The October Democratic presidential debate, explained in under 25 minutes

Twelve Democratic presidential candidates took the stage at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, for a debate hosted by CNN and the New York Times on Tuesday, October 15. The first to take place during the ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Trump, it was only natural that the whistleblower scandal involving the president’s call with Ukraine would come up. This included the fact that the call involved Trump asking Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and any irregularities regarding his son Hunter Biden’s involvement while sitting on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

CNN’s moderators did ask Biden about his son’s business ties in Ukraine early in the debate. But the current Democratic frontrunner kept his response straightforward:

“My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States in rooting out corruption in Ukraine. That’s what we should be focusing on.”

While it’s been argued that Biden’s answer missed the point, it was a chance for the remaining 11 candidates onstage to address their feelings about any potential wrongdoing on Biden’s part. They ultimately passed on that opportunity in lieu of taking shots at the opponent they perceive to be their greatest threat: Elizabeth Warren.

”Much more of the attention was focused on Elizabeth Warren last night than we’ve ever seen before,” Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram pointed out in this episode.

Vox reporter Li Zhou agreed.

”I think that’s very telling about where she stands right now. … Elizabeth Warren has really become this kind of guiding-light frontrunner in the party and that multiple people throughout the night were trying to get her approval and get their support for issues that they wanted to champion.”

Later in the episode, Vox’s Ezra Klein examined exactly what about Warren’s policy and campaign strategy has put her ahead of other Democratic candidates.

One: Warren’s facility as a communicator and [the] speed at which she’s able to communicate and synthesize positions in debates, in speeches, in the ongoing campaign, her ability to punch back is very important. Two: she doesn’t back down. She doesn’t compromise. She’s not a kind of weak Democrat. So you can expect that if Donald Trump throws a punch, she’s going to throw back. And three: she’s laser-focused on corruption in the American economy and how that’s hurting and sort of the greed that has enabled [which] is hurting the middle, the working class, and the poor.

The rest of the debate focused on everything from the candidates’ differing views on health care, Medicare-for-all, and the various proposed taxation that would allow for it; the current conflict between Turkey and Syria, recently exacerbated when Trump removed US troops from the region; Warren’s campaign platform to break up big tech; reproductive rights; the opioid crisis; and even touched on the top three candidates’ advanced ages. If elected, Biden, Warren, and Bernie Sanders would all be the oldest president at inauguration — and Sanders had a heart attack just last week.

Hear more on this episode of Today, Explained. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

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Sean Rameswaram

Last night, the Democrats met for their fourth debate in Ohio, this time the first since the Democrats in the House launched their impeachment inquiry. And thankfully, this debate didn’t start with a conversation on health care. It started with a conversation on impeachment, right?

Li Zhou

Yeah! For once, it was not a 30-minute debate about Medicare-for-all. It kind of highlighted how universally the Democrats are currently backing the House impeachment inquiry. They were pretty united in their front in taking on Donald Trump.

Sean Rameswaram

Making this conversation about impeachment a little more interesting is, of course, the fact that Joe Biden was onstage and President Trump spent so long trying to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. What did Biden himself have to say about it?

Li Zhou

Biden had a pretty straightforward response. He quickly turned that on to Trump again and called out him as the most corrupt president. And that that’s what we should be focusing on.

Sean Rameswaram

After they got impeachment out of the way, they, of course, went to health care, which I guess at this point is contractually obligated or something? But after that, they went to Syria, which was I felt like the first time we had a really robust conversation about foreign policy on one of these debate stages.

Li Zhou

A lot of the Democrats were responding to Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. And many of them, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, basically called out Trump for hanging our Kurdish allies out to dry.

But the biggest kind of sparring on that topic was really between [Tulsi] Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have served in the military. And Gabbard was calling out past actions that the US has done in the region as kind of causing what’s happening to the Kurds right now. We saw Buttigieg push back very harshly.

Sean Rameswaram

Is it wrong that while these two are sort of going at each other, I was just marveling at the fact that, ‘Wow, we have a gay veteran and a female veteran, both running for president, both arguing about the merits of a foreign intervention’?

Li Zhou

That felt incredibly significant just to be able to see that exchange play out onstage.

Sean Rameswaram

There is also someone onstage who recently had a heart attack. How did that go over?

Li Zhou

Bernie came out and confronted it himself. He said, I think before the moderator was even able to ask the question, and I think she went on to confront him, as well as Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren pretty directly on this question of age. It’s something that’s felt like it’s been unspoken in the race up till now and that people have been kind of tentative about really confronting it. But I think it was good to have kind of a more frank discussion about it, given how much voters have indicated that they are concerned and interested in hearing more on the subject.

Sean Rameswaram

And obviously, this conversation centered on Sanders, Biden, and Warren. How did they handle it?

