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Second Tier in Top Form at Democratic Debate

While most attention was focused on Biden, Warren, and Sanders, candidates at the ends of the stage brought big energy—and big ideas.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

Thursday’s Democratic debate was billed as a kind of battle royal. The first four nights of debates? They were preseason. Now, at long last, the ten leading candidates would appear on the same stage—and everything would again make sound-bite-sized sense in American politics. 

But even if the party is done with the two-night debate format—and even though the Democratic National Committee refused to designate, as the GOP did four years ago, a kids table—there was still an undercard and a main event Thursday. In the weeks leading up to the debate, a collision between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, who hadn’t yet appeared together on stage, was endlessly teased. The three front-runners—Biden, Warren, and Bernie Sanders—were also appearing together for the first time, which would, in theory, turn the event into a de facto debate over the future of the Democratic Party, as well. ABC’s moderators didn’t disappoint, pitting the three leading candidates against each other from the outset and returning to their various policy differences throughout the evening, hoping for fireworks. They got pyrotechnics a few times, but the most interesting moments in Thursday’s debates belonged to the rest of the field. 

To be fair, there is an element of desperation there. Although they trail Biden, Warren and Sanders aren’t, at this stage in the race, fighting for their political lives. Everyone else is, and that inspires an energy all its own. While Warren had her panoply of plans, and Sanders remained reliably on message about his vision for big change, some of the most interesting moments, both in terms of politics and policy, came from the seven other candidates on stage. 

Beto O’Rourke, playing on his home turf—or at least in his home state—was arguably the night’s most compelling comeback story. The former representative from El Paso has spent the last two months in an unexpected place (at least for him and his supporters): well back of the pack. Polling in the single digits, O’Rourke ventured, for the first time in his political career, into risky territory. In the wake of the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, the candidate has taken strong positions on gun violence, including mandatory buybacks for assault style weapons. On Thursday, he continued to embrace his buyback proposal, practically inviting the “gun confiscation” hyperventilation it will inevitably engender. It was, of course, by design. His campaign tweeted out “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” shortly after O’Rourke uttered the words to the television audience. Tee shirts with the words emblazoned in red, white, and blue followed shortly thereafter. 

Preprinted merch and rehearsed rollout aside, it was a bold answer. “I want to be really clear that that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” O’Rourke said. “Americans who own AR-15s and AK-47s will have to sell them to the government.” Many other Democrats spoke eloquently about the scourge of gun violence, but O’Rourke—who earlier in the day called on credit card companies and banks to stop processing sales of firearms made without a background check—was the only one with a hefty policy response. 

Most of the post-debate attention given to O’Rourke’s fellow Texan, Julián Castro, focused on the Obama administration Housing secretary’s attempted takedown of Joe Biden. While the cable news view is that a thinly veiled attack on the former vice president’s age is wholly out of bounds, given Biden’s age and frequent incoherence on the debate stage, it’s an increasingly fair challenge. Castro’s willingness to play attack dog could be a benefit in and of itself, but his real virtue is his immigration policy. “I was the first candidate in early April to put forward an immigration plan. You know why? Because I’m not afraid of Donald Trump on this issue. I’m not going to backpedal. I’m not going to pretend like I don’t have my own vision for immigration,” Castro said. Biden didn’t take the bait when Castro went after the Obama administration’s abysmal record on immigrant deportations. That may have spoiled Castro’s attempt at a second viral moment on border issues, but he has still spent most of the primary pushing the leading candidates on immigration policy, and that alone is a valuable contribution. 

Results for the rest of the Democrats in the Houston debate were decidedly more mixed. Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg seemed content to draft off the front three, holding steady in the fourth and fifth spots current polling places them. Harris laughed easily (though often at her own jokes); Buttigieg seemed out of step almost from the start, apparently unsettled after Andrew Yang announced a $120,000 list-building raffle in his opening statement. Yang remains an awkward figure in the context of American politics, but the point of his campaign isn’t really about fitting in. Instead, the wealthy venture capitalist and his supporters hope to elevate interest in the idea of universal basic income—and Yang certainly did that by announcing an extension of his UBI pilot program in the opening minutes of the debate. Cory Booker has been Mr. Consistent across the three debates, delivering solid answers on multiple topics, and being particularly resonant on questions of racial justice. But he refuses to attack the other people on the stage (Is he hoping for a brokered convention? Is he keeping his V.P. hopes alive?), and that means he fades, more often than not, into the background. The fact that few people are talking about Amy Klobuchar today might be the best of possible reactions to her debate performance. 

Still, the most interesting parts of Thursday’s debates came from candidates polling in the low single-digits. The DNC, clearly trying to avoid what happened to Republicans in 2016, has aggressively tried to winnow the field early. But winnowing the field also has the effect of narrowing the debate. Pushing O’Rourke and Castro aside means pushing aside some of the best ideas on gun control and immigration policy. Rather than worrying about too many candidates or positions, Democrats should celebrate the diversity. Limiting the debates to the middle of the stage could also mean pushing the energy and excitement off to the side.