Who won the Democratic debate?

Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT) September 13, 2019
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3:48 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

No candidate has shown they have what they need to take on President Trump yet

By Alice Stewart

Round three of the Democratic presidential debate was devoid of knockout punches, but full of jabs on health care, gun control, and immigration. With the primary goal to energize the base and motivate moderates, Thursday night’s debate did not move the “record player” needle one bit in terms of top tier candidates.

After spending previous debates smack dab in the crosshairs, former Vice President Joe Biden flipped the script, putting Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on defense over how to pay for their Medicare-for-All plans. Neither had a strong answer. In politics: if you’re on the defense, you’re losing.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar was solid in taking it to Sanders and his Medicare-for-All bill, saying it’s not a bold idea, “it’s a bad idea,” and making her case that she wants to be a president for “all of the country.”

Sen. Kamala Harris spent the most time taking it directly to President Donald Trump on health care and denoucing his divisive rhetoric. One thing’s for sure, referring to him as a “small dude” will guarantee she is next in line for a Trump-style nickname.

Sen. Cory Booker and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke took turns calling President Trump a racist. O’Rourke went on to blame Trump for inciting the gunman in last month’s mass shooting in El Paso that killed 22 people. Furthering his call for gun confiscations, O’Rourke said “hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivered another strong argument in his “Medicare for all who want it” message by stressing that a public alternative will ensure “the American people will figure that out for themselves.”

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro took a cheap shot at Biden on his age and memory, by implying Biden could not remember something he said moments earlier. It was a calculated risk that failed. Policy differences are one thing, getting personal is another. Plus, if you’re going to deliver a low blow, be right on the facts. Castro was not.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang had me, yet again, wondering how he has garnered the support he has. His gimmick to give 10 families $1,000 a month from his campaign will no doubt build an email list, but it will also have difficulty passing the campaign finance law smell test.

The challenge moving forward is for Democrats to continue to highlight their divisions on policy without hindering the inevitable call for unity in the party. It’s a delicate dance of primaries. As of now, there is no clear candidate who has demonstrated they have what it takes to take on President Trump. 


Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, Resident Fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University, and former Communications Director for Ted Cruz for President.

12:57 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

Criminal justice reform finally enters the debate

By Van Jones

We are now in an era where every major Democratic candidate for the presidency is competing for the boldest plans to fix a failing criminal justice system that tears apart too many families and destroys too many lives.

Democrats have not always stood boldly against the incarceration industry. There was a time when candidates for office up and down the ballot would compete over who could be tougher on crime. But in this election, Democrats are competing to offer more freedom, more compassion, and more rehabilitation - not just more punishment.

On Thursday’s debate stage, in response to a question posed by a young African-American moderator, Linsey Davis, a few candidates finally got a moment on the debate stage to highlight their criminal justice plans.

● Sen. Kamala Harris: “My plan has been described by activists as being a bold and comprehensive plan that is about ending mass incarceration, about taking the profit out of the criminal justice system. I plan on shutting down for-profit prisons on day one. It will be about what we need to do to hold law enforcement, including prosecutors, accountable. And finally, my plan is about making sure that, in America's criminal justice system, we de-incarcerate women and children, that we end solitary confinement and that we work on keeping families intact.” 

● Sen. Cory Booker: “I joined together and led in the United States Senate the only major bipartisan bill to pass under this president, for criminal justice reform, that has already led to thousands of people coming out of jail. If 87 members of the United States Senate says that these sentences are way too long, and we changed it, but we didn't make it retroactive, we could literally point to the people that are in jail unjustly right now. Everyone on this stage should say that we are going to give clemency to these 17,000 people. And I challenge you. Don't just say a big statement; back it up with details of the people in prison right now looking for one of the most sacrosanct ideals of this nation, which is liberty and freedom. We need to reform this system and we must do it now. Every day we wait is too long.”

● Joe Biden: “We're in a situation now where there are so many people who are in jail and shouldn't be in jail. The whole means by which this should change is the whole model has to change. We should be talking about rehabilitation. Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime. As -- when we were in the White House, we released 36,000 people from the federal prison system. Nobody should be in jail for a drug problem. They should be going directly to a rehabilitation. We build more rehabilitation centers, not prisons.

● Sen. Amy Klobuchar: “As a senator and as your president, I will make sure that we don't just do the First Step Act when it comes to criminal sentencing, that we move to the Second Step Act, which means the 90% of people that are incarcerated in local and state jails, let's reduce those sentences for nonviolent offenders and let's get them jobs and let them vote when they get out of prison"

The tide is certainly changing - I even saw a few Republicans agreeing with what was said on stage. After the passage of last year’s First Step Act, which saw close to 100% of Democrats in Congress voting in favor of criminal justice legislation that President Donald Trump signed into law, this issue is ripe for progress.

