Full Episode: Recapping the September Democratic debate

Sep. 13, 2019 AT 9:26 p.m. EDT

After the latest debate between the Democratic presidential candidates in Houston Thursday, the panelists discussed the policy divisions and personality clashes that were on full display between the top 10 contenders. The conversation later turned to President Donald Trump’s recent ousting of national security adviser John Bolton.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: What a week. Thursday’s Democratic debate kicked off the post-summer political season, with former Vice President Joe Biden staking out centrist ground with his plan to add a public option to current healthcare law. But many of his challengers made a forceful case for an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) My plan for healthcare costs a lot of money. It costs $740 billion. It doesn’t cost $30 trillion, 3.4 trillion (dollars) a year. How are we going to pay for it?

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) How do we pay for it? We pay for it, those at the very top, the richest individuals and the biggest corporations are going to pay more, and middle-class families are going to pay less.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Every study done shows that Medicare for All is the most cost-effective approach to providing healthcare to every man, woman, and child in this country.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook; Anne Gearan, White House and foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post; Juana Summers, national political reporter for the Associated Press; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

Juana, you’ve been on the campaign trail covering the 2020 race. You think about that debate on Thursday. You had Medicare for All proponents versus those who want to tweak Obamacare. What does that tell us about the Democratic Party?

JUANA SUMMERS: I think it tells us quite a lot. One of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve been out on the campaign trail with these Democratic candidates and particularly talking to Democratic voters is when you ask them about this issue of healthcare, first of all, it’s the first thing that often comes up on people’s minds. But when you ask them about the details of Medicare for All they say, sure, they support Medicare for All. And then I start to ask them about the details, and it’s – they might not necessarily be full-bore where Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are. They might support some incremental measures too. So I think this is really going to be the defining issue of the Democratic Party for the next some-odd months until we hit the general – until we get through the general election. But it’s clear that voters are not necessarily fleeing to either extreme. I think most people seem to be – both from polling and anecdotally, they’re somewhere in the middle.

MR. COSTA: We saw Vice President Biden really embrace the Obama legacy of Obamacare, of that healthcare program. Is that enough? Is that his position?

ANNE GEARAN: Well, I think he went beyond that. He went directly at the big question, which is how in the world are – is this thing going to be funded, and he went directly to Bernie Sanders on that. And he made, I think, a – you know, that was one of his stronger points or stronger moments last night, was in making that point. He did it succinctly and he asked the question that immediately springs to mind once you get past, gee, that sounds nice, you know – well, having the government pay for it, that sounds lovely; what does that mean? How much money are we actually talking about? And I mean, that combined with this is the thing that – the signature thing that we did together in the White House helps remind Democrats who he is and why he’s up there again, so I thought that was effective.

MR. COSTA: Carl, you’re roaming the Senate hallways day in, day out, with your notebook in hand. You know Senator Warren. Despite all the details and the – and the different arguments that Anne just laid out, she sees energy on the left. She sees a spot.

CARL HULSE: No, I think that is true. That’s who they’re appealing to right now, and of course it creates the great problem: What do you do when you have to go back to the middle in the general election if she becomes the nominee? Every top Democratic strategist that I talked to says the polling shows this Medicare for All plan is really bad for them in certain places, and certainly certain places where they want to win Senate seats like Colorado, Arizona, Iowa. They just don’t see this working. Let’s remember how hard Obamacare was. They could not get a public option through Congress when they were in full control.

MR. COSTA: Do you think some Democratic Senate candidates next year, if Senator Warren’s the nominee, would break from their nominee?

MR. HULSE: Yes, totally. I think they’ve already broken. You hear them; they’re not going for Medicare for All. I think this issue, they just see it as a real detriment in the places that they have to win. I didn’t think her explanation of how this was going to be paid for was very good. It’s really hard to see, oh, the elite’s going to pay for it but the people in the middle are going to pay less. That’s just not how it works. And also, you just – the idea to a lot of Democrats that I talked to of so disrupting the private health insurance industry, they just think it’s bad. They just won a midterm election basically running on let’s fix Obamacare, let’s tinker with this, and now we’re going to throw that out the window and run on this big new program.

