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Dem hopefuls tackle health care, guns, climate change in debate

Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden

Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren onstage Thursday at the third Democratic presidential debate at Texas Southern University in Houston. Credit: Getty Images / Win McNamee

It was bold ideas versus pragmatic ones Thursday night at the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, which spotlighted the ideological divisions in a party searching for the best way to unseat Republican President Donald Trump.

Front-runners former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont shared one stage for the first time, the matchup providing perhaps the starkest-yet display of centrists against progressives in the primary.

“How are we going to pay for it?” Biden asked of Medicare For All, which Warren and Sanders support.

The former vice president proposes building on Obamacare and permitting Americans who like their private insurance to keep it.

“I lay out how I can pay for it, how I can get it done and why it’s better,” he said.

“Costs are going to go up for wealthier individuals, and costs are going to go up for giant corporations, but for hardworking families, costs are going to go down,” Warren countered, saying that middle-class Americans pay every time they can’t afford to fill a prescription or get a lump checked out.

“The only question here in terms of difference is where to send the bill,” she added.

Health insurance — how to reform it and whether it’s more important to be realistic or revolutionary — dominated the first part of the debate, which took place at Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston.

Ten candidates had met the polling and fundraising thresholds necessary to qualify, and the debate — the third of the primary election — for the first time was held on one night rather than two. Past debates featured 20 candidates in the historically sprawling field.

But this format allowed viewers and voters to move beyond hypothetical matchups and compare Biden, Warren and Sanders side by side for the first time. The three candidates in recent weeks have been the only ones to poll consistently in double digits in national surveys. Support has consolidated around them, with about 60 percent of likely primary voters backing one of the three.

The seven other candidates on stage fought to get their voice into the mix.

Former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro did so in part by taking a jab at Biden’s age, 76, and his recent instances of misspeaking and conflating stories on the campaign trail.

"Are you forgetting already what you just said two minutes ago?" Castro challenged.

Both candidates worked in President Barack Obama’s administration.

The candidates in the lower tiers also strove for impactful statements and viral moments that could catapult them out of single-digit support and help them solicit contributions before the Sept. 30 quarterly fundraising deadline.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, jumped into the health care debate by explaining his Medicare For All Who Want It plan. Like Biden, he drew a contrast with Warren and Sanders.

“I trust the American people to make the right choice for them. Why don’t you?” Buttigieg asked.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also went after the far-left candidates.

“While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill,” she said. “And on page eight of the bill, it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it.”

The conversation also turned to gun reform, criminal justice, immigration, the economy and climate change. 

Texas in August was the site of two mass shootings, one in El Paso that left 22 dead and a second in Odessa and Midland that killed seven.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” said former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose hometown is El Paso. He was met with thunderous applause from the audience.

The candidates debated whether executive action should be used to get firearms restrictions through the Republican-controlled Senate.

“Let’s be constitutional,” Biden said.

“Hey, Joe, instead of saying, ‘No, we can’t,’ let’s say, ‘Yes, we can,’ ” Sen. Kamala Harris of California said.

Harris’ campaign saw a polling and fundraising boom after she attacked Biden on his record on race in the June debate, but her numbers have fizzled since.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey sought to stress that gun violence isn’t limited to the mass shootings that make national headlines.

“The majority of homicide victims come from neighborhoods like mine,” said Booker, who lives in Newark.

Booker also was among those who positioned themselves as peacemakers onstage as others went low.

“We’ve got one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president,” he said in an appeal for unity.

The 10 White House hopefuls were asked how they would address Trump’s tariffs and the trade war with China. Several said they would bring China back to the table. Warren said she would add others to the table, including unions, small-farm operators and human rights activists.

Sanders highlighted his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, both of which are part of Obama’s legacy.

The average American worker isn’t making more than they did decades ago “and one of the reasons is that, for decades, we have had disastrous trade policies,” Sanders said, adding that trade is where he and Biden disagree.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said he would not immediately repeal the tariffs but rather let the Chinese know “we need to hammer out a deal.”

Separately, Harris’ record as attorney general of California was under the microscope Thursday night. She had opposed the legalization of marijuana and external investigations of police-involved shootings.

“When you had the power, why didn’t you try to effect change then?” moderator Linsey Davis asked.

Harris responded that her record had been distorted and ticked off areas where she said she had made improvements, including expanding policy on body camera use. She also conceded: “Was I able to get enough done? Absolutely not.”

After candidates at the July debate scrutinized Obama's record, including on mass deportations, many went out of their way Thursday to praise him.

“We all owe a huge debt to President Obama,” Warren said.

“I want to give credit first to Barack Obama,” Harris said.

Biden repeatedly evoked the former president. Fending off an attack from Castro on Obama’s immigration record, Biden said, “I stand with Barack Obama. All eight years. Good, bad and indifferent.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) failed to qualify for Thursday’s debate and bowed out of the race for president, saying it’s important “to know when it’s not your time.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also did not to qualify, but remains a candidate. He watched the debate at home in New York City with his family, his campaign spokeswoman said. De Blasio is set to travel this week to South Carolina, which holds one of the primary’s first nominating contests.

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