Seventy million Americans with a criminal conviction,  10 -12 million cycling through jails every year, 4.65 million on probation, parole and community supervision, and 2.2 million behind bars - there are many more steps and much more work to be done.


Van Jones is the host of the "The Van Jones Show" and a CNN political commentator. He is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance.

1:29 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

Booker brought welcome humanity -- and got off some good lines

By Roxanne Jones

Senator Cory Booker had a great night. Clearly he was having the most fun on stage. He was passionate and informed about the issues many voters care about most: health care and justice reform. He was poised, sticking to policy and offering solutions instead of wasting time attacking his fellow Democrats -- take notes Julian Castro. 

And in a nice respite, the New Jersey senator gave us much-needed comic relief all night. I mean, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's perfectly-coiffed hair really is a bit “menacing,” as Booker joked.

Booker, more than any Democrat on that stage, was able to make us feel the humanity and urgency of the complex issues before voters. Over and over he brought the talk back around to everyday Americans. Debating the merits of Medicare for All and other health care plans, Booker reminded us that there are children in his community who need affordable insulin, “right now.” They can’t wait years.

If this election were only about breaking down systemic racism and passing expansive justice reform laws, Booker would get my vote in a second. But while those are top concerns for me -- and many other voters -- they won't decide my vote.

Booker may get bounce from his debate performance, but it's hard to imagine it will be enough to earn him a top spot. Still, it makes me hopeful for the nation that there is a candidate with a unifying voice like his who can see the humanity in us all.

Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of "Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete." She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia's 900AM WURD. 

1:30 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

Andrew Yang's outrageous stunt

By Scott Jennings

Andrew Yang's stunt of giving money to voters out of his campaign account is wild, and probably illegal. Of course, most of the Democratic candidates' policies (free college, full debt retirement, free health care for undocumented immigrants) are indirect bribes already. I guess Yang has decided to stop beating around the bush and just go for it.

Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.

1:29 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

Moderates gain ground from the socialists

By Paul Begala

For the first time, the socialists were on their heels and the moderates were on the attack. In the ABC debate, we finally had a vigorous, honest debate about Medicare for All. Gone were the disingenuous digs of prior debates (“You’re repeating Republican talking points!”) In their place was a substantive critique about cost, choice, and banning employer-provided health care. 

Joe Biden had his best debate. He used stats (“My plan for health care costs a lot of money... It doesn't cost $30 trillion.”) and wit (“For a socialist, you've got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do”). Those who worry about Biden’s ability to stand up to Donald Trump, fear not. Biden more than held his own against both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – each of whom is 10 times smarter than Trump.

Kamala Harris did the best job of consistently taking the fight to Trump, a better strategy than fly-specking rivals’ campaign proposals that are never going to become law. Instead of merely talking about taking on Trump, then attacking her fellow Democrats, she actually did hammer Trump. I wonder if her strategy was to bait Trump into another Twitter meltdown.

Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar came from the back of the pack to shine. They showed authenticity, decency, and passion. When Pete Buttigieg spoke about coming out as a Navy officer, it was riveting. Cory Booker was the wit and the conscience of the group, but then went against his better angels by personally attacking Joe Biden in the post-debate spin room.

Julian Castro was by far the loser. Not even close. He dishonestly and dishonorably implied that Biden was losing his marbles. Three times he repeated a charge that Biden was “forgetting what you said two minutes ago.” The charge was low – and false. One hopes Castro will look back on this night with regret when his campaign is over. One suspects that ending will arrive sooner after that disgraceful crack.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

1:33 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

On race and criminal justice, facts tell a different story than Democrats

By Carrie Sheffield

In their conversation about race and criminal justice, tonight’s Democratic presidential debaters left out important facts about the historic gains for African-Americans under the leadership of the Trump White House.

The Trump administration worked with both parties in Congress to pass the criminal justice reform of the First Step Act. Since then, 91% of of the first group of people who have received reduced sentences under the act have been African-American.

In August, black unemployment fell to a record low 5.5%, with the Census Bureau reporting that inequality is declining and that the median wages for all Americans are increasing. The black poverty rate hit a new record low of 20.8% in 2018, with the White House Council of Economic Advisers reporting that the “poverty rates for black and Hispanic Americans in 2018 have never been closer to the overall poverty rate in the United States.”

President Donald Trump recently announced that faith-based historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with religious affiliations “will no longer be restricted from accessing federal funding.” His Education Department also forgave $322 million in loans made to four HBCUs damaged in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Trump White House led the way to create Opportunity Zones to reinvigorate business development in nearly 9,000 economically-challenged communities, and nearly half of all HBCUs are located in Opportunity Zones. 

Democrats have tried to drive a racial wedge in our country, but the facts tell a different story.

Carrie Sheffield is national editor for Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog organization.

