Democrats trade barbs on health care and immigration in third debate


Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke greets supporters Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, after a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

CINCINNATI, Oh. — The 10 leading Democratic candidates focused heavily on health care and gun control Thursday in the first debate where they have all been on the same stage.

There were also a few sharp jabs exchanged by candidates, in particular, when Julián Castro harshly accused Joe Biden of contradicting himself and questioned whether his memory was faltering. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago,” he asked. He later slammed Biden for embracing his role in the Obama administration only when it was convenient.

Although Biden was targeted the most during the debate for his policies, other candidates chastised Castro for his manner of questioning Biden.

“This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington,” Buttigieg chided Castro.”That’s called an election, Pete,” Castro retorted.

Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders engaged in a spirited debate about health insurance, which is high on the list of concerns of Democratic voters. Biden’s brought up cost. He pitted his $740 billion plan against the “Medicare for All” proposal backed by both Sanders and Warren, which costs a staggering $30 trillion over 10 years. Biden said that neither Sanders nor Warren have adequately explained how they’d pay for their plans.

Warren, when asked again whether middle-class taxes would be raised to pay for her plan, did not directly answer the question. Corporations and the nation’s wealthiest individuals would pay more, she claimed, and middle-class families would pay less. “That’s how this is going to work,” she added.

As far as Sanders was concerned, Biden had understated the cost of Medicare for All. “Status quo over 10 years will be $50 trillion,” declared the Vermont independent senator who “wrote the damn bill.” But Sanders’ vision of health care would “eliminate all out-of-pocket expenses, all deductibles, all co-payments.” And, he added, “Nobody in America will pay more than $200 a year for prescription drugs.”

Beto O’Rourke received some of the loudest cheers of the night when he fielded a question on gun control legislation. “Hell yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15s, your AK-47s,” he exclaimed.

The final question netted some of the most moving moments for the candidates when they asked about resiliency.

The Democratic debate as it happened:

1:35 a.m.: In the post-debate spin room, CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe pressed Julián Castro on his line of attack against Joe Biden, perhaps the most memorable exchange of the night. Castro had accused Biden of contradicting himself and wondered whether the former vice president’s memory was failing him in what appeared to many to be an attack on his age.

“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in,” Castro said to Biden. “You’re forgetting that.”

On stage, Pete Buttigieg scolded Castro. “This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington. “That’s called an election, Pete,” Castro retorted.

O’Keefe pointed out that some of Castro’s rivals’ campaigns called his attack “disqualifying” and a “low blow.”

“This wasn’t about personalities. This was about a difference in health care policy,” Castro argued. He explained that in Detroit, Kamala Harris had said Biden’s health care plan would leave 10 million uncovered, and Castro asserted that media fact checkers agreed.

“This was a conversation about why he’s denying saying that you would have to ‘buy in,'” Castro said. “If you lose your job, you would automatically ‘buy in” and “not everybody can buy into a plan,” he told O’Keefe.

Candidates in closing share what resilience means to them

11:00 p.m.: In the final question, the candidates were asked what professional setbacks had affected them the most.

After Biden was interrupted by protesters, he spoke about the personal loss of his first wife and daughter.

Warren shared how she, against the odds, completed her education in law school and her career as a teacher.

Sanders answered by saying he can take on the corporate elite.

Harris recounted how she faced naysayers as a female African American attorney general.

Buttigieg remembered wondering if coming out as gay would ruin his career, and how the people of South Bend, Indiana, overwhelmingly reelected him.

Booker spoke about when he took on the political establishment in Newark, an incident that was later turned into a documentary.

Yang recalled how the first business he started failed.

O’Rourke said everything he has learned about resilience, he learned from his hometown of El Paso. He told stories of the strength of the people of El Paso after last month’s mass shooting.

Klobuchar talked about her father’s struggle with alcoholism, and how she fought to extend hospital stays for mothers and babies after her daughter was born with physical challenges and she was kicked out of the hospital.

Castro said that when he was on the San Antonio City Council, he had to get a job at a law firm and a client wanted him to vote against a law firm. “So, one day, I walked into my law firm and I quit my job. And then I went and I voted against that land deal on the city council,” Castro said.

— Kathryn Watson

Biden interrupted by protesters just before he talks about deaths of family members

10:26 p.m.: During the final question, two and a half hours into the debate, Biden was interrupted by protesters. After the protesters were cleared from the audience, Biden soberly began discussing personal loss.

