By Maritsa Tsioupra-Lewis

On September 12th in Houston, Texas, the third Democratic debate commenced. With too-many-to-count candidates originally running in the Democratic primary, the group was dwindled down to ten candidates who qualified for the third debate (they needed to meet both a polling and donor threshold). For the first time, all of the candidates would stand on one stage together, instead of being split over two nights of debating. In order of polling rank (according to NBC News) those on stage were former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Cory Booker, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke and former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro.

Here’s what I took away from the debate: Watching Joe Biden on the debate stage made me very uncomfortable, and I am not alone in feeling this way. What is interesting in this election cycle is how progressive the policies that are being proposed are. As such, watching Biden champion his moderate proposals and previous stances felt painful. For example, it is fascinating that, during the debate, defending Obama’s healthcare policy seemed wrongly conservative, when at the time that Obama was implementing it, the Affordable Care Act was extremely hard to pass even amongst Democrats in congress.

The second-hand embarrassment, was exacerbated when I instinctively used my hands to cover my face with dread as Biden was asked whether the mass deportation of immigrants during the Obama administration was a mistake. Somewhat predictably he gave a response that avoided actually answering the question. These attacks on Biden’s centrism only echo previous debates. A prime example being, during the second debate where Julian Castro painted Biden as somewhat cowardly for not being bold enough to propose decriminalising illegal immigration.

If the Republicans ran successfully on extreme conservatism, why can’t the Democrats win on a progressive message?

With the current state that American immigration policy is in, it’s perhaps shocking to hear such a progressive proposal as this. For a long time, American politicians and their voters have been too afraid to lean left in fear of being labelled a socialist (Bernie being someone who has been bold enough to consistently challenge this). It feels strange to see this mainstream shift in Democratic politics, but a nice one to experience. With this shift to progressivism, it is interesting that the most notable moments were focused around leftist proposals and candidates.

Many of these moments included candidates taking the chance to attack Joe Biden. For me, the ugliest moment of the debate was Julian Castro’s attack on Biden’s age. Age is a perfectly legitimate characteristic to judge how fit candidates are to hold the presidency, but Castro’s confrontation went a little too far. While debating healthcare, Castro (in my opinion, somewhat incorrectly) attacked Biden on his answer on whether those who can’t afford health insurance would be automatically enrolled in Medicare, repeatedly asking ‘are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?’ as Biden tried to explain himself. This certainly gave Castro the chance to dominate the stage, especially considering he was the last of 10 to qualify for this debate, but Castro came across as being too harsh about Biden’s age. Even Pete Buttigieg interjected that this type of attacking is what Americans hate about politics.

Though, not all of the notable moments from the Progressives came in the form of attacking Joe Biden (thankfully – I don’t think I could take anymore second-hand embarrassment). Elizabeth Warren, who is polling second with 25% (NBC News) spoke confidently throughout the debate on her policies; for which she has gained great credibility and respect for being so extensive with her policy plans. She performed particularly well when discussing education, and used her story as a teacher to hammer home her argument.

Another stand-out-moment was Beto O’Rourke’s emotive and powerful response on gun control in the face of the recent mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. In his answer, O’Rourke stated ‘Hell yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15, your AK-47’, adeclaration that goes further than just proposing moderate gun control. But all of this focus on left-leaning ideas begs the question, is America ready for a progressive candidate? Would it even be possible for a Bernie Sanders to beat a Joe Biden in a Democratic primary? It must be remembered that Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary with moderate policies in 2016, yet lost the election. Not only did she lose the election (we can argue about the problems of the Electoral College system another time…) but she lost to a man with far-right policies. Trump’s election and the surge of right-wing extremism suggests that moderation is not always the key to electability.

If the Republicans ran successfully on extreme conservatism, why can’t the Democrats win on a progressive message? I’d like to have an answer to this, but as an unqualified 19-year-old non-American who is trying her best to understand the ins and outs of American politics, I’ll leave that question open ended.

Image credit: Obama White House Archives

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