The third Democratic presidential debate, explained in under 30 minutes

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On this episode of Today, Explained, Matt Yglesias and Tara Golshan break down the debate among the 10 top Democratic contenders. 

For the third presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle, 10 top Democratic candidates were together for the first time. And in a historic turn, all three Democratic frontrunners — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders — were on the same stage together.

Who won? Who lost? Who gave the best answers?

Matt Yglesias and Tara Golshan join Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram for a full breakdown of the third Democratic debate. They discuss the candidates’ insistence on thanking patron saint Barack Obama and why we didn’t see any breakout moments.

Though Thursday night still featured a few candidates going after Biden — par for the course if you’ve watched the preceding debates — it did feel different. Long-shot candidates like Bill De Blasio and John Delaney weren’t there trying to dunk on the leading candidates. And without those absurdly short time limits, everyone argued less and talked more about real topics that actually matter to voters — like racism.

“We expected something to change here in that this was the first opportunity where we saw Warren and Sanders onstage with Biden,” Tara Golshan said. But ultimately, “we didn’t see any breakout moments from last night that I expect to change the outcome going forward.”

The former vice president might have had a shaky performance Thursday night but, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, Joe Biden keeps on winning — especially since none of the other candidates are really taking him on.

“Joe Biden is winning the race because he was the popular vice president from a popular Obama administration. And that’s what people want. And you haven’t seen a lot of effort to probe what I think are some of Biden’s more serious weaknesses.”

To understand more about where each candidate stands in the 2020 race going into the October debate, listen to Golshan and Yglesias on the latest episode of Today, Explained:

You can listen to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and ART19.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of Tara Golshan and Matthew Yglesias’ September 13, 2019, conversation with Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram.


Sean Rameswaram

Last night’s debate featured some moments that may have seemed sort of vintage if you watched the preceding debates: People went after the frontrunner, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. Bernie called out the advertisers. Kamala called out Trump. But apart from those few instances, we really did get something different. There were no Bill De Blasios or John Delaneys trying to dunk on the leading candidates. There were fewer absurdly short time limits imposed on the candidates. And that led to less arguing and more substantive explanations of what people want to do as president. It might not have been the most riveting three hours of TV but it seemed like a healthier forum for people who are trying to make up their minds on how they feel about these top 10 candidates. [Vox politics reporter] Tara Golshan was at Vox’s internal watch party.

Tara Golshan

Notably last night, the topics that were covered were different than the past couple of debates. They touched on racism in a way that wasn’t just surface level. They talked about gun policy. They talked about immigration. They talked about education policy and they talked about foreign policy, and those are not necessarily topics that have come up a lot.

Sean Rameswaram

Well, let’s get into what they said, starting with racism, which again I think the ABC moderators deserve credit for saying, “We’re going to have a real conversation about racism.”

Tara Golshan

In the past, it’s been kind of this litmus test around, “Do you support reparations or not?” But last night it was framed as, “Voters are really concerned about racism in the country and what are you going to do about it?” And so candidates like Beto came up and said look, it’s not just we have to denounce Donald Trump. Racism is endemic in our education system, in our health care system. Castro actually complimented Beto for the way that he framed it. Booker brought up environmental justice, and then Harris was interestingly kind of asked to answer for her record as a prosecutor. And so she was trying to answer for why that keeps coming up and what she wants to do differently.

Sean Rameswaram

And this conversation about race was in particular significant last night because the debate was actually at a historically black university in Houston. Right?

Tara Golshan

That framed the whole conversation from the get-go. The audience had students from a historically black university so obviously this was a poignant issue for this specific audience.

Sean Rameswaram

Moving on to guns. I think a lot of the candidates wanted to single out Beto in particular to praise him for how he handled the shooting in El Paso and then Beto finally got his moment to speak about it and actually delivered.

Tara Golshan

He said, I’m not just talking to Democrats in Texas about this. After the shooting I went to Arkansas to a gun show and I heard that there is common ground on this. And he was complimented on the stage by people like Vice President Joe Biden for the way that he talked about it.

