Winners and Losers of the Third Democratic Debate

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, speak Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The top ten Democrats faced off for the first time Thursday in the third Democratic debate. Frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off with his two closest challengers, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg fought to hold on to their second-tier status, as five other candidates attempted to edge in.


In polling order, the second five included businessman Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro.

We at PJ Media watched the three-hour slog so you wouldn’t have to.

Without further ado, here are the winners and losers from the third Democratic debate.

Winner: Joe Biden.

The former vice president decided to go on offense Thursday night, and it worked well. He attacked Sanders and Warren on health care, pointing out the extremely high cost of Medicare for All and the fact that a fully single-payer overhaul would cause Americans to lose their health insurance.

When Bernie Sanders broke into his constant refrain of how poorly America does when compared with “every other major country on Earth,” Biden confronted him with the line, “This is America!” This line hit home against Sanders, who vacationed in the Soviet Union because he liked the communist ideology. Sanders consistently harps on how bad America is when stacked up to other OECD countries, but America actually leaves them in the dust. America’s poorest 20 percent consumes more resources than the average person in 64 percent of OECD countries.

Biden also slammed Sanders for his hypocrisy in trusting corporate America. The former vice president noted that if Medicare for All goes into effect, union workers who took a pay cut in exchange for health care coverage would be unlikely to recoup the pay cut from their employers. Biden asked Bernie if the employers would “give that money back,” and the senator said they would.

“For a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do,” Biden quipped.


The former vice president defended the Constitution in an exchange with Harris. Kamala supported an executive order to make some guns off-limits.

In recent weeks, Biden has made gaffe after gaffe after gaffe. He had to avoid that again on Thursday, and it appears he did so.

Julian Castro attempted to capitalize on fears about Biden’s health. At one point in the debate, Castro turned to the former vice president and asked, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago.” The crowd booed. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.) called Castro’s attack a “low blow,” and said it wouldn’t help him.

After the debate, Sanders attacked Castro for his remarks about Biden’s memory. “I will disagree with Joe on our record and our vision for the future. I am not going to go after him personally, that’s not right,” he said.

Winner: Elizabeth Warren.

Liz Warren played it safe in this debate. She didn’t go after Biden and she mostly played to her strengths: mentioning her complicated policy plans, pushing for environmentalists and human rights activists to be at the table in trade talks with China, and reminding Americans that she was a schoolteacher.


Warren has become a driving force of energy in the Democratic field in recent weeks, but that energy seemed muted on Thursday evening. Even so, her policy-heavy campaign seems well-tailored for success, especially if Biden and Bernie falter. She did not advance much tonight, but she didn’t falter, either.

Winner: Beto O’Rourke.

The third Democratic debate took place in Houston, Texas, Beto O’Rourke’s home turf. Debate moderators and candidates mentioned the shooting in El Paso, turning to pay homage to him as the local.

O’Rourke received loud applause for his line about gun confiscation: “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47!” he declared. Many liberals and journalists suggested this line defeated the argument for the Second Amendment and gun ownership. Beto had said he doesn’t want Americans to have weapons of war to kill other Americans, forgetting that the Second Amendment protects gun ownership in order to have a well-armed militia. The Constitution explicitly protects Americans owning weapons of war.

Beto also received applause for his repeated asinine line about walls killing people. He condemned Democrats and Republicans for voting for “a wall that has produced thousands of deaths.” This kind of rhetoric would hurt O’Rourke in the general election, but it makes him stand out to Democratic primary voters.

Winner: Andrew Yang.

Yang received the lowest amount of time during the debate, but he used his time very well. He made news by announcing that he would give $1,000 per month away to ten families for one year to illustrate his central promise, the “Freedom Dividend,” a Universal Basic Income (UBI) strategy to replace many forms of welfare.


Yang’s awkward line, “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” may have drawn more attention to the candidate. He received more new Twitter followers than any other Democrat in the debate, despite getting the least amount of speaking time.