The question was about the greatest setbacks in candidates’ careers. Biden discussed the loss of his first wife and his daughter in a car accident soon after he was first elected to the Senate, and then of his son Beau from cancer in 2015.

— Grace Segers

Biden and Booker on how to end racism in America

10:14 p.m.: Biden, who gave a muddled answer on federal student busing in the first debate, was asked how he would deal with systemic racism in America. The former vice president said the country needs to make sure every young child goes to school, not daycare.

“Play the radio … make sure you have the record player on at night … make sure the kids hear words,” Biden said. Kids coming from lower-income homes, he suggested, need more exposure to spoken words to increase their chances at academic success. The dated reference to record players, though, prompted quick responses on social media.

Booker, too, was asked about segregation and school districts. The senator from New Jersey said he grew up in a disadvantaged area and has seen the anguish of parents whose children don’t have equal opportunities. In Newark, Booker said, the city raised teacher salaries and improved outcomes for students.

— Kathryn Watson

Candidates weigh in on education policy

10:07 p.m.: When Yang was questioned on his support for charter schools, he did not directly answer, responding, “I am pro-good school.”

Yang then pivoted to talking about his plans for improving early education, saying that it was necessary to pay teachers more and ensure that children have adequate care outside of school.

The moderator noted that Yang had once said that opposing charter schools was like “jumping into bed with teachers’ unions.”

When asked if she was jumping into bed with teachers’ unions, to use Yang’s words, Warren said she had a history as a public school teacher.

“I think I’m the only person on this stage who has been a public school teacher,” she said. “Money for public schools should stay in public schools.”

Sanders and Warren also brought up their support for canceling student loan debt.

— Grace Segers or Kathryn Watson

Candidates pressed on what they’d do to fight climate change

10:02 p.m.: Klobuchar explained what she would do on each day of her first week in office to attack climate change.

Warren said the U.S. needs to work on “every front” on climate change, because the planet is “running out of time.” The Massachusetts senator said the U.S. needs to attack the problem head on.

Harris accused Republicans of displaying a “lack of courage” on the issue. Climate change was created by human behavior, and humans can do something about it, Harris said. But Harris offered few specifics.

— Kathryn Watson

Booker is asked whether everyone should adopt his vegan diet

9:58 p.m.: Moderator Jorge Ramos asked Booker whether it would be helpful for all Americans to adopt the senator’s famous vegan diet to help combat climate change.

“I want to say ‘no.’ I actually want to translate that into Spanish: ‘No,'” Booker said, to laughs. He said the environmental effects could be combated through regulation, not through mass adoption of veganism.

 Grace Segers

Sanders pressed on differences between his brand of socialism and that of Venezuela

9:54 p.m.: Sanders, who identifies himself as a democratic socialist, was asked how his brand of socialism differs from that of Venezuela and Nicaragua. Sanders insisted the leaders of Venezuela and Nicaragua are dictators.

“To equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair,” Sanders responded.

The senator from Vermont said he prefers systems similar to those in Canada or Scandinavian countries. His idea of democratic socialism, Sanders said, guarantees citizens benefits like universal health care.

— Kathryn Watson

Speaking time per candidate at debate midway point

9:50 p.m.: As of the midway point, Joe Biden had the most speaking time so far — and the most questions and rebuttals. Here is a breakdown of the speaking times so far:

Candidates’ speaking time

  • Joe Biden 9:13
  • Kamala Harris 5:50
  • Elizabeth Warren 6:50
  • Cory Booker 6:46
  • Beto O’Rourke 5:19
  • Bernie Sanders 4:57
  • Amy Klobuchar 4:33
  • Julian Castro 4:09
  • Pete Buttigieg 4:00
  • Andrew Yang 2:03


  • Joe Biden 4
  • Kamala Harris 3
  • Elizabeth Warren 3
  • Amy Klobuchar 3
  • Beto O’Rourke 3
  • Bernie Sanders 2
  • Pete Buttigieg 2
  • Cory Booker 2
  • Julian Castro 2
  • Andrew Yang 2


  • Joe Biden 4
  • Elizabeth Warren 3
  • Bernie Sanders 3
  • Cory Booker 3
  • Pete Buttigieg 1
  • Beto O’Rourke 1
  • Julian Castro 1
  • Amy Klobuchar 0
  • Kamala Harris 0
  • Andrew Yang 0

— Caroline Linton

Biden defends failure to pull troops from Afghanistan and Iraq

9:49 p.m.: When asked about the Obama administration’s failure to bring home troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the campaign promises, Biden said he was opposed to the surge of troops in Iraq while he was vice president.