Sean Rameswaram

And of course, the shooting that Beto stepped away from his campaign to handle in El Paso had to do with immigrants, had to do with Latino immigrants in particular. What did the candidates have to say on immigration?

Tara Golshan

Immigration came up last night in a way that was really reflective for the Democratic Party. It was a debate between Julián Castro, who has kind of become the lead in the Democratic field on this subject …

Sean Rameswaram

And he kind of made it personal too by saying: “A few weeks ago a shooter drove 10 hours, inspired by this president, to kill people who look like me.”

Tara Golshan

And what was interesting last night was that Julián Castro really kind of pushed Joe Biden on the record that the Obama administration had on immigration. The Obama administration has come under a lot of criticism for a high number of deportations, for not handling the migrant crisis very well, for kind of always being conflicted between the humanitarian crisis and how to enforce the border. Those kinds of things came up last night in a way that really took Biden to task, and he didn’t have a good answer for it.

Sean Rameswaram

Immigration is something we’ve heard a bit about in prior debates, but last night we did get more substantive discussion on education and foreign affairs than we’ve seen in any of the prior debates. Did we learn anything about what these candidates want to do on education?

Tara Golshan

Several candidates voiced support for universal pre-K, for raising teachers’ wages. These are the kinds of positions that you would expect from the presidential candidates, but it just often doesn’t get talked about.

Sean Rameswaram

And somehow foreign affairs also seemed to get left off the stage in prior debates. What did we learn last night about how these people want to handle the world?

Tara Golshan

The world, as expansive as it is, is not the subject of the most robust debate. And last night it did come up even in conversations around immigration; for example, Warren cited the need to support countries in Central America. And then Bernie Sanders also was asked directly about Venezuela, which is currently in huge economic and political crisis, has a socialist dictator in Maduro as the leader. And weirdly the question that was posed to Sanders was, “Why don’t you call out Maduro as a socialist dictator?” And Sanders came out and said very clearly I consider him to be a terrible tyrant, and then took the opportunity to say …

Sean Rameswaram

The last big chunk of this conversation on foreign affairs that we should mention is of course Afghanistan, which has been a thorn in the president’s side, especially this week, last week. Did the Democrats have any solution for our ongoing conflict in that country?

Tara Golshan

I wouldn’t say we got very detailed solutions last night, but there was a very clear vision that Democrats want to get out of Afghanistan. Notably, Warren said that she would get out of Afghanistan even if there wasn’t a deal with the Taliban. So you saw people like Pete Buttigieg — who’s actually a veteran and was stationed in Afghanistan — and people like Senator Bernie Sanders who have pledged to kind of end these “endless wars,” as they call it. So it came up and it was consistent with what we’ve heard from Democrats about foreign policy in the Middle East.

Sean Rameswaram

Instead of closing statements, the debate ended with some classic job interview fare: “Tell us about a setback you’ve encountered and how you’ve grown from it.” Who gave the most memorable answer?

Tara Golshan

I think a really historic moment last night was when Pete Buttigieg on the national stage recounted his coming-out story as a moment of resilience. That’s not something that you would have imagined could happen in the United States five, 10 years ago.

You saw just a more personal feel from the candidates. You heard something that Warren says on the stump a lot, her story about getting through school and dealing with sexist policies in the workplace when she was pregnant and trying to get a job. And then you saw the same thing from Andrew Yang, who had failed at his first business and is now running for president. From Bernie Sanders, someone who in the 2016 race didn’t like to talk about his personal story but has now started talking about the fact that he is the son of an immigrant and lived in a rent-controlled apartment and had financial struggles as a kid growing up but has kind of made it his mission to advocate for working-class people. So you really saw all of these stories and an opportunity for them to share them.

