Ten candidates assembled onstage at Texas Southern University Thursday night for the third Democratic presidential debate.
Two scholars watched the debate closely: Michael Adams, chair of the Political Science Department and a director at the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University; and Elizabeth Simas, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.
Texas Southern University, a historically black university, hosted the debate:.
Adams says having a high-profile political event at his campus allowed conversations about issues like free college tuition, elimination of student, criminal justice reform, social justice and income inequality to come to the fore among students, even before the debate.
“A significant portion of our students are on federal financial aid, and many of them are also saddled with debt,” he says.
The tone of the third debate was different than the others.
Simas says limiting the event to just the “top-tier” of Democratic candidates led to a more substantive debate. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s moderate stance particularly stood out.
“She just said, ‘I am here to represent all Americans,’” Simas says, “I thought this was one of her stronger debate performances.”
Klobuchar came out especially strong against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal for Medicare for All.
When it comes to our health care and it comes to our premiums, I go with the doctor’s creed, which is “Do no harm” … and on page 8 of the bill, it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it.
Adams says Klobuchar probably had the best performance of the night, capitalizing on her moderate stance. He says if she doesn’t become the nominee, she would be a strong vice presidential candidate.
Two Texan candidates participated in the debate, and both went after former Vice President Joe Biden.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julián Castro, called out Biden for not taking responsibility for failures of the Obama administration.
Every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, he says, “Oh! I was there, I was there, I was there – that’s me too!” And then, every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, “Well, that was the president.”
But Adams says this attack didn’t help Castro.
“It came off as being kind of mean-spirited,” he says.
Simas says Castro’s attack was his way of trying to distinguish himself, since he’s one of the lowest-polling of the 10 candidates.
“This was really sort of a make-or-break evening for him,” Simas says.
As for Beto O’Rourke, Simas says he didn’t necessarily have a “break-out” moment that made him a more competitive candidate, but the nine other candidates did praise him for his response to the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso.
“Everybody was very deferent to O’Rourke over the issue of El Paso and gun control,” Simas says. “They seemed to sort of just shove that issue off and say, ‘Yeah, that’s yours, that’s yours. You can have that one.’”
O’Rourke made some bold claims about guns that the other candidates didn’t:
Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not gonna allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.
“I knew that he would seize the moment in terms of talking about gun violence and gun control,” Adams says. “But this is Texas. We’ve seen in the last legislative session where 10 bills or more were basically passed to support the National Rifle Association’s position.”
Was there a winner?
Adams says it’s hard to pick one standout candidate, though he reiterates that he liked Klobuchar’s performance.
Some candidates faltered. Adams says entrepreneur Andrew Yang had some awkward moments talking about his universal basic income proposal, and while Biden started off strong, that strength faded toward the end.
But Simas says Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who polls show is among the top three candidates, was the overall winner. She says that’s not because Warren had any particular standout moment during the debate, rather, she didn’t falter.
“When you’re a frontrunner, I think you win when you don’t mess up, and when you don’t let others get a foothold on you, and she certainly didn’t do that,” Simas says.
Written by Caroline Covington.