He also said that it was possible to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“We don’t need those troops there. I would bring them home,” Biden said of troops currently stationed in Afghanistan.

However, Biden did say he regretted voting to approve the Iraq War.

“I should have never voted to give Bush the authority to go in and do what he said he was going to do,” Biden said.

Sanders then hit Biden for not knowing that the war in Iraq would be a long, protracted conflict.

“I never believed what Cheney and Bush said about Iraq,” said Sanders, who voted against the war. “I kind of had the feeling that there would be massive destabilization in that area.”

He also noted that he is “the only person up here to have voted against all three of Trump’s military budgets.”

The U.S. doesn’t have to spend $750 billion on the military when we don’t even know who the enemy is, Sanders added.

 Grace Segers

Candidates discuss how they’d deal with China

9:30 p.m.: In the first foreign policy question of the night, the moderators asked whether candidates would immediately repeal the tariffs against China implemented by President Trump. Yang said that he would not repeal the tariffs “on day one,” but would work with China to make a new deal.

“No to repealing the tariffs immediately, but yes to making sure we come to a deal,” Yang said.

Buttigieg, asked about relations with China, recalled how Mr. Trump once tried to mock him. “[He] said he’d like to see me making a deal with Xi Jinping. I’d like to see him making a deal with Xi Jinping,” Buttigieg quipped.

Klobuchar said Mr. Trump had “made a mockery” of foreign trade negotiations, and she warned, “If we’re not careful, he’s going to bankrupt this country.” She said she would go back to the negotiating table with China.

Warren, rather than allowing corporations to have an outsized influence in trade policy, said she would invite unions, human rights activists and environmental advocates to the table. “We can use trade not to undermine American workers … We can use trade to help build a stronger economy,” Warren said.

— Grace Segers and Kathryn Watson

Biden confronted on deportations during Obama administration

9:11 p.m.: Biden was asked about the three million undocumented immigrants deported during the Obama administration, and specifically whether he was willing to say he had made a mistake by not preventing those deportations.

“Comparing this president to [President Obama] is outrageous,” Biden said. He said that the Obama administration did not separate families at the border and praised him for implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“I’m proud to have served with him,” Biden said of Mr. Obama.

Biden deflected when asked again whether he was willing to say he made a mistake.

“The president did the best thing that was able to be done at the time,” Biden said. He added “I’m the vice president of the United States.”

Castro criticized Biden for the second time of the night, accusing the former vice president of only touting his time in the Obama administration when it was convenient for him.

“He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions,” Castro said.

“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years. Good, bad and indifferent. That’s where I stand,” Biden rejoined.

— Grace Segers

Sanders and Warren weigh in on eliminating the filibuster

9:09 p.m.: Warren, who has been a senator since 2012, noted she supports eliminating the filibuster rule. The Senate filibuster requires the support of 60 senators to move legislation forward. Dispensing with the filibuster would, in essence, mean that legislation could be passed in the Senate with a simple majority vote of 51 senators. If there are not 60 votes to support moving forward with a bill, it will fail. The filibuster, Warren suggested, is the reason for congressional inaction on guns.

“If we don’t roll back the filibuster, we’re not going to get anything done on guns,” Warren said.

Sanders, a senator since 2006, begged to differ, saying he does not support ending the filibuster.

— Kathryn Watson

O’Rourke on gun control: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15”

O’Rourke received one of the loudest cheers of the night when he said he supported taking assault weapons away from people.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow them to be used against Americans anymore,” O’Rourke said.

Biden praised O’Rourke for his empathetic response to the shooting in El Paso. Harris also praised him, saying, “Beto, God love you.”

Biden was asked by a moderator about how he could expect to lead on gun control legislation when the Obama administration failed to achieve meaningful legislation after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

“I’m the only one up here who’s ever beat the NRA,” Biden said, referring to his work getting the Brady Bill signed into law. The bill, passed while Biden was a senator in 1994, mandated federal background checks in the U.S.

Harris challenged Biden about whether some gun control measures could be enacted through an executive order.

