DEBATE ANALYSIS: Sanders, Warren look to the future, Biden to the past as other candidates work to make an impression in third Democratic debate

Inside the spin room at the second Democratic debate in July.

In many ways the third Democratic debate typified the growing sense of division within the party.  The Sept. 12 debate was held at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston, and marked the first time that the three front-runners—Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren—were all on the debate stage at the same time. Regardless, the debate seemed to take place in  three separate spheres with Sanders and Warren using the debate to present their plans for the future, Biden defending his history both before and as a part of the Obama administration, and with the rest of the candidates working to make and maintain impressions in the voters’ collective conscious.

Opening statements:

Washington outsider Andrew Yang had an unorthodox opening statement fitting for his unorthodox platform. To demonstrate his confidence in the proposed American Freedom Dividend, a policy that would provide every American with $1,000 a month, Yang used the opening statement to announce that his campaign would be giving 10 Americans $1,000 a month for a whole year. 

“If you believe that you can solve your own problems better than any politician, go to and tell us how $1,000 a month will help you do just that,” he said.  “This is how we will get our country working for us again, the American people.”

In the wake of the recent El Paso shooting, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke used his opening statement to assert his belief that the president’s rhetoric was in part responsible for the incident:

On August 3, in El Paso, Texas, two things became crystal clear for me, and I think produced a turning point for this country. The first is just how dangerous Donald Trump is, the cost and the consequence of his presidency. A racism and violence that had long been a part of America was welcomed out into the open and directed to my hometown of El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were killed, dozens more grievously injured by a man carrying a weapon he should never have been able to buy in the first place, inspired to kill by our president. The second is how insufficient our politics is to meet the threat that we have right now.

On gun control:

An El Paso native, O’Rourke was particularly passionate about the issue of gun control. In the course of debate O’Rourke said that he was in support of what was described by the moderators as confiscation.

“I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland there weren't enough ambulances to get to them in time. Hell yes we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said.

On the issue of gun control, Warren said that the issue is not just one of mass shootings, but of gun violence as a whole. She said that her plan would not only address mass shootings, but also address the larger issues of gun violence in communities.

“Children die every day on streets, in neighborhoods, on playgrounds. People die from violence, from suicide and domestic abuse. We have a gun violence problem in this country,” Warren said. She added that the solution will not be a single piece of legislation, but rather an evolving and procedural methodology for dealing with gun violence.

Following the Sandy Hook shooting, Biden was tasked by President Obama with passing gun control legislation through the Senate. The legislation failed to pass, and Biden was asked how he planned to pass legislation now when he could not previously.

“I got it done before. I'm the only one up here that's ever beat the NRA—only one ever to beat the NRA nationally. I'm the guy that brought the Brady bill into focus and became law,” Biden said.

Biden then asserted his legal opinion that gun control cannot be enacted through an executive order. Harris challenged this opinion, saying that as president she would not wait around for congress.

“The idea that we would wait for this Congress, which has just done nothing, to act, is just— it is overlooking the fact that every day in America, our babies are going to school to have drills, elementary, middle and high school students, where they are learning about how they have to hide in a closet or crouch in a corner if there is a mass shooter roaming the hallways of their school,” she said.

On Medicare for All:

On healthcare the dividing lines between the progressive front-runners Sanders and Warren, and moderate front-runner Biden became clear while other candidates struggled to make their plans stand out from the crowd. Sanders and Warren both continued to voice their belief in Medicare for All. Biden continued to oppose such policies citing issues of cost and instead proposed expanding and improving the Affordable Care Act. The other candidates all voiced support for various forms of middle ground allowing for private insurance while also providing a public option.

Sanders defended the cost of Medicare for All. He agreed with Biden’s claim that the policy would cost $30 trillion, but challenged Biden’s conclusions by saying that maintaining the status quo would cost $50 trillion over the same timespan.

“Every study done shows that Medicare for All is the most cost-effective approach to providing health care to every man, woman, and child in this country,” Sanders said. “I, who wrote the damn bill, if I may say so, intend to eliminate all out-of-pocket expenses, all deductibles, all co-payments. Nobody in America will pay more than $200 a year for prescription drugs, because we're going to stand up to the greed and corruption and price-fixing of the pharmaceutical industry.”

On immigration:

On immigration Biden was again forced to defend his past. Univision anchor Jorge Ramos directed several questions on the matter at the former vice president saying:

As a presidential candidate, in 2008, you supported the border wall, saying, ‘Unlike most Democrats, I voted for 700 miles of fence.’ This is what you said. Then you served as vice president in an administration that deported 3 million people, the most ever in U.S. history. Did you do anything to prevent those deportations? I mean, you've been asked this question before and refused to answer, so let me try once again. Are you prepared to say tonight that you and President Obama made a mistake about deportations? Why should Latinos trust you?

Biden countered by calling attention to the way that the Trump administration is handling the issue of immigration and refugees.

“Comparing [President Obama] to the president we have is outrageous,” Biden said. “We didn't lock people up in cages. We didn't separate families. We didn't do all of those things, number one.”

Biden further defended the Obama administration’s handling of immigration citing the creation of the DACA program. Ramos pressed Biden, asking him multiple times to directly answer the question of whether the deportations were a mistake. Biden refused to answer further.

Warren’s take on the issue was to consider the broader geopolitical issues and foreign policy decisions that created the immigration crisis. 

“Why do we have a crisis at the border? In no small part because we have withdrawn help from people in Central America who are suffering,” she said. “We need to restore that help.” 

In summary:

Much like the second debate, this third debate served to highlight the factions currently evolving within the Democratic party. Sanders and Warren, members of the party’s growing progressive bloc, took a very forward facing, policy focused approach and stayed on message throughout the course of the debate. The two progressives are currently neck and neck vying for second place in the polls. Biden, the consummate third-way moderate and current leader in the polls, tried to elaborate on policy but again found himself defending his past as often as he looked to the future. The other candidates, still yet to break double digits in the polls, all had moments to flaunt their oratorical prowess but are still waiting for the watershed moment that will sift through the pack and decide who, if any, will jump ahead in the polls and make it to the final stages of the primary.

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