Opinion | Democratic debate blurbs: A new top dog

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

In the fourth and largest debate thus far in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the race’s top 12 candidates talked foreign policy, health care, abortion and much more. The Oct. 15 debate ushered in a new phase of the race, one in which Elizabeth Warren became the woman to beat, Pete Buttigieg showed his chutzpah and Joe Biden slipped into irrelevance.

Elizabeth Warren: Once again, Warren came out on top. In terms of attention from other candidates and speaking time — which she led by more than six minutes — the Massachusetts senator largely controlled the room and proved that she is a top force in this race. A recurring problem, however, has been her inability to field questions about middle-class tax hikes associated with “Medicare for All.” If she wants to maintain the momentum of her presidential run, she needs to figure out a more candid and eloquent response to this integral question of her campaign. She jabbed at Biden by thanking former President Barack Obama, and notably not the former vice president, for supporting the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a project which she led. Like Bernie Sanders and Biden, she was forced to field questions about her age to which she responded she will “outwork, out-organize and outlast anyone.” Regardless of her age, I certainly would be anxious to go up against her in a race — both on foot and in politics.

Joe Biden: We saw a much less Biden-y Joe tonight — no more tangents about record players! Warren took over in the hot seat, so Biden saw far fewer attacks from his fellow candidates. Biden, who was more reminiscent of an endearing grandfather than eloquent president, took a brief but definitive stance of innocence regarding the current Ukraine scandal. However, in a far more familiar move, audiences saw the former vice president attack Warren and Sanders on their “Medicare for All” bills, noting that these plans are too vague and fail to actually explain how they will be funded. Health care is shaping up to be the issue that decides who gets to battle Donald Trump next fall, and unfortunately for Biden, polls show that the scale may be tipping towards democratic socialists like Sanders and Warren.

Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator had the third most speaking time of any candidate — surprising, considering that she’s currently polling at about 2%. Twice, she offered a “reality check to Elizabeth,” implying that Warren’s democratic socialist policies are not realistic and her more moderate approach, one that does not offer universal health care or other democratic socialist policies, was the way to oust Trump. Her sound bite from the night reveals a much deeper schism in the party — candidates seeking to draw moderate Republicans from the party to vote against Trump in 2020 and candidates seeking to expand the Democratic electorate altogether by drawing non-voters to the polls.

Beto O’Rourke: O’Rourke has a strong stance on gun control, one that even his Democratic peers think may be pushing too far. He’s called for the mandatory buyback of assault weapons, claiming “Every single one of them is a potential instrument of terror.” However, on Tuesday night he failed to explain exactly how his administration would go about removing this weapon from unwilling citizens. This policy is really the only thing setting O’Rourke apart from other candidates, and the debate showed the cracks in his standing ground.

Bernie Sanders: Sanders had less speaking time than even O’Rourke and Klobuchar, which turned heads considering he is still polling at 16% — that’s four times Klobuchar and O’Rourke combined. In many eyes, and according to polls, he is no longer the democratic socialist to beat. He showed vulnerability and quiet sincerity while thanking everyone for their thoughts and prayers in light of his heart attack earlier this month. Sanders had a great performance, eloquently discussing “Medicare for All” and promising voters he will mount a “vigorous” campaign. He reminded voters why he is one of the most beloved political figures of this generation, but it’s becoming apparent that Warren may be taking over the torch in leading the democratic socialist movement.

Pete Buttigieg: In a radical change of tune, Buttigieg took up the offensive on Tuesday night, taking jabs at O’Rourke, Gabbard and Warren. He had no qualms targeting Warren’s refusal to acknowledge middle-class tax hikes, saying, “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.” This snippy reference to Warren’s tagline is a clear shift in Buttigieg’s strategy, which had previously been criticized for being too mild-mannered and lacking passion. It will be interesting to see if this change is enough to boost his polling average above 4% and encroach on Biden’s control of the moderate vote.

Kamala Harris: After stealing the show at the first two debates, it seems that Harris has slipped into oblivion. This strategy may have been intentional, however, as both she and Cory Booker came off as settled and composed in a sea of aggression. A wise move on Harris’ part was to point out the lack of women’s issues discussed in the debates thus far, noting that the lack of questions on abortion in the six debates is “outrageous.” Since Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who had painted herself as the champion of women’s issues, left the race, women’s issues may be an open field that Harris can capitalize on.

Cory Booker: Like Harris, the New Jersey senator chose to largely stay out of the cat fight and paint himself as a cool and collected candidate who floats above the drama. He even went so far as to defend Biden against the Ukraine allegations and chastise the media for giving the scandal any merit, pointing out the parallels between the media’s treatment of Hillary in wake of her 2016 email scandal and their disastrous effect on her campaign. For someone who has already secured a spot in the next debate, it was a wise move to stay the course and avoid drama. But in the upcoming debates, he must work to climb the polls and cement himself as a contender in the race.

Andrew Yang: For someone who seemingly always has a memorable punchline, Yang largely drifted into the shadows on Tuesday. He had about eight and a half minutes of speaking time, and besides reinforcing his slogan of “it’s not left or right, it’s forward,” had few memorable sound bites.

Julian Castro: Castro is yet another candidate who really has failed to gain momentum in this race and is subsequently still polling under 1%. He was the first to bring up the death of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was shot by a police officer in her own home over the weekend, pointing out that O’Rourke’s mandatory gun buyback program, which would likely rely on police officers going door-to-door, could in itself raise concerns and lead to violence in many communities. He has some great points, but it’s unlikely he will be in this race to voice them much longer.

Tulsi Gabbard: Gabbard had a decent night. True to form, she was on the offensive, taking shots at everyone from The New York Times and CNN, to Warren, to Trump. She also was the only candidate to state she supports banning third-trimester abortions. She is running on her ability to be a composed and experienced commander-in-chief, but on the home front, she lacks the relatability of some other moderates and has more support from Republicans than Democrats.

Tom Steyer: I had to look up who this guy was, and he did nothing to make me want to. Take a note from Gillibrand.