“Instead of saying ‘No, we can’t,’ let’s say, ‘Yes, we can,'” Harris laughed, invoking President Obama’s inspirational 2008 campaign slogan.

— Grace Segers

Harris pressed on her prosecutorial record that’s affected people of color

8:46 p.m.: Harris was pressed by one of the moderators on her record as a former prosecutor who was tough on drug crimes. The moderator asked Harris why she didn’t start changing the system when she had the power to.

“There have been many distortions,” Harris said of her record.

Harris argued she did attempt to change the system from the inside. Harris emphasized the need to end for-profit prisons, end solitary confinement, and vowed she would accomplish that and more as president.

Klobuchar also had to defend her record as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota, after the moderator asked about the number of black men shot by police during her tenure.

Klobuchar said she “took a stand to make sure outside investigators” handled these cases. She also talked about her efforts to find justice for young black children who were shot and killed during her time as a prosecutor.

Booker noted that he helped with the bipartisan criminal justice bill that passed and the president signed.

— Kathryn Watson

O’Rourke says he would sign a slavery reparations bill into law

8:42 p.m.: When asked about the problem of racism in the country, O’Rourke said racism was “endemic” and “foundational.” He said the true founding of the country was in August 1619, when the first enslaved African was taken to America against his will.

O’Rourke said he would sign a bill into law to instate reparations for descendants of slaves, mentioning legislation introduced by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. Jackson Lee has introduced a bill that would study reparations, but not implement them.

O’Rourke also explicitly targeted Mr. Trump, calling him a “white supremacist” who presents a “mortal threat” to people of color.

Booker responded to O’Rourke by saying that while the president was racist, “there is no red badge of courage for calling him that.”

— Grace Segers

Castro slams Biden over forgetfulness and gets scolded by fellow Democrats on stage

8:36 p.m.: When Castro and Biden got into a heated exchange over health care, Castro suggested repeatedly that Biden had forgotten what he’d just said. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago,” Castro asked, clearly a jab meant to highlight Biden’s gaffes that critics have attributed to his age.

When Castro did not back down, other Democrats said he’d taken things too far.

“This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington,” Buttigieg chided Castro.

“That’s called an election, Pete,” Castro replied.

Booker chimed in, too. “We’ve got one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president,” the New Jersey senator said.

— Grace Segers and Kathryn Watson

Sanders hits Biden on bankruptcy rates for cancer patients

8:35 p.m.: After being challenged by Biden for the cost of his plan, Sanders said “500,000 Americans are going bankrupt” because of the cost of treating cancer and other diseases. “You’ve got to defend the fact that 500,000 Americans are going bankrupt,” Sanders said.

“I know a lot about cancer and let me tell you something: it’s personal,” replied Biden. Biden’s son Beau died of cancer in 2015. “They will not go bankrupt because of that.”

He hit Sanders’ plan as being too aspirational, saying, “people need help now, hope now, and do something now.”

— Grace Segers

Sanders may have written the bill, but “I read the bill,” Klobuchar says

8:25 p.m.: Klobuchar said that although Sanders may have written the Medicare for all bill, she actually read the bill. On page 8, Klobuchar noted, “it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it.” Millions of Americans will lose their own private health insurance, she said.

That put Sanders and Warren on defense. Sanders said Americans are already losing their health care insurance. Buttigieg said he trusts Americans to know what health care insurance is best for them.

“I trust you to choose what makes the most sense for you, not my way or the highway,” the Indiana mayor said.

— Kathryn Watson

Biden hits Warren, Sanders on Medicare for all

8:18 p.m.: The first question of the debate was to Joe Biden, with moderator George Stephanopoulos asking Biden about Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ plans to implement “Medicare for all.”

“The senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack,” Biden said about Warren’s support for Medicare for all, alluding to an earlier debate, when Warren said she completely agreed with Sanders on Medicare for all.

Warren praised Obama before pivoting to promoting her own plan.

“We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America,” Warren said, to applause. “Those at the very top…are going to pay more. And middle-class families are going to pay less.”

When asked if middle-class taxes will go up to pay for Medicare for all, Warren demurred. “What we’re talking about here is what’s going to happen in families’ pockets,” she said. She said costs would go down, but did not explicitly say whether taxes would go up.

For his part, Sanders repeated a popular line from an earlier debate, saying of Medicare for all that he “wrote the damn bill.” He also claimed that insurance companies would be advertising against Medicare for all on ABC during the debate.

