The Third Democratic Primary Debate: The Highs & Lows

Thursday’s Democratic Debate, hosted by ABC, represented a narrowing — yet still diverse — candidate pool. Three women, four people of color, and one openly queer candidate battled it out on the national stage. To many viewers, Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren remain the frontrunners of the race. That being said, lower-polling candidates, namely Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang, had their standout moments. Read on for my highs and lows of the night.

  1. 1. First low: Andrew Yang’s “debate surprise”

    Possibly in response to waning viewership of the second debate, Yang teased a special surprise, “something which no presidential candidate has done before” on the debate stage. The Yang Gang (and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian!) was not disappointed: Yang, in his opening remarks, promised to introduce his Freedom Dividend to 10 lucky supporters, providing them each with $1,000/month for a whole year. In the moments after this announcement, over 116,000 people rushed over to Yang2020.com, and Buttigieg delivered the side-eye of the century. Despite agreeing with a number of Yang’s ideas, I have to side with Mayor Pete: I found this giveaway far too gimmicky for the debate stage.

  2. 2. First high: Beto O’Rourke’s opening remarks

    After two average debate performances, I had been all but ready to throw in the towel on former Congressman and El Paso native O’Rourke. However, his opening remarks stopped me in my tracks. Poised and eloquent, O’Rourke addressed “the bitterness, the pettiness, the smallness of the moment,” emphasizing a need to “speak honestly ... and act decisively.” His opening was clear, concise, and had me wanting more.

    Since I do not plan on mentioning Congressman O’Rourke again, let it be known that when asked about gun control, he uttered the iconic line: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” Love that? You can now buy it on a t-shirt.

  3. 3. Second low: Joe Biden’s teeth (and his memory, according to Castro)

    This second low is partially speculative, so I recommend that you watch the clip and draw your own conclusions. When asked about the Obama administration’s failure to achieve major gun reform following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, Biden appeared to move something around in his mouth. Twitter users were quick to speculate, with many assuming that his dentures had loosened during his response. 

    As if this situation did not draw enough attention to Biden’s age (76), Julián Castro accused him of memory loss regarding his health care plan, asking: “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Immediately, Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Yang rebuked Castro’s comment, the debate transitioning back to health care. Castro’s attacks were a major low point for me, as I appreciate organized and productive discussion, not targeted statements.

  4. 4. Second high: Elizabeth Warren’s solid answers

    While Warren always performs well in debates, I was particularly impressed by her energy and clarity on Thursday. Her responses were easily digestible and made complex situations easier to understand for the average viewer. I especially loved her answer about the war in Afghanistan: “Show me what winning looks like. Tell me what it looks like. And what you hear is a lot of, ‘Uh,’ because no one can describe it. And the reason no one can describe it is because the problems in Afghanistan are not problems that can be solved by a military.”

    Warren is a master at storytelling, using concrete language to create physical manifestations of problems hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away. This debate (finally!) touched upon the issue of education, and Warren’s experience as a schoolteacher dovetailed beautifully.

  5. 5. Third low: the hateful commercial starring AOC

    The final low of the night technically does not even surround the debate, but must be mentioned. After the debate closed, a Republican PAC aired a commercial which set an image of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on fire, the photo burning to reveal human skulls. The narration details socialism in Cambodia and the resulting “forced obedience” and “starvation” faced by the narrator’s father, equating these conditions to the socialism Ocasio-Cortez supports. Many agree that the commercial is in poor taste, including the Union Theological Seminary: “Violent words breed violent actions ... Shame on [ABC] for airing this filth.” I have to say, the debate had left me feeling hopeful for the future of our nation, but this commercial certainly left a bad taste in my mouth.

  6. 6. Third high: Mayor Pete’s closing speech

    For the sake of honest journalism, I must admit: I adore Buttigieg. From what I have observed, we have very similar personalities, educational backgrounds (he studied literature and history at Harvard!), and views on the major issues. I always connect with him during the debates, but even non-supporters found his closing remarks compelling. 

    A departure from those of the previous debates, Thursday night’s closing speeches had a theme: professional setbacks and lessons learned. Buttigieg focused on his experiences coming out as gay soon after serving in the US Navy under Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. He feared repercussions as a politician heading into an election year, but “was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love.” Buttigieg’s closing remarks were easily the most personal and effective of the night. It was powerful to watch an openly queer candidate not just live his truth, but live it in front of millions of Americans while pursuing the highest office in the country.