The Slatest

Democratic Debate Live Blog: Hustlin’ in Houston

The ten candidates seen on stage.
The Democratic candidates at Texas Southern University in Houston on Thursday.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday night in Houston, Democratic presidential primary frontrunners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren finally “faced off” in what turned out to be a debate that did not feature any memorable exchanges between the two candidates, but did deeply reinforce Biden’s role as a spirited advocate of middle-of-the-road progressivism who is occasionally going to give rambling answers that make no sense whatsoever. To see what else happened, peruse the record of Slate’s live blog below.

10:55 p.m.: And, as it turns out, those were in fact the candidates’ closing statements. In summary: Biden was pretty good for a while, but then gave a few very wandering answers late; Sanders and Warren performed competently but don’t seem to have had crazy viral breakout type moments; everyone else was, in fact, fine as well, particularly Cory Booker again. Enjoy the post-debate punditry!

10:40 p.m.: Stephanopoulos asked a question about how each candidate has dealt with setbacks in their professional life, which, in an interesting meta-commentary on American politics, and perhaps on American Democratic politics, they’ve all turned into a kind of “why I’m running for president” closing statement involving challenges they’ve faced and overcome in their personal lives.

10:17 p.m.: Biden’s answer on the legacy of racism in America was … it did not have … I have no idea what Joe Biden just said or was trying to say, and it somehow went on for what seemed like an hour.

10:11 p.m.: Everyone’s for paying and respecting teachers more, and no one is sticking up for standardized testing or charter schools, which is certainly not what you’d have seen in a Democratic debate 10 or 20 years ago.

9:56 p.m.: Right after I wrote that the candidates were not in a position to differentiate themselves, Joe Biden walked into a self-placed trap by transitioning from the subject of Afghanistan into a not-entirely-coherent defense of his record on Iraq. At one point he said, “I said something that was not meant the way I said it.” Joe?

9:51 p.m.: ABC is doing a nicely dutiful job at this point of covering a variety of important topics—free trade, Afghanistan withdrawal—and giving time to each candidate … which unfortunately has the effect of making this part of debate kind of boring and not all that useful, because most of the candidates have more or less the same view, broadly speaking, on most issues. To differentiate themselves, they’d have to get more time to discuss each topic and to challenge each other, but such time is not available because there are so many of them. Which speaks, overall, to the farcical nature of having a presidential campaign so long that we’re on our third round of debates featuring a double-digit number of candidates when voting still doesn’t start for more than three months.

9:38 p.m.: Kamala Harris gave an answer about trade that culminated in a riff about Trump being the “small dude” behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Then she laughed for a while. She’s having a great time out there!

9:28 p.m.: Commercial break, as we’re about halfway through. I’m going to tentatively say the debate’s been “won” by Biden thusfar: He’s been relatively sharp and animated while espousing middle-of-the-party-sweet-spot views in response to the various attacks he’s taken and during his initial turn criticizing Sanders and Warren. Meanwhile, Sanders and Warren have been fine, but haven’t said anything exceptionally eloquent or memorable. And none of the other people on stage are, at this point, threats to win the nomination.

9:15 p.m.: Biden is getting pushed by both Castro and moderator Jorge Ramos about going along with the large number of deportations in Obama’s first term; his response is to try to talk instead about having an immigration policy that’s more humane than Donald Trump’s.

9:10 p.m.: Cory Booker just gave a good, impassioned answer about the urgency of dealing with gun violence regardless of Republican cooperation. He’s given good answers at all the debates! Someone throw Cory Booker some polling support, maybe?

9:02 p.m.: Beto O’Rourke unapologetic about proposing mandatory assault weapon buybacks. “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

8:53 p.m.: In a shift of tone, ABC’s Linsey Davis is grilling the less progressive candidates on the stage on the subject of criminal justice reform—in particular, pressing ex-prosecutors Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar on their participation in practices that many Democrats now consider systematically racist. In contrast to the health care section, in which clear divisions were obvious, each candidate has gone out of her/his way to convey concern about the consequences of mass incarceration. Biden, of 1994 crime bill fame, went so far as to say no one should be in prison for a non-violent crime. (Maybe he meant non-violent drug crime? Update: Yes.)

8:46 p.m.: Still annoyed at Pete.

8:42 pm.: Pete Buttigieg jumps in to give a smarmy and annoying lecture to everyone else on stage, insisting that their earnest debate over the right way to implement universal health coverage was an ugly example of “why people hate politics,” or something. Can it, Pete.

8:40 p.m.: Everyone is getting riled up about health care! Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke attacked Biden’s incremental-expansion-of-Obamacare plan for leaving millions of people still uncovered; Biden countered with a point about automatic enrollment, and Castro responded by asking him if he’d “forgotten what you said two minutes ago” about having to opt-in. Yowza!

8:28 p.m.: Sanders and Warren both gave polished versions of their standard answer to Biden’s critique, which is that total amount spent on health care, including taxes and direct spending, will go down for most Americans under their plans. Biden, who seems pretty spirited tonight, contested vehemently that eliminating private insurance to shift to single payer is a bad idea; Sanders responded that it’s inane that America spends twice as much on health care per capita than Canada does, to which Biden said, gravely, “It’s America,” in a love-it-or-leave-it kind of way, which was a little weird.

8:19 p.m.: Stephanopoulos’s first question is to Biden, about whether Sanders and Warren are too extreme, which Biden obliges by suggesting that they haven’t explained how they’re going to pay for all the spending they propose.

8:16 p.m.: Bernie’s voice is pretty gravelly. Raw. Raw … to match his raw passion for democratic socialism.

8:10 p.m.: Andrew Yang announced that he’ll be giving away $1,000 a month—that’s the amount that every citizen would get under his Universal Basic Income plan—to ten families who win a lottery on his campaign website.

8:07 p.m.: Amy Klobuchar just said “Houston, we have a problem” in reference to, I guess, Trump. She has to drop out now.

8:01 p.m.: Terrible news: George Stephanopoulos says the debate will be “civil.”

7:53 p.m.: It was “Deep-Fried Dill Pickles.” Vicki got it.

7:50 p.m.: The lead-in show for the debate in New York City is Wheel of Fortune: Teachers Week. Can you solve the puzzle?

A Wheel of Fortune clue: --E- -R-E- ---- -----E-
Wheel of Fortune