MR. COSTA: And when you’re talking to House Democrats, Jake, they’re focused on prescription drug reform. They’re not talking about Medicare for All. Why is there a disconnect between the Democratic presidential candidates and House Democrats?

JAKE SHERMAN: Because House Democrats, as Carl just said, won in districts – in suburban districts across the country. I just came back from North Carolina this week, where a Democrat lost, but in the suburbs of Charlotte, a district that was drawn for middle-of-the-road Republicans. The Democrat got 13 percent more – 13 percentage points higher than the Republican in the suburbs of Charlotte talking about fixing Obamacare, talking about the things in the middle of the party, not these pie-in-the-sky ideas that will never get passed with 80 votes in the Senate. I mean, I think what’s missing from these debates is someone saying, OK, thank you, I know you want to confiscate guns, I know you want to rewrite the healthcare laws; how are you going to do that? What configuration of Washington do you see – do you envision to rewrite the healthcare laws in such a drastic and meaningful way?

MR. COSTA: That’s part of the argument Vice President Biden has been making, and the tensions at the ABC News debate, however, were personal as well as political. Former Obama Housing Secretary Julian Castro wondered if the 76-year-old former VP was forgetting his own remarks.

FORMER HUD SECRETARY JULIAN CASTRO: (From video.) What you support, Vice President Biden, is that you’ll require them to opt in, and I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled. They wouldn’t have to buy in.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) They do not have to buy in.

FORMER HUD SECRETARY JULIAN CASTRO: (From video.) You just said that.


FORMER HUD SECRETARY JULIAN CASTRO: (From video.) You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.)They do not have to buy in if they can’t afford it. Your grandmother would not have to buy in.

FORMER HUD SECRETARY JULIAN CASTRO: (From video.) You said they would have to buy in.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If she qualified for Medicaid, she’d automatically be –

FORMER HUD SECRETARY JULIAN CASTRO: (From video.) Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?

MR. COSTA: But a review of the transcript shows Biden said, quote, “Anyone who can’t afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have.” When you talk to the Biden campaign and they think about these questions about his age that are alluded to in the debate, about his standing in the polls, are they walking away from the Houston debate confident, or they feel a little bruised?

MS. SUMMERS: It seems pretty clear to me that they feel like they came out on top, particularly as it comes to the clip that you just played. A couple things here. First of all, they point to the fact – the facts of the matter. When you look at the transcript, they believe it shows clearly that he said what was correct, he did not forget what he said two minutes ago, and that Castro was incorrect. Then there’s also the stylistic point. You heard immediately when Castro said this several of his rivals on the debate stage kind of spoke up and admonished him; other folks, top Democrats, have said that it wasn’t a good look stylistically. Now, the question is that – as I’ve heard from some other Democratic strategists is, if the Biden campaign is complaining about Julian Castro going after him on the debate stage, how is he going to handle the type of heat he’s going to get from Donald Trump, who will have a lot more to say than what we saw last night in Houston, frankly?

MR. COSTA: Anne?

MS. GEARAN: I think, I mean, there’s that old line about if you shoot at the king you best not miss. I mean, Biden is certainly not a king, but in this case if you shoot at the frontrunner you better have your facts straight, and –

MR. COSTA: So what’s the political cost for Secretary Castro?

MS. GEARAN: Oh, I think there is definitely a political cost for him. I mean, he ended up looking, A, factually incorrect, which is, you know, not a good look, but recoverable; and, B, like he was making an ad hominem attack on Biden’s memory and fitness, when in fact Biden had not made a mistake. I mean, there are plenty of things you can point out when you’re talking about Joe Biden. You know, he rambles, right? He does occasionally say stuff that’s just completely whackadoodle – as he did elsewhere in the debate, when somehow or other he started talking about Venezuela when the question was on reparations. But in this case, he’d been spot on and very clear in his original answer, and Castro was just mistaken.