12:21 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

Second tier candidates were the big winners

By Joe Lockhart

We learned a lot of things in tonight’s Democratic debate in Houston. The first? Three hours is too long. Even the most hardened political activists and junkies, I think, struggled to hang in for that last hour. But it was worth it for those who did: the closing question on resilience provided some of the most interesting answers of the night. 

The second lesson is that 10 candidates is better than 20. The criteria that winnowed the field made this a better debate. Apart from Andrew Yang’s gimmicky opening, it was a serious debate on serious issues from serious people.

The big winners tonight were the candidates who are just out of the first tier. Beto O'Rourke and Cory Booker proved there is something to their potential, even if it has not translated to support in the polls. Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttegieg and Kamala Harris were solid and did nothing to suggest they won’t be around by the time the Iowa caucuses begin.

Among the frontrunners, Joe Biden showed more life in the first couple of hours than in any other debate. He also showed a little weariness in the third hour -- and a couple of flaky answers -- but I think that will be forgiven by everyone who stuck around for all three hours. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders did little to distinguish themselves from each other and that is going to continue to be a problem for both of them.

Julian Castro’s ham-handed attack on Biden -- questioning his short-term memory -- made him tonight’s big loser. It didn’t work, and time has run out on him.  Andrew Yang remains a novelty who fills time and gets a few laughs but adds little to the debate.

As far as where this leaves us, Biden will remain the frontrunner and Warren and Sanders will continue to be his strongest and closest contenders. The big story tonight though is there are still a bunch of candidates in the single digits who still have a realistic shot at winning this nomination. That will make the next debate compelling.

Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton's administration. He co-hosts the podcast "Words Matter."

1:05 a.m. ET, September 13, 2019

Biden clings tight to Obama

By David Axelrod

If Joe Biden has mentioned Barack Obama more than a few times tonight, you can hardly blame him. Biden’s position as the frontrunner in this race is due in no small part to his close partnership with Obama.

Biden leads his competitors among African-American voters by better than a three-to-one margin, a potentially critical advantage in a nominating contest in which black voters will cast a quarter of the votes. The black vote saved Hillary Clinton in 2016 against Bernie Sanders. It could be crucial for Biden.

Beyond his iconic status among African-Americans, Obama remains a hugely popular figure among Democrats, even if there is disquiet among some of the left about aspects of his record. (I suspect that the candidates who implicitly attacked Obama in the last debate learned in the aftermath just how deep Democratic affection remains for the former president; tonight, candidates were much less willing to attack Obama's policies.)

The former vice president might well be overdoing it — but there is a lot of upside to touting his friend, the former president.

Biden stumbled momentarily, seemingly cutting Obama loose when asked by Univision's Jorge Ramos whether the former president had erred by deporting three million people. “I was the vice president,” Biden stressed.

Julián Castro jumped on the VP over this apparent vacillation, accusing Biden of claiming credit for Obama's popular decisions and walking away from controversial ones. Realizing the misstep, Biden quickly and vehemently declared that he stood with Obama on his entire record.

He knows that he will rise or fall with the president who brought him to the dance.

David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of "The Axe Files," was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. 

10:52 p.m. ET, September 12, 2019

Warren's strategy is working

By Julian Zelizer

Many pundits will focus on Joe Biden beating expectations (maybe), Andrew Yang providing eye-catching moments, and Kamala Harris regaining her momentum. But it was Elizabeth Warren who quietly turned in the best performance, given her campaign strategy.

While many people were waiting for Warren to start delivering zingers against Biden and Bernie Sanders, that is not her style. Her strategy has been relatively consistent: stick to her issues, stick to her personal story, and keep weaving the two together.

The truth is that the strategy probably won’t win her any big swings in the short-term polls, but over the long run it has been a strategy that has worked. Her numbers all keep pointing in the same direction: upward. Of all the candidates, she has kept growing her support and inching closer to Biden’s standing.

Warren is making an Obama-like bet, circa 2008, which is to ignore the noise and avoid trying to find the big breakthrough moments. 

It is a big and risky bet in an age when the 24-hour news media is such a major presence, creating opportunities for campaign booms and busts. 

But at least, so far, it is working. Focusing on policy, focusing on her message, focusing on her life story, focusing on issue-based statements has allowed her to run a formidable campaign. 

The question remains: can she turn all of this into an argument that she in fact the most “electable” Democrat in the group? She needs to close the circle by the time the party reaches Iowa and New Hampshire, to establish for voters that substance, passion, and a coherent agenda are in fact what will make for the most electable candidate against President Trump. Otherwise, Biden will remain the favorite. 

A number of other candidates, particularly Harris, had some of their best moments tonight. But right now it’s hard to see how they break into the top tier of three without the long awaited, but not yet arrived, Biden implosion. 

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author of the forthcoming book, "Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party."