Li Zhou

Sanders looked really strong. And I think he responded to the question by saying, “Listen, I’m going to be throwing this massive campaign rally in Queens to further indicate how strong I am and how ready I am to take on this job.” Elizabeth Warren similarly made the case that she would …

Given how much energy she’s had in past rallies, that argument is something that she was able to pretty quickly latch on to. And then for Biden, I think something he’s been trying to do on the campaign trail is reframing his age as wisdom. And so he did that again yesterday where he talked about how he had the most experience of anyone onstage and that that’s a good thing and not something to be held against him.

Sean Rameswaram

And a little awkwardly, they pretty much transitioned from seniority on the stage to a conversation about tech. How did that go?

Li Zhou

That does kind of feel like a sharp shift. I think what we saw was that Elizabeth Warren really stood out as the leader on this topic, largely because she’s put out a comprehensive plan about breaking up big tech and has made this a major talking point for her campaign.

Sean Rameswaram

And as we’ve covered on the show, has a minor beef with Mark Zuckerberg.

Li Zhou

None of the other candidates onstage were quite as gung-ho as she is on the subject. I think a lot of people said what she was talking about, the fact that there are monopolies that are controlling too many platforms and that that’s bad for society is something we can all agree on. But nobody really endorsed her plan for breaking up big tech as wholeheartedly.

If you look at maybe five years ago, even the Democratic Party was very closely aligned with Silicon Valley. The progressive values that they shared were things that were commonalities between the two. And increasingly, you’re seeing Democrats go on the offensive against the industry. I think that’s the other thing that indicated just how much Elizabeth Warren has really become this kind of guiding-light frontrunner in the party and that multiple people throughout the night were trying to get her approval and get their support for issues that they wanted to champion.

Sean Rameswaram

Andrew Yang wasn’t going after Cory Booker or Senator Klobuchar on their policies about tech. Much more of the attention was focused on Elizabeth Warren last night than we’ve ever seen before.

Li Zhou

That’s very telling about where she stands right now.

Sean Rameswaram

It was pretty clear that Elizabeth Warren was getting the attention that in previous debates had been reserved for Vice President Biden. I mean, this time you had people even defending Biden. Meanwhile, you had people all up and down the stage going after Warren.

Li Zhou

At one point. Joe Biden makes the case that he’s the only one onstage of all 12 candidates who’s accomplished anything. And Elizabeth Warren was absolutely not having it. So she talked a bit about establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she was central to coming up with as an idea and ultimately implementing.

What we saw from there was that Biden argued that he was at the time helping. And she pretty quickly turned on him. She went on to say she really appreciated everything that everyone involved did, but she never really called him out by name.

Sean Rameswaram

Thanks, Obama.

Li Zhou

Biden started laughing, which I actually don’t blame him for.

Sean Rameswaram

It’s nice to see that Biden smile because you could see it from New York, even though he was smiling in Ohio.

Li Zhou

It’s very bright.

Sean Rameswaram

Is this what the race is going to look like now for the next few months at least? Is it everyone seeing Elizabeth Warren as a frontrunner and thus going after her policies and trying to get her to commit to various policies as well?

Li Zhou

It’s still really early to figure out how long this dynamic is going to last. But when you look at the polls, I mean, Biden and Warren are pretty much the top two. And they’ve pulled a bit away from Sanders at this point and generally have just been trading off the lead between each other. So I think if Warren continues to see the momentum she’s seeing now, that’s definitely going to be the case.

Sean Rameswaram

What does this race mean now that the candidates see Elizabeth Warren as the frontrunner? How exactly did she get here?

Ezra Klein

So she got here a couple ways. One is just by being an extremely impressive candidate and I think it’s easy to forget that her rollout was a bit of a disaster. Right after she announced her campaign or right around that time, she came out with this video about the DNA testing and it got a ton of backlash from Native American tribes. And people said she was responding to Trump poorly. And she was kind of stuck in the polls for a while.

Sean Rameswaram

And for people who don’t remember, this is because Trump was claiming that she wrongly claimed to have Native American ancestry and she was kind of trying to defend it, but tactfully.

Ezra Klein

Yes. And so what she then did, which was really, really, I think, an impressive show of political focus, is that instead of getting fully wrapped up in that psychodrama, she just beared down and began releasing plan after plan after plan. And she was good at explaining them. And she’s an incredibly talented policy communicator, always has been. And she just began inching up. And then just slowly through the entire campaign, she’s just been gaining ground and nobody else really has.

Sean Rameswaram

I mean, we know from everything that’s going on right now in this impeachment inquiry that Donald Trump wanted to ruin Joe Biden’s candidacy. Do we know, apart from “Pocahontas” and easy digs, how he feels about running against Elizabeth Warren?

Ezra Klein

Let’s say first, Donald Trump is going to want to ruin any Democrat’s candidacy, and he’s going to have an attack line on all of them. The thing about Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren is Trump has clearly been annoyed by Warren for a long time. She gets under his skin in a way a lot of the other Democrats don’t. And he’s taken on this Pocahontas attack on her for a very, very long time. And he’s said in a number of rallies, “Oh, I hit her too hard, too early, and now she’s out.” And I think he believes that he’s got sort of a knockout attack on her, whereas I’m not sure that’s true. I actually think that over time that has really, really lost a lot of its power.

