The Democrats held their fourth debate this past Tuesday night, with limited interest considering the party – and many of their voters – are more focused on impeaching President Trump. Everyone on the crowded twelve-strong stage at Otterbein University in Ohio supports impeachment, which Senator Elizabeth Warren said is “bigger than politics,” somewhat ironic considering even strong opponents of Trump cannot help but notice the decidedly political nature of the impeachment crusade which Senator Tulsi Gabbard noted has the potential to become “hyperpartisan.” Each candidate tried to distinguish themselves during the debate with some success, although newcomer to the debate stage, billionaire anti-billionaire Tom Steyer struggled to nab a few minutes of speaking time where he could without much success. Nonetheless, Steyer did point out that he supported impeachment before it was cool by launching his Need to Impeach campaign several years ago.
Converging on opposition to Trump, the seriousness of the ongoing opioid crisis and pulling US troops out of Syria, the candidates sometimes sounded as if they were reciting a progressive liturgy as they detailed the need for gun control, abortion access, fighting climate change and all of their other oft-repeated positions. Health care emerged as a point of major disagreement, although the three hours seemed to cover more substantive issues of past Democratic debate, although it still managed to avoid ongoing issues like the Hong Kong protests or religious liberty which was recently attacked by bottom-tier candidate Beto O’Rourke who said he would defund religious institutions that do not support same-sex marriage.
Even though Warren had a relatively strong performance and enumeration of her platform, the clear winner of the debate was Senator Bernie Sanders, who had a heart attack two weeks ago. Displaying remarkably good humor and positivity about his health setbacks, 78-year-old Sanders owned the stage in terms of policy and performance. Despite trailing Joe Biden and Warren and lagging behind in New Hampshire and Iowa polling, Sanders had a great night. Describing the American medical insurance system as “cruel,” Sanders rallied in defense of the “87 million uninsured” and went on to make his outrage clear about the “30,000 people dying every year. 500,000 people going bankrupt. For one reason: They came down with cancer.” Although there are more reasons than just cancer, Sanders’ punch landed.
With Warren tangling with Senator Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar, she took a lot of the heat during the debate, but Sanders still emerged as the real winner. While Cory Booker returned to his theme of not allowing disunity and squabbling within the party because he believes it benefits Trump, Sanders was clear about his belief that standing up to donor interests will win the next election more so than party loyalty or a team mindset. While Warren talked about her desire for taxing the rich more but put in the lame caveat “I don’t have a beef with billionaires,” Sanders was straightforward about his socialistic beliefs and stuck to his greatest hits. While Gabbard referred to the “despicable” media smears of her as a Russian asset and Assadist, Sanders avoided paraphrasing the media’s many attacks on him (CNN was even recently accused of stooping so low as to doctor the color saturation in a video of Sanders speaking after his heart attack to make his face look bright red) and stuck to criticizing Trump, saying he has wrecked America’s ability to effectively do foreign policy or be trusted.
For his part, entrepreneur Andrew Yang also picked up some support for his universal basic income proposal from Julian Castro and Gabbard. Biden’s debate performance was underwhelming, as usual with a failure to really put to rest the disquieting gossip around the work his son Hunter did in Ukraine, possibly profiting from Biden Sr’s connections. It is not a surprise that Biden has fallen behind Warren in some polls.
Overall, however, Sanders consistently outshone the other candidates, landing solid hits on Trump (“the most corrupt president in the history of this country”), climate change (“existential threat”), problems with the health care industry (“the issue is whether the Democratic Party has the guts to stand up to the health care industry, which made $100 billion in profit, whether we have the guts to stand up to the corrupt, price-fixing pharmaceutical industry”) and the struggle of working families (“half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck”). Although it remains to be seen how the Sanders campaign will fare heading into next year, Tuesday’s debate was a standout performance that should lead to some increased momentum for Team Sanders.