What Happened in Houston: Takeaways from the Third Democratic Debate

Last night, Democrats held their third round of presidential primary debates at Texas Southern University. Thanks to more stringent qualification requirements, for the first time, debates were limited to one night and all of the top contenders were face to face.

As a result, candidates had more time and space to delve into the issues, allowing them to move beyond broad consensus statements and draw contrasts on details. After spending three hours with the ten candidates who made the cut, here are four takeaways that shed light on what the Houston debate says about the state of issues in the primary race.

  • Moderates made stronger and sharper attacks on Medicare for All. Moderates advocating for a more middle-of-the-road approach to health care came prepared with detailed attacks, assailing Medicare for All on its cost, handling of private insurance, and poor coverage. Discussion of the substantive and political merits of the tradeoffs involved in moving to a single payer system – namely the possibility of Americans paying higher taxes for the promise of reduced premiums and out-of-pocket costs – was a notable flash point. As candidates become more comfortable talking about health care policy nuance and are given more time to dig into details, they will likely continue to differentiate themselves across the spectrum on an issue that ranks among the most important to voters.
  • The debate devoted more discussion to trade. The trade debate was more robust than it has been in previous debates, but only the top three polling candidates used the discussion to establish a marker on the issue. Biden, Sanders, and Warren each sketched out a vision of how they would change the trajectory of trade policy by rallying other nations to contain China, restricting foreign access to our markets, or formally giving labor and environmental advocates a seat at the negotiating table. The remaining candidates stuck with a surface-level discussion of the issue, providing no real explanation for how they would approach the issue differently from the other candidates. While all criticized President Trump’s overall handling of the trade war, some said they would keep the tariffs in place (at least for some time) to maintain leverage in negotiations.
  • K-12 public education made a strong showing, though there is little daylight among the candidates. Though education has been mentioned in previous debates, the discussions tended to focus on higher education and student loan forgiveness. Last night, however, the candidates spent time on the K-12 concerns. Even so, there were little differences between the candidates; most focused on the importance of maintaining strong public schools and increasing teacher pay.
  • The debate was low on energy discussion. Earlier this month, CNN hosted a series of town halls with ten Democratic candidates focused solely on the issue of climate change, showing the importance the issue has gained among the party. But, that emphasis failed to carry into last night, with candidates engaging in only a top-level discussion of the topic and spending no time on energy policy in Houston, the fossil fuel capital of the United States.

Surprisingly, even with a longer debate time and fewer candidates, several key issues – the direction of the economy, big tech, energy, and women’s health to name a few – received short shrift. Perhaps they will reemerge next month when the Democratic field reconvenes in Ohio.