I actually want to reverse this, though, and say I think an important thing to look at is what the candidates’ attacks on Donald Trump will be. And there, I think, Elizabeth Warren actually has a quite different line on what is wrong with Donald Trump than the other candidates on that stage do.

Sean Rameswaram

And what’s that?

Ezra Klein

So there’s always been an argument inside the Democratic primary about what is the campaign to run against Donald Trump. Joe Biden’s version of the campaign to run against Donald Trump is Donald Trump is an affront to American values. He is an indecent man who disgraces America every moment he’s on the world stage. Which, like, you know what? That’s true. Bernie Sanders’s campaign against Donald Trump is that Donald Trump is a plutocrat and he’s screwing you over all the time.

Elizabeth Warren has a, like a relative of the Bernie Sanders case, but one that I think has actually come into much sharper focus, and will continue to. This was not hugely noticed at the time, but when she announced her candidacy, the first thing she did was she gave a huge speech on corruption. And this has been a thing for Warren going way, way back. The difference between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is Bernie Sanders — and he’s said this — is he’s not positively oriented toward capitalism. But Warren differs in that she says, “I’m a capitalist to my bones.” And what she believes is capitalism is great, but it has been corrupted. And Donald Trump is a symbol of that corruption.

And now that Donald Trump has moved a lot of attention to his corruption with the Ukraine scandal, I think that actually puts the primary very much on Warren’s turf, because she is of all, I think, the Democrats, the most experienced and most capable at making a kind of thoroughgoing argument about corruption. And Donald Trump has made it much clearer that by making this impeachment effort, the thing that is going to dominate the news well into 2020, that his corruption is going to be the thing Democrats need to be able to have a clear message on. And Warren is the one who has been developing that message for the longest time.

Sean Rameswaram

You hear a lot of people make the argument that, oh, Donald Trump’s going to destroy Elizabeth Warren. That’s why we need to support a moderate, a Biden, a Buttigieg, a Beto. Do you buy that argument?

Ezra Klein

There are electability pluses and minuses to a lot of the different candidates. And so Warren has developed an agenda that is very much to the left of the Democratic Party. And if that is the only thing you’re looking at and you’re just asking a pure electability question, then yes, some of the more moderate candidates are probably in a stronger position on that. But obviously, your policy agenda is not the only thing that decides your electability. Warren’s facility as a communicator and her, like, speed at which she’s able to communicate and synthesize positions in debates, in speeches, in the ongoing campaign, her ability to punch back is very important.

The thing that she is also very good at — which, by the way, Donald Trump, who put out a lot of very unpopular policy positions, was also very good at — is she uses policy not just as policy but to make a larger meta argument about herself. One of the meta arguments she’s making in the Democratic primary is she fights. Two, she doesn’t back down. She doesn’t compromise. She’s not a kind of like a weak Democrat. So you can expect that if Donald Trump throws a punch, she’s going to throw back. And three, that she’s laser-focused on corruption in the American economy and how that’s hurting and sort of the greed that that has enabled is hurting the middle, the working class, and the poor.

Sean Rameswaram

Bringing this back to how her campaign started, which was seemingly on a fumble, on a ham-fisted attempt to deal with Trump’s Pocahontas claim. It feels like she went from trying to deal with Trump poorly to dealing with fellow Democrats really well. Is there something about her competing with Democrats that will not properly prepare her to deal with Donald Trump? Are these two things really different? Because with Democrats, she’s competing on policy and electability, and with Donald Trump, he’s going to take the gloves off and play really dirty.

Ezra Klein

I would say that in general, Warren is able to do something that a lot of Democrats temperamentally have trouble doing: match Trump’s counterpunching in a way that gives her similar media space to him. Donald Trump launches a lot of very outrageous attacks against people. They are outrageous in a way that the media covers him very aggressively. The Pocahontas smear is a good example. That is a racist smear. But by being so offensive, it actually gets a lot of airtime. And he doesn’t care, by the way, if people think that occasionally they fall flat or it looks bad on him, he just keeps going.

Warren is in general able to do the same thing back to him. And Donald Trump has misfires but she’s actually very good at delivering hits in the way Donald Trump delivers them, in her own way. And you saw it even the other night. There was a CNN town hall around LGBT equality issues. She just shut the thing down in a way that she’s able to do a kind of counterpunching that has often been hard for Democrats with Trump.

In some ways, what I think is actually more important for her is a capacity to retain focus. The thing you cannot let Donald Trump do is set the agenda, day after day after day. And the thing that Warren proved was that at a time when there was a lot of nonsense that she could have ended up chasing around, she beared down on a single strategy and made it work.

That capacity to filter out the noise and focus in on your message, your signal, your approach—that’s valuable in a primary. It’s valuable in a general election campaign. And not incidentally, is valuable in a president where there’s a tremendous amount of noise and you have to come in every day and remain focused on what your priorities are and what your spaces of leverage are.


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