Sean Rameswaram

Something I found sort of refreshing about this debate last night was that it didn’t seem like anyone really moved the needle on where they stood in the field. And it also didn’t really feel like anyone was outwardly trying to do that. It almost felt like a more honest exchange in which we the viewers learned more about all of these people. Did the field narrow at all in your eyes?

Tara Golshan

We went in last night knowing that this was the first debate where you had the top three polling candidates onstage together. We expected something to change here in that this was the first opportunity where we saw Warren and Sanders onstage with Biden, that there was a real opportunity. And then you had those kind of mid-tier candidates who have had moments in the past, like Pete Buttigieg and Harris, that they’ve stood out but it hasn’t really stuck for them in the polls. But we didn’t see any breakout moments from last night that I expect to change the outcome going forward.

At the next debate in October it looks like the field is going to be bigger again; Already 11 candidates have qualified for that debate so there’s a strong chance it’s going to be over two nights again. So it’s not really clear at this point, kind of staring down to January and February when voting starts, if anything has notably changed.

Sean Rameswaram

Which means Biden is still in the lead.

Tara Golshan

Yeah. Biden is still in the lead.

Sean Rameswaram

In a minute, why is Biden still in the lead?

Matthew Yglesias

You know, Joe Biden is winning the race I think because he was the popular vice president from a popular Obama administration. And that’s what people want. And you haven’t seen a lot of effort to probe what I think are some of Biden’s more serious weaknesses.

Sean Rameswaram

Which are?

Matthew Yglesias

I think, first and foremost, his age. Polls have shown that voters have serious concern in the abstract about a candidate who’s over the age of 70. Warren and Sanders are both over 70 themselves. They’re not well positioned to make this argument.

Sean Rameswaram

As is President Trump, it turns out.

Matthew Yglesias

As is President Trump. But you see clearly on the debate stage that Biden appears less sharp, I think, than Sanders and Warren do. And you really saw this last night when he gave this answer to a question about slavery and reparations, which put him in a tough position. Biden was not going to endorse reparations. He’s a moderate. He’s a pragmatist. He’s the electability candidate. But he also has a large African American base in this primary so, you know, he wants to answer the question in a way that’s sensitive to everybody’s feelings. But what he starts doing is he says feeling very confused about his education plan, which I can gloss for you as he was saying the real solution is to invest in preschool and to invest in nurse home visits. But if you listen to what he actually said …

Sean Rameswaram

Incomprehensible.

Matthew Yglesias

It was like this gibberish about radios and record players, and I happen to know what Biden’s policy on this is so I could translate it for you. But if you just watched it, you would have no idea. And then he very oddly just veered off. I think what he said about Venezuela was sensible but it had nothing to do with the question. And then the topic went over to Julian Castro after that, who sort of made a joke.

If that had been the beginning of that conversation it would have been interesting. But Castro had actually, earlier in the debate, gone after Biden on age in a kind of mean-spirited and, on the specifics, unfair way.

It’s a little tedious but like Biden hadn’t. So I think it was a bad look for Castro to raise a valid issue in an invalid way, and then he came back around to it but he’d kind of already, you know, blown it.

Sean Rameswaram

Which is to say that Castro was trying to say, “Look at this candidate who can’t remember what he said a minute ago because he’s too old to remember it.”

Matthew Yglesias

And you know Castro took a lot of criticism from other corners for that. So I’m not going to pile on because it wasn’t well done. But the fact of the matter is there’s a lot of reporting which says that one of the reasons Obama picked Biden back in 2008, why he chose him over, say, Evan Bayh, who is a politically similar figure, is that because Biden was old Obama thought that Biden would not be running to be his successor in 2016.

That would help his administration run more smoothly. He did not admire the Bush-Cheney policymaking but he thought that dynamic between a president and a vice president was good and correct. And indeed Biden didn’t run in 2016, right? Obama sort of passed the torch to Hillary Clinton. But then Biden four years later, he jumps in the race. He’s quite a bit older than anyone who had ever been president before. And it’s not like, “Wow, he’s quite a bit older than anyone who’s been president before but he doesn’t show it at all.” He does show it.

