After a pair of crowded, multi-part Democratic debates that featured way too much of former Maryland congressman John Delaney, Thursday's ten-person affair felt decidedly less hectic and more focused. For the first time in the 2020 presidential primary, voters could watch the race's entire top tier—former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren—make their pitches from the same stage at the same time.
It didn't take long for the trio to get into it. Immediately after candidates finished with opening statements, Biden, Sanders, and Warren spent nearly ten uninterrupted minutes on their competing visions for health care reform: Biden and his plan to build on Obamacare in one corner, and Warren and Sanders and Medicare for All in the other. Biden, especially, seemed to have a keen understanding that this showdown was overdue. "I know that the senator says she's for Bernie," Biden said, referring to Warren's support for Sanders's proposal. "Well, I'm for Barack. I think Obamacare worked."
Biden proceeded to tout two main features of his approach, one substantive and one pragmatic: His health care plan would add a public option to the Affordable Care Act, and would not be as expensive as Sanders's and Warren's more ambitious alternative, he said. "Go down the line, and these are things we're talking about," he added. "I lay out how I can pay for it, how I can get it done, and why it's better." This was as much a statement about health care policy as it was about the candidates' dueling governing philosophies. Biden’s message is that his opponents do not adequately lay out how to pay for their preferred alternatives, and that their preferred alternatives are therefore not better.
Warren and Sanders, as you might imagine, were just as eager to have this argument, particularly since 65 percent of Democratic voters say they're more likely to support a Medicare for All candidate than one who favors a more incremental approach. Warren reiterated her intent to fund a single-payer system by hiking taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, lowering costs for middle-class families while allowing them to obtain the care they need. Sanders, meanwhile, countered that even if Medicare for All costs around $30 trillion over the next ten years, maintaining the status quo could come with a $50 trillion price tag. Again, the two progressives made both a substantive and a pragmatic case for Medicare for All: that Medicare for All will save lives, and that given the alternative of paying $20 trillion more, the country cannot afford not to implement it.
Moderator George Stephanopoulos pressed Warren on whether her plan would entail eliminating private insurance and increasing taxes on middle-class families—issues of dubious relevance if coverage is universal, and, as Warren noted, if one's actual costs go down once they aren't paying premiums, deductibles, or co-pays anymore. (When asked a similar question during a previous debate, Sanders criticized CNN host Jake Tapper for repeating a "Republican talking point.") And although Sanders has outlined many revenue-generating proposals to reduce single-payer sticker-shock, a nationally-televised debate featuring seven other candidates competing for airtime was not an ideal forum for going through them in detail. Those who tuned in hoping to learn specifics about how paying for Medicare for All would work likely went to bed disappointed.
Even so, at a time when 78 percent of Democrats—and 52 percent of Americans regardless of political affiliation—believe the federal government is responsible for making sure everyone has health care coverage, voters needed an opportunity to compare their party's standard-bearers on an apples-to-apples basis. At the very least, it dispensed with the need for Warren and Sanders to engage in bizarre proxy fights with the likes of Delaney, who shares Biden's moderate bona fides but not Biden's chances of winning anything in 2020. It also avoided an encore of the July debate's other half, when Biden found himself in the awkward position of attacking Medicare for All without the race's two chief proponents of Medicare for All anywhere in sight. (Since the Democratic National Committee could revive the dreaded two-night, split-roster format for the October debate thanks to the improbable qualification of billionaire Trump impeachment enthusiast Tom Steyer, unless someone drops in the interim, it might be some time before everyone gets together like this again.)
The remaining two-plus hours included more participants and more areas of general consensus. Candidates stumped for different gun safety reforms, for example, but were unanimous in their belief that gun safety reforms are in order. Multiple White House hopefuls heaped praise on former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, whose district included El Paso, for helping his hometown to heal in the aftermath of last month's racially-motivated shooting. O'Rourke might have earned the night's loudest applause for reiterating his calls for a mandatory assault weapons buyback. "Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," he said. "We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore."
As the broader health care conversation wound down, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg interrupted a tense exchange between Biden and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro with a standard-issue riff bemoaning the evils of intra-party bickering. "This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable," he said. "This reminds everybody of what they cannot standing about Washington—scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other—'my plan, your plan.'" The sentiment sounds nice enough.
But this time, Castro just laughed. "Yeah, that's called the Democratic primary election, Pete," he said. "That's an election. You know? This is what we're here for."
Party leaders still can’t decide how to describe their plan for holding the president accountable.
Originally Appeared on GQ