursday than in previous debates, when he could barely answer some questions at all, and seemed desperate to be saved by the clock. But his problem can be summed up in two fateful words: Record player. During a rambling monologue for how to fix ailing schools, Biden meant to say that socioeconomic factors leave kids unprepared to learn, but actually said that parents should help their kids out by playing records at home — and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t talking about the recent resurgence of vinyl. On a night when he needed to prove himself a sharp-witted fighter, Biden instead offered plenty of reminders that he’s never been a great debater, he’s struggling with how much to align himself with President Obama, and he’s getting older by the minute. He’ll remain the frontrunner, for structural reasons, but he’s vulnerable. C

Cory Booker. He was energetic and positive, delivered an impassioned rant about systemic racism, and had the best legitimate laugh line/sick burn of the night: Asked if the rest of the country should go vegan like him, he replied, “No. And I want to translate that into Spanish: no.” Still, Booker lacked a breakout moment on any substantive issue, and left some work for fact checkers; he boasted of pouring money into Newark schools as mayor, but neglected to mention the $100 million gift he had courted from Mark Zuckerberg — a man who is not currently democracy’s best friend — that was largely viewed as a failed opportunity. Also, vegans are apparently mad at Booker now, though that might not hurt him in the general. B

Pete Buttigieg. Speaking of tossing out Spanish: He did it. He chastised fellow Democrats for squabbling. He talked about his military service. He offered platitudes about what it will take for Americans to embrace immigrants. None of it felt especially energetic. Buttigieg is known for wowing crowds on the stump, but debates aren’t his best medium; between the smooth-talking and the flat affect, he comes across as glib. B-

Julian Castro. In this debate, Castro was closest in spirit to the longshots of previous debates: he needed a breakthrough moment, and heaven knows he tried. And some of his ideas are worthy, such as a Marshall Plan for Latin America to address the root causes of the refugee crisis. But in this debate, Castro will be better remembered for launching the most fierce attacks on Biden and possibly going too far. B-

Kamala Harris. Unlike Castro, Harris knew when to back off a wounded rival — but maybe she lost something when she went soft. In this debate, Harris couched her criticism in humor, then laughed wildly at her own jokes, which didn’t land. Her efforts to steer every answer back to Donald Trump didn’t work, either, perhaps because the rest of the Democrats realize there’s no benefit to picking that scab. Harris remains one of the smoothest talkers in the field, adept at weaving personal stories into political rhetoric. But compared to her previous debate performances, this one was largely forgettable. B

Amy Klobuchar. Speaking of failed comedy: Klobuchar deployed about 15 prepared zingers with all the finesse of a nerdy assistant principal, emceeing the high school talent show. Her problem, at this point, is an issue of branding. Absent any major policy differences from the other candidates, Klobuchar’s main case seemed to be that she’s Midwestern, and thus able to communicate more clearly with True America. But Elizabeth Warren had her beat on both geography-as-destiny and policy-vision-as-rationale. It’s probably over. C

Beto O’Rourke. He was non-entity for most of the night — except, importantly, during the exchange over guns. O’Rourke had already made waves in the aftermath of the El Paso shootings, when he delivered a heartfelt, profane rant about the absurdity of the conversation on guns. On Thursday, he sounded just as frustrated and fearless: “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said in response to one question — a statement he can’t walk back, and a far cry from the standard Democratic rhetoric about incremental steps like background checks. In truth, Elizabeth Warren is right that there’s no single fix on guns. But O’Rourke might have been signaling a fresh boldness on the issue that other Democrats might adopt in the face of a weakened NRA. Give him credit for leadership, and reason for his campaign to live another day — in that sense alone, he might be the debate’s biggest winner. B+

Bernie Sanders. Is it possible to lose your voice and still be yelling? If you’re Sanders, yes. He was strangely quiet for much of the debate, but at moments — particularly during an early round of questioning on health care — he summoned up trademark pox-on-the-system frustration, and came across even more than usual as the angry uncle at a genteel dinner party. Sanders’ best moment came when he took umbrage at anchor Jorge Ramos’ suggestion that his brand of socialism was similar to that of various Latin American dictators. But that’s part of his problem, too: If his ideas are now mainstream, there are other, more likable choices for standard-bearer. C

Elizabeth Warren. Like Hillary Clinton before her, Warren comes to these debates more prepared than anyone. But unlike Hillary, Warren can spin out her policy prescriptions — from climate to education to trade policy — in a way that sounds authentic and heartfelt. Her tax-the-very-rich solution to many problems isn’t satisfying, in large part because it feels impossible. But her biography and brains give her instant credibility, and she offered the most cogent argument of anyone on the stage for why she’s running for president, and how she would contrast with the current guy in office: “I got back up, I fought back, I know what’s broken, I want to be in the fight to fix it in America.” Trump can call her “Pocahontas” all he wants; she’d still wipe the floor with him in a debate. A-

Andrew Yang. In previous debates, Yang nailed some uncomfortable policy truths the way you only can when you’re outside looking in, with clear eyes and nothing to lose. The entrepreneur had no such big moments tonight. Instead, he’ll be remembered for: a) A ridiculous Willy Wonka-style gimmick to make people go to his website (he’s literally promising to give people money); b) A terrible joke (“I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors”), and c) An tone-deaf line about how he’d missed his kid’s first day of school because he was running for president. Ugh, Andrew, that joke wasn’t funny when Beto made it back in March. If you’re going to behave like an also-ran, then you might as well pack it in. D

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Joanna Weiss Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience Magazine, published by Northeastern University.



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