MR. HULSE: I do think that – I’d heard from Biden allies during the debate. They immediately saw this and reached out and said, you know, this was bad for Castro. You heard the word “disqualifying,” that sort of thing. You know, I want to make a major point – a bigger point about this. Maybe I’m wrong. You know, that’s pretty in the weeds for this debate, whether you’re opting in or opting out, in a program that doesn’t really even exist yet. And I was just thinking, the Democrats aren’t talking the big picture things that I think people were expecting them. That was a very detailed – maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it was –

MR. SHERMAN: I think you hit the nail on the head, Carl, because I think in watching these debates – and this might get me in trouble – (laughs) – but I think in watching these debates you watch how they’re arguing over policy particulars that are so intricate. And you think about how Donald Trump would respond, which is: We’re going to do something great. Don’t worry about this. I got this. Don’t you have more money than you did four years ago? We’re going to do great healthcare. The Democrats don’t want you to have healthcare. And then it would – that’s kind of the end of the sentence. So the opt in/opt out argument is not an argument that Donald Trump is going to get into. (Laughs.) And I’m not saying it’s not an argument he should get into. It’s just we know Donald Trump and how he debates.

MR. COSTA: So these arguments can be in the weeds on healthcare and other policy. But when you think about what’s really happening, a younger generation taking on the older generation in the Democratic Party. Younger lawmakers, like Senator Klobuchar or mayors like South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, they’re all trying to break out as Vice President Biden continues to lead the polls. Did we see any of them break out, Juana?

MS. SUMMERS: So I think we – I mean, Julian Castro certainly got noticed. To Anne’s point, I’m not sure it was for the reasons he’d hoped. I think Beto O’Rourke actually did have something of a breakout moment. He has clearly picked an issue that is close to him, that he is passionate about.

MR. COSTA: Gun control?

MS. SUMMERS: On gun control. He stuck out that ground. The problem with his breakout moment is he may well be handing fodder to Republicans at a moment where, in Capitol Hill, they’re looking for compromise on the issue of gun legislation and trying to find something where Republicans and Democrats can agree. We heard Vice President Mike Pence referencing that speaking to House – or, speaking to Republicans in Baltimore. So he did have a breakout moment. I think many Democrats liked what they saw in terms of the passion and the commitment. But I’m not sure how it helps the party, writ large.

MR. COSTA: He was talking about a mandatory buyback of assault weapons.

MS. SUMMERS: Yeah. And a lot of – a lot of Democrats think that is too far, that’s overreaching, and it is giving Republicans an easy opportunity to paint the entire party as eager to take away people’s guns that they legally own.

MR. HULSE: Well, they’re grabbing onto that today, immediately.

MS. GEARAN: Absolutely, no, I mean, the Republican takeaway from the debate is, look at this, Democrats want to talk away your guns and they want to take away your healthcare. You know, that’s – (laughs) –

MR. COSTA: What about Senator Klobuchar?

MR. HULSE: You know, I thought she had a better – one of her better performances. She’s – but Biden is – what you’re saying. He’s taking up all that space. And that’s why Michael Bennet’s not in this debate, or Governor Bullock. He is occupying that space. Amy Klobuchar had a good debate. Made a lot of sense with the things she was saying. But she just can’t get in that lane. He is there.

MR. SHERMAN: I think it’s helpful that Biden and the top candidates, Warren, and for the lower candidates, it’s helpful that the top candidates are always so defensive. They’re always being attacked or responding to attacks. And it allows someone like Amy Klobuchar to get in and say, listen, guys, calm down. Let’s take this down a notch and let me explain where we come down in the middle on this issue. And maybe that’s helpful. I mean, it’s difficult to break out from single digits or from low double digits, but you have to judge on a curve when it comes to that.

MR. COSTA: One issue that never came up, impeachment. We’re on Capitol Hill this week. We’re talking to all these lawmakers. They’re debating impeachment, tangling with Speaker Pelosi about the strategy. Yet, not a mention in the presidential debate. Why is that?

MS. GEARAN: I don’t know. (Laughter.) It certainly seems like a topic that, you know, is kind of looming out there.

