On Tuesday, Oct. 15, a record 12 presidential candidates (the most in any presidential debate in history thus far, according to CNBC) faced off on one very crowded stage in Westerville, Ohio for the fourth Democratic debate. Current party front-runners like former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders voiced their differences on key issues like gun control, foreign policy, and health care — and the discussion got pretty heated during the three-hour debate.
The party’s history-making fourth debate was the first to come on the heels of President Trump’s controversial decision to pull U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, as well as the launching of an impeachment inquiry into the president, and these events definitely set the tone for their discourse. The debate began with all 12 candidates putting on a united front for their party’s decision to start impeachment inquiry proceedings against the president and turned the focus to attacking the incumbent’s foreign policy strategy and track record on big business.
Surprisingly, big Democrat ticket items like housing, immigration, and climate change (though a few candidates briefly mentioned the topic) were noticeably absent during the debate’s agenda, which instead focused on the economy, foreign policy, and randomly enough, Ellen DeGeneres’ controversial friendship with former President George W. Bush.
From Biden’s official statement about his son’s involvement in Ukraine to Buttigieg and O’Rourke’s tense exchange over gun control reform, here are the five biggest takeaways from the fourth Democratic debate:
1. Warren continued to pull ahead after weathering sustained attacks from her fellow Democrats
Warren seemed to cement her lead as a Democratic front-runner during the debate, which saw her fend off a number of attacks from her peers while touting a more progressive agenda akin to that of Sanders. Warren’s numbers in the polls continued to show her pulling ahead of the other contenders, according to the Washington Post. Sanders, who had just returned from having a heart attack, also put on a strong showing, as did South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, although the latter’s poll numbers show she’s unlikely to qualify for the fifth Democratic debate. Meanwhile, fellow front-runner Biden’s numbers dropped in the polls, while Sen. Kamala Harris and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke also had poor showings.
2. Warren came under fire for her middle-class tax hikes and proposed “wealth tax”
While Sanders’ Medicare for All healthcare plan (which would swap out private insurance for a government-run plan) was one of the key topics during the party’s September debate, it was brought up once again on Tuesday night. Warren — who has said she supports “Medicare for All,” but refuses to acknowledge whether her plan would raise the middle class’s taxes — went on the defensive as Klobuchar and Buttigieg criticized her lack of transparency.
“Your signature is to have a plan for everything, except this. No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion dollar hole in this plan that Sen. Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in,” Buttigieg said, per Vox, echoing other candidates’ questions about how she planned to pay for the plan.
Meanwhile, O’Rourke labeled Warren’s policies sometimes “punitive” as she opened up about the need for a tax on the wealthy.
3. Biden briefly addressed his son Hunter’s involvement in Ukraine
During the debate Biden, who’s been the Democrats’ presidential front-runner during the start of the race, publicly spoke on his son Hunter Biden’s involvement in Ukraine. The former Vice President cleared the air about Hunter’s actions while sitting on the board of a Ukrainian company, saying, “My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”
He then turned the focus to President Trump, saying, “I carried out the policy of the United States government of rooting out corruption in Ukraine. What I think is important is we focus on why it’s so important to remove this man from office.”
4. Buttigieg and O’Rourke took shots at each other over gun control
While the Democratic candidates were generally united around their desire to implement gun control reform, one of the most tense exchanges of the night centered around Buttigieg and O’Rourke’s differing opinions on the latter’s proposed mandatory gun buyback proposal. Buttigieg, who has said that the plan could hurt Democrats’ attempts to win over moderate voters, said “I don’t need lessons from you on courage” and O’Rourke called the mayor’s critique a “slap in the face…to those who have survived gun violence, those who’ve lost a loved one to an AR-15, an AK-47.”
5. Climate change and immigration were brushed over
While organizers came under fire for not including questions about climate change during the September debate, they again passed over the topic on Tuesday. Instead, moderator Anderson Cooper closed out by asking contenders about a friendship that they’d cultivated that would surprise outsiders in the spirit of Ellen DeGeneres and former President George W. Bush’s relationship, which has recently come under fire — and people weren’t happy about it.
Former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and presidential contender Julian Castro’s tweet about Ellen DeGeneres criticized organizers for failing to cover more heavy-hitting topics at the expense of a fluff question.
“Three hours and no questions tonight about climate, housing, or immigration,” he tweeted shortly after the debate. “Climate change is an existential threat. America has a housing crisis. Children are still in cages at our border. But you know, Ellen. #DemocraticDebate.”
With the next Democratic debate scheduled to fall on Nov. 20, viewers can expect to see the field start to tighten and clear front-runners emerge. Current leaders Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders will likely get more air time and give voters a better idea of the Democrats’ platform leading up to the 2020 election.