The big moments of the Houston debate will undoubtedly include Julian Castro’s not-so-subtle attack on Joe Biden’s mental capacity. (“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro thundered from the wings, in a factually debatable assault on Biden’s health plan. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.”)
And they will likely include two of Biden’s less impressive answers toward the last hour of the debate—on Iraq and on education. Biden’s latter answer included the semi-coherent advice to parents to: “Play the radio, make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the—make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there.”
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(Unsolicited tip to Biden’s debate prep team: Advising parents to keep “the record player on at night” may not be helpful if your candidate is trying to allay concerns about his age.)
There will be praise for the passion of Beto O’Rourke on guns, the thoughtful replies of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and the appealing deliveries of Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.
But perhaps the most notable takeaway is how good Elizabeth Warren in this format. There was no one moment of stand-out eloquence, no flash of humor that sent the audience and debaters laughing. It was, rather, her capacity to turn every question into an occasion for an answer that demonstrates political shrewdness, if not always substantive candor.
For instance, she still will not say that her health career plan will raise taxes for the middle class, which it almost certainly will and which Bernie Sanders frankly acknowledges. Instead, she says:
“What families have to deal with is cost, total cost.…And understand, families are paying for their health care today. Families pay, every time an insurance company says, sorry, you can’t see that specialist. Every time an insurance company says…sorry, we are not covering that prescription. Families are paying every time they don’t get a prescription filled because they can’t pay for it. They don’t have a lump checked out because they can’t afford the copay. What we’re talking about here is what’s going to happen in families’ pockets, what’s going to happen in their budgets…”
If you’re looking for a direct answer, you’re going to have a long wait.
On the subject of education, Warren fused her personal background with a message aimed squarely at the public school unions that form a key part of the Democratic Party’s base—rejecting flatly the idea of public money for charter schools— and managed to shoehorn in another popular notion as well.
“You know,” Warren said, “I think I’m the only person on this stage who has been a public school teacher. I wanted to be a public school teacher since I was in second grade. And let’s be clear in all the ways we talk about this, money for public schools should stay in public schools. Not go anywhere else. I’ve already made my commitment. I will—we will have a secretary of education who has been a public school teacher. I think this is ultimately about our values. I have proposed a two-cent wealth tax on the top one-tenth of one percent in this country. That would give us enough money to start with our babies by providing universal child care for every baby age 0 to 5. Universal pre-k for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in this country, raise the wages of every child care worker and preschool teacher in this country. Cancel student loan debt for 95 percent of the folks who’ve got it.”
This is a skill most debaters, even those with years in public life, do not possess. They know how to deliver up packaged pieces of policy, and predictable applause lines. But taking a question and using it as a platform for a coherent message is a skill in short supply. (The last Presidential candidate to demonstrate such skill was Newt Gingrich back in 2012).
Warren had an “optics” advantage as well. Compared to Bernie Sanders, whose hoarse throat made him seem more of a worn-out soapbox orator, Warren’s more temperate delivery was well suited to the TV screen.
There remain for Warren and for most of the other candidates some of the same landmines the first appeared back in June.
No one seems to have any clear answer to the question of whether-or even how—illegal immigration can be curbed. The near-universal embrace of the idea that America is an inherently racist nation is a view very different from that expressed by the last Democratic president, and one that may well trigger a sharp pushback. When Beto O’Rourke says, “Yes, I’m coming for your guns,” (or at least the AR-15s and the AK-47s), you can all but glimpse the TV ad.
That not so incidental issue aside, the debate left one clear impression, at least for me, when it comes to this format, Warren is in a class by herself.