MR. COSTA: Are they all on the same page?

MS. GEARAN: No, they’re not all on the same page. And we don’t know exactly where they are. But I think it would – and where they are may have changed as the terms of this discussion have changed over the summer. Way post-Mueller, now we’re, you know, on into this whole new era of House investigations, which is going to take many tangents that go beyond the Mueller report. I’d like to have heard that question put to all of them last night.

MR. HULSE: Well, I think it reflects the problem the House Democrats are having. It’s not resonating in the public yet. They don’t feel any need to respond to it. The House Democrats, Pelosi’s trying to keep a lid on it. They’re trying to move forward. You know, it’s – an issue dear to my heart – there wasn’t a lot of talk about the judiciary or the Supreme Court. And you hear people pressing for that too in these debates. But I think the impeachment absence shows that this is not a huge public issue yet, and the Democrats haven’t quite made the case.

MR. COSTA: You’ve covered Senator Harris’ campaign, Juana. What is happening inside of her ranks? She had a big debate a few debates ago, took on Vice President Biden. Now she’s been struggling to gain some more traction in the polls.

MS. SUMMERS: Absolutely. So what they’ve told me is that they believe that her campaign is struggling – they wouldn’t admit it’s struggling, first of all. But we can just go ahead and say that. They think that she is not having the kind of summer that many thought that she would because support for her is more elastic. They say that she is not a household name in the way that an Elizabeth Warren, or a Joe Biden, or a Bernie Sanders is. So she is still introducing herself to people. That said, we wrote this week at the Associated Press that this is a campaign that has a number of structural challenges, one of those being that it has a lot of consultants from Baltimore, where her campaign is headquartered, to California, to Washington, D.C., who all have their hands in the mix.

And the result of that is that you have a candidate who, while can electrify a crowd and who is warm and personable and who people want to know more about, but who doesn’t have a clear rationale for her campaign that she can articulate. She talks about that 3:00 a.m. agenda. She talks about being for the people and being a prosecutor and prosecuting the case. But that bumper sticker slogan that some people are looking for, she just doesn’t seem to have. It’s still pretty early. She might be able to turn it around. I’m curious to see what she focuses on going into the fall and whether that changes.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, I think that is a huge challenge. And how do you distinguish yourself, to be honest with you, with these debate stages? It’s very difficult when you’re in a three-hour event where there’s a lot of sniping, there’s a lot of defense, there’s a lot of yelling at the top three candidates. How do you distinguish yourself if it’s not tearing down another Democrat, which for that in and of yourself you’re going to get a lot of flak for?

MS. GEARAN: Well, one way is what Pete Buttigieg did, which in his closer – I mean, he did a very neat political trick that a lot of candidates have a great deal of – who’ve been doing this a lot longer than he has – have a lot of difficulty doing. He tied his biography to his candidacy neatly. This is why I am running. This is who I am. This is why I’m in front of you making the argument I’m making. That, I thought, was – as he – you know, he just sort of has a reasonable tone, no matter what he’s talking about. And the way he described coming out as gay in very matter-of-fact terms as part of his – the rationale for his candidacy, I thought was effective.

MR. COSTA: Yeah. I was talking to some Democratic strategists this week, and they just kept saying: Buttigieg, Senator Klobuchar, everyone’s waiting to try to be that Biden alternative. If the Biden campaign somehow falls apart, someone wants to be positioned. But for now, he continues to lead the polls.

And President Trump, he’s searching for his fourth national security advisor after John Bolton resigned this week. Bolton, a hardnosed hawk and the nationalistic deal-focused president disagreed on a number of foreign policy issues, from Afghanistan and Iraq to North Korea and Iran. There were also clashes with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was smiling when he took questions about Bolton’s departure. The Wall Street Journal notes that Bolton’s exit, quote, “immediately empowered Pompeo, who has sweeping influence in the administration.” And The New York Times observes that Mr. Pompeo has navigated Mr. Trump’s choppy presidency without capsizing, keeping himself in the good graces of a notoriously fickle president.

Anne, you’ve covered the State Department. You cover the White House to this day. Is this not only a story about Bolton going, but Pompeo rising?

MS. GEARAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you referenced the smile. He looked like a Cheshire Cat. (Laughter.)


MS. GEARAN: Because he had just won. There has been a power struggle between Mike Pompeo and John Bolton going back almost from the beginning, but definitely heated up over the last eight, nine months or so. They disagree on many – they actually agree on a number of things. But Pompeo was much better than Bolton could hope to have been at getting the presidency or – and kind of getting in there first and getting – having – and having Trump’s argument end up sounding more like Pompeo. They – at the end, both Pompeo and Bolton wanted the president to be harder on North Korea and harder on Iran than it looked like he might be going to be. But the breaking point appears to have come over Afghanistan, where Pompeo and Bolton had opposite views.

MR. COSTA: Does this become a deal presidency on foreign policy? Is the president now, ahead of 2020, looking for a deal with Iran, looking for a deal with North Korea, with China, on trade?

MR. SHERMAN: It would seem so. I mean, he – what I’ve – the people I’ve talked to in the administration who are directly involved say: Small bore deal with China. Some sort of take-home with Iran and North Korea. The thing that’ll be interesting to me is what he gets on Iran, because it’s not going to be terribly different from what the – from what Barack Obama got, if it’s anything at all. Anne knows this well, I would imagine. There’s not too many ways to slice this.

I want to say one thing on Pompeo, who I covered in the House. He seems to view his role as secretary of state as helping the president achieve what he wants to achieve within a context that makes sense for America. And that might sound hokey, but I don’t think Pompeo is there to instill his own foreign policy.

MR. COSTA: He’s not an ideologue, you’re saying?

MR. SHERMAN: I don’t know about that. What I’m saying is I think he knows that the president is the president. He always talks about his mission set. That’s what he says: It’s my mission set to serve this president as best as I can. So he takes what he thinks Donald Trump wants to do and helps him achieve that within that context. Whereas, I think from what I understand Bolton was trying to redirect the president’s instincts, which the president, as you guys all know, he hates.

MS. SUMMERS: It’s absolutely right. It removes one of those final guardrails around this president’s instincts on foreign policy. I can’t help but think, as we’re kind of setting the table here, that this, taking it back to the discussion about 2020, actually sets up a really unique way for former Vice President Biden to draw a contrast – having been the vice president, having had significant foreign policy experience. It provides him a way to draw a stark contrast between himself and President Trump that no other candidate on that stage can.

MR. COSTA: And what did you think about the foreign policy discussion at the Democratic debate? They talked about Afghanistan a little bit, but how are they going to make that case? Is it Biden talking about allies more? Is it talking about nationalism as a negative thing?

MS. SUMMERS: I think we’re certainly going to hear both of those things happening. Again, I think this is a singular issue where Biden can really lead. I would expect to see his campaign lean more forcefully into that narrative, as we kind of see what the fallout is from Bolton’s departure and what kind of direction President Trump brings foreign policy in next.

MR. HULSE: Yeah, I think that’s right. This – that is Joe Biden’s super strong suit in this ongoing primary. The thing about Pompeo is we think he has political aspirations. We just don’t know which political aspirations come first right now. (Laughter.) So –

MR. COSTA: Is he going to run for Senate or wait to run for president in 2024?

MS. GEARAN: Or governor.

MR. HULSE: Yeah, we don’t know exactly what he’s going to do. But what he does need to do while doing that is keep Donald Trump behind him. So that’s a – he needs to have this relationship. So he’s going to be working within the framework which I think Jake described accurately, but with also out alienating – without alienating the president, because he’s going to need the president.

I will say on that thing in the briefing room, I’ve never seen a victory lap like that in quite a while. (Laughs.) But the Senate Republicans are going to miss Bolton, because this is one area where they really break with the president. And there was a lot of, you know, sympathetic statements about Bolton on the Hill. John Bolton’s a strong guy. He knew where the risks where, which is somehow sort of a veiled cut at