Winner: Cory Booker.

Booker proved well-spoken and surprisingly balanced on a few issues.

At one point, Castro attacked charter schools, declaring, “It is a myth that charter schools are better than public schools. They’re not.” Booker responded by insisting that in Newark he closed poor-performing charter schools but he supported charter schools that did well. (By the way, an exhaustive review of the data on charter schools found that charter elementary schools outperform traditional public schools in reading and math, while the superiority of charter high schools is less certain.)

Winner: Amy Klobuchar.

Klobuchar mostly had a forgettable debate performance, but she enjoyed a standout moment when discussing Bernie’s Medicare for All bill. “While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill, and on page 8, on page 8 of the bill, it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. … I don’t think that’s a bold idea. I think it it’s a bad idea,” she declared.


Loser: Bernie Sanders.

Throughout the debate, Bernie had a hoarse voice and he sounded like a broken record. Other candidates landed punches against him, especially on health care. When asked to differentiate his form of socialism from the socialism practiced by Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, Sanders merely said any comparison between the two would be “extremely unfair.” He did not explain why.

Bernie has a very loyal base, and they’re unlikely to desert him quickly. Even so, he had a bad night.

Loser: Kamala Harris.

Kamala’s bad debate night started when she addressed President Trump right off the cuff. She spoke to Trump “who we all know is watching.” At that very moment, Trump was on stage at the GOP retreat, as Townhall’s Storm Paglia noted. Then Harris tried to say “Yes, we can,” to Biden, who shut her down by referencing the Constitution.

In one of the most memorable moments of the night, moderator Linsey Davis slammed Harris for her flip-flops on criminal justice issues. “When you had the power, why didn’t you try to effect change then?” Davis asked — to loud applause from the audience.

Loser: Pete Buttigieg.

The mayor of South Bend did not stand out at the third Democratic debate. He got in a plug for his Douglas Plan — a kind of nationwide affirmative action scheme — but he did not have a strong moment. Toward the end, he told a sob story about living under Mike Pence when Pence was governor of Indiana. He did emerge as more hopeful on the race issue, stressing the importance of black entrepreneurship.

Loser: Julian Castro.

Castro attempted to reframe the debate around the issue of Joe Biden’s senility, but his attack on Biden did not work. Rather than hitting Biden on the former vice president’s many embarrassing gaffes, Castro attempted to get Biden to admit to a gaffe in the middle of the debate, and it backfired.


Loser: The Protesters.

Right after ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked Biden a question about resilience, protesters loudly interrupted. Their uncoordinated shouts became indecipherable. No one could tell why they were interrupting, and Bernie told the vice president to keep speaking and ignore the protesters.

When Biden resumed speaking, he told the story of losing his wife and daughter after getting elected. A car crash claimed their lives, leading Biden to temporarily lose his faith.

Why the protesters chose that moment to heckle Biden remains unclear. Yet they rightly received strong criticism for this disgusting action.

“Biden was about to talk about losing his wife and daughter and that’s when hecklers decided to start shouting. Absolute classless disgusting morons,” Matt Walsh tweeted.

So what?

While there were six winners and only four losers, Biden won big. For the first time, I saw a Joe Biden who could actually be president. Naturally, he will likely devolve into his usual gaffetastic self, but for at least this one night he inspired confidence, not mockery. If this debate matters, it largely helps him.

As for the other winners, they had standout moments but were unlikely to join the top three (with the exception of Warren). O’Rourke, Yang, Booker, and Klobuchar may have an outside chance to emerge as a dark horse, but that remains unlikely.

Bernie Sanders really tanked tonight, and Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg also did not have the performances they need to break into the top three.

If this debate were to really make an impact in the race, the 2020 Democratic primary would be shaping up to be a challenge between Biden and Warren. But this debate was only a moment in time, and the vice president’s many gaffes do not inspire confidence. As Roger Simon wrote yesterday, this race is Warren’s to lose — and that’s a terrifying prospect.


Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.


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