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Shining Moments And Cheap Stunts At The 3rd Democratic Presidential Debate


Last night's Democratic presidential debate in Houston was always going to be different from the ones we've already watched. For one thing, only 10 candidates made the cut, which meant just one debate. Some things were the same, though, like ABC leaning into the fact that this Democratic field is the most diverse in age, race and gender.


JORGE RAMOS: We appreciate the opportunity to welcome Latinos across the country and to ask about Latinx issues.

LINSEY DAVIS: We are delighted to be on the beautiful campus of Texas Southern University, one of the largest historically black colleges and universities in the country.

KELLY: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans was watching, as was political editor Domenico Montanaro, and they both have got some thoughts.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: So, Eric, I mean, this debate was different in some ways, the same in some others. I mean, what'd you think?

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Well, you know, it was long.


MONTANARO: Three hours - what are they doing?

DEGGANS: But, you know, what was interesting to me was how it started because I was a little worried. We had Andrew Yang come up.


ANDREW YANG: I'm going to do something unprecedented tonight.

DEGGANS: And his opening statement almost sounded like he was formulating his own lottery or game show.


YANG: My campaign will now give a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year to 10 American families.

DEGGANS: To him and maybe to his supporters, it sounded revolutionary. But to me and, I think, some of the people that I saw on social media, it felt a little cheap, like he was making this whole debate into a game show of some kind.

MONTANARO: Well, it's fascinating because the Democratic candidates on the stage also didn't treat it really seriously in the moment. Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor, just sort of side-eyed and dismissed what, you know, Yang's proposal was.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: It's original. I'll give you that.

MONTANARO: I mean, aside from that moment, this was actually a pretty substantive debate - none of the sort of WWE-like hype that we'd seen in some of the others.

DEGGANS: I agree. And what I thought was interesting was that ABC figured out a way to get the candidates to contrast themselves and their policy positions without looking like they were ginning up some kind of food fight. They were able to sort of say, you have X policy...


DAVIS: Vice President Biden, you have a plan to release many nonviolent drug offenders from prison.

DEGGANS: ...But so-and-so says that that won't work...


DAVIS: Senator Booker says that your plan is not ambitious enough. Your response?

DEGGANS: ...Can you explain yourself? Rather than trying to make the candidates criticize each other, they kept it about policy. I'm going to give my MVP award to Linsey Davis...


DEGGANS: ...Who I thought asked the toughest questions of the night, especially to Kamala Harris about her record as a prosecutor...


DAVIS: You used to oppose the legalization of marijuana; now you don't. You used to oppose outside investigations of police shootings; now you don't.

DEGGANS: ...And to Joe Biden about comments that he had made 40 years ago insisting that people should not be responsible for things that their ancestors did.


DAVIS: But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?

DEGGANS: I will say I thought it was a little odd to segregate the questions to have the black woman ask questions about race and to have Jorge Ramos from Univision ask the questions about immigration. And the questions were so good. I see why they did that. But it still sort of communicated this idea, I think, that race is about black people and immigration is about Latinos. And maybe they should've spread those questions around a little more.

MONTANARO: And politically, though, you know, the media narrative heading into the debate was all about Biden and Warren taking the stage together for the first time. Biden was far more aggressive than in previous debates. It was like he discovered Red Bull or something for - you know, you can take it, like, late at night. He, like, signaled that he was willing to go after Warren.


JOE BIDEN: I think we should have a debate on health care. I think I know that the senator says she's for Bernie. Well, I'm for Barack. I think the Obamacare worked.

MONTANARO: But Warren, amazingly, came away unscathed. And, you know, Biden sounded like he was going to go after Warren, but, really, it was about Bernie Sanders, as you can hear there. And Warren was happy to just kind of let Sanders be something of a heat shield, and that was something that seemed to sort of irritate Bernie Sanders because he was sort of a man on an island for a little bit. And he went after the organization itself putting on the debate.


BERNIE SANDERS: Tonight on ABC, the health care industry will be advertising, telling you how bad "Medicare for All" is because they want to protect their profits. That is absurd.

MONTANARO: He was getting irritated and decided to tear down the fourth wall and just talk to the audience rather than try to win over the moderators.

DEGGANS: I would say that I saw some pundits after the debate was over say that this was the most clearly revelatory debate, where we really saw the temperament of these candidates. And we also saw their policy positions laid out in a way that you could follow, that you could understand, and you could compare the many against each other. And it didn't feel like I had sat through a three-hour debate, although, you know, I was ready for it to be over when it ended.

MONTANARO: You know, and there's less than five months to go before the first votes are cast. And the next October debate, unfortunately, Eric, we've got to watch two because Tom Steyer, the billionaire venture capitalist - he qualified for the October debate already. So that means 11 candidates, means they're going to be broken up over two nights.

DEGGANS: Well, I'm going to have my Red Bull ready.

MONTANARO: Yeah, there you go.

DEGGANS: I'll be right in front of my keyboard and my TV watching. I'm sure you will be, too.

MONTANARO: Oh, yeah.

KELLY: Oh, yeah. That's NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro and NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans.


Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.