He seems like the oldest major presidential candidate ever. I don’t think that’s necessarily a decisive factor. It’s not like Donald Trump is like Mr. Mental Acuity. Policy matters a lot. Biden, you know, has a lot of good answers. He has a lot of reasonable ideas. But this is like a totally normal, reasonable thing for people to argue about — especially for the candidates at the back half of the ticket. You had up there on the stage Amy Klobuchar, you had Cory Booker, you had Pete Buttigieg. These are people whose policy ideas are not that different from Biden’s but who are 10, 15, 20, 30, in Buttigieg’s case 40 years younger. And you would think that they could talk about this but nobody really has been so far.

Sean Rameswaram

He’s also been in politics forever.

Matthew Yglesias

He joined the Senate in 1972, right?

Sean Rameswaram

Yeah. When was very young. In his 20s!

Matthew Yglesias

That’s a long time ago. But he has been in office a long time. He’s been in Washington a long time. And you don’t traditionally win presidential elections by championing Washington insiders. Right?

Sean Rameswaram

Not lately.

Matthew Yglesias

Trump was like an outsider in a weird way. But you know Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, were sort of outsiders in the normal way, right? Obama had only been in the Senate a couple years. Clinton had been the governor of a small state. Parties normally succeed by nominating a candidate who promises they’re going to clean up the mess in Washington.

Biden has been part of the mess in Washington since longer than, like, a very large share of Democrats were alive. You know, that again I think is like a valid thing to talk about. Do Democrats want to go against Trump with their champion being a sort of emblem of the swamp? Or do they want an outsider who can claim to be fixing things?

Sean Rameswaram

And is that the safe way to have the discussion instead of, maybe as Castro did last night, veering more towards something that could be considered ageist?

Matthew Yglesias

I think it might be smarter to say, “Look do we really want to spend this campaign litigating votes that were taken in the 1980s? Do we really want somebody who’s so associated with the United States Congress over a million years?” Like, “Don’t we want a voice of change? Somebody from the future?” You know, something like that. And I felt like it was simmering below the surface at last night’s debate but hasn’t yet broken through in the way it deserves to.

Sean Rameswaram

Eric Swalwell said it directly to his face in the first debate. Now that he’s dropped out, might it ironically be on his closest competition in Iowa — Sanders or Warren — to make the same argument?

Matthew Yglesias

You know, it may. I mean, it’s again, Sanders and Warren are not ideally positioned to make this point.

And the other moderates in the race seem to be being very cautious. I think one line of thinking is the Klobuchars of the world are sort of hanging out there waiting to see if Warren overtakes Biden. And then there’s like a panic in the establishment and they’re like, “Oh we need you, Amy.”

Sean Rameswaram

If Biden wins Iowa does he win the race?

Matthew Yglesias

Yeah. I mean, Biden is in a very strong position. I don’t think his performances as performances have been commanding, but Donald Trump was not a great performer in the Republican debates and he still won the nomination fairly easily because he had the views that most Republicans agreed with. Most Republicans wanted a harsh anti-immigration policy and they wanted a softer take on Social Security and Medicare. And Trump stood for that. And so he won. I think most Democrats want some kind of policy continuity with Obama. They want some level of political caution about embracing sort of out-there progressive ideas. Biden stands for that. If he can win there, the rest of the calendar only gets easier for him. That’s still months away, but unless something actually changes he’s still on track to win.

Sean Rameswaram

And do you think that change would come out of one of these future debates between now and January?

Matthew Yglesias

I mean, I do think the debates are the best opportunity to sort of shake up the narrative of the race particularly for the candidates out of the top three because the debates level the playing field a little bit. Your Cory Booker. Your Beto O’Rourke. Your Pete Buttigieg. Your Kamala Harris. Like, you get to be up there onstage with the opportunity to get attention for yourself and if you use it well you can make things happen.

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