Biden hit back against Warren, accusing her of not being honest about the cost of Medicare for all for the middle class.

“This is about candor, honesty, big ideas,” Biden said. “That’s not a bad idea if you don’t like it. I don’t like it.”

— Grace Segers

Candidates deliver opening statements, as Andrew Yang announces free money

8:18 p.m.: Julian Castro kicked off opening statements with a greeting in both English and Spanish. “There will be life after Donald Trump,” Castro said, calling for a “bold vision.”

Amy Klobuchar opened by saying what divides the Democrats on stage is more important than what divides them.

“Houston, we have a problem,” she said, noting the president would “rather lie than lead.”

Beto O’Rourke began by speaking about the El Paso shooting. That day revealed how “dangerous” the president is, O’Rourke said. It also revealed how “insufficient” today’s Washington is to address the country’s real problems.

Cory Booker emphasized the need to “unite America in common cause and common purpose.”

The audience cheered Andrew Yang when his name was called. Yang, who is campaigning on giving every American $1,000 a year, announced he’ll be giving $1,000 a month for a year to 10 American families.

Kamala Harris opened by saying she has a few words for President Trump, accusing the president of spending the last two years trying to “sow hate and division among us.”

Bernie Sanders opened by saying the Democrats must and will defeat Mr. Trump.

Elizabeth Warren repeated a story she’s used many times before, about how she only made it in life because of her family.

Joe Biden said he will refuse to postpone curing cancer, universal pre-K, and addressing climate change, among other needs.

— Kathryn Watson

Yang promises to give $120,000 to 10 families over the next year

8:05 p.m.: In his opening statement, Yang promised to do something “unprecedented”: Advertising his plan to give every American $1,000 a year if elected, he announced he’ll be giving $1,000 a month for a year to 10 American families –$120,000 in total.

Yang’s announcement was met with loud cheers from the audience, and with bemused laughter from other candidates on stage.

“It’s original, I’ll give you that,” Buttigieg, whose opening statement followed Yang’s, noted wryly.

— Grace Segers

Texas is “firmly in play” says O’Rourke’s campaign manager

7:48 p.m. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign manager thinks that Texas could go blue in 2020, she told CBS News’ Caitlin Huey-Burns before the debate.

“This idea that Texas is not in play, or it’s not in play in the general election, is not true,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon. “We believe it is firmly in play, and Beto is the best candidate to get the 38 electoral votes in the general election.”

Dillon also talked about O’Rourke’s advocacy of gun control in the wake of a spate of mass shootings, including one in his hometown of El Paso last month.

“I think that Democrats, independents, all voters are looking for their leaders to stand up on this. For us, we believe this a critical issue. We don’t have to wait until Donald Trump is defeated. We can actually do something about it now,” she said.

 Grace Segers

How did the candidates qualify for the debate?

Candidates had to reach at least 2% support in at least four polls, which could be national polls or polls in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada. Candidates also had to receive donations from at least 130,000 unique donors, with 400 donors per state in at least 20 states.

The Democratic National Committee will hold its fourth primary debate on October 15 and 16 in Ohio. Since more than 10 candidates have qualified for the October debate, the debate will take place over two nights.

Campaigns will have until 11:59 p.m. ET on October 1 to meet donor and polling thresholds to qualify. The thresholds are the same as those for tonight’s debate, meaning that a candidate who did not meet the requirements for the September debate can still make it onto the debate stage in October .

Trump thinks Democratic primary race is between Warren, Biden and Sanders

President Trump put on his political pundit hat hours before the third Democratic presidential debate in Houston and said he thinks the crowded Democratic primary race is now a three-person contest between Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Before heading to Baltimore to attend a retreat for House Republicans, the president told reporters at the White House that he doesn’t expect much to change after the debate, since a top tier has already emerged.

“I don’t expect too much difference,” he told reporters on the White House south lawn when asked about Thursday’s debate. “I mean you have three people that are leading. I sort of think that those three people are going take it to the end it’s going to be one of those three.”

Asked about the candidate he believes can mount the most formidable challenge to his reelection bid, Mr. Trump largely demurred, offering an unusual diplomatic answer.

“They all have their weaknesses and their strengths,” he said, before reiterating that he expects to face either Warren, Biden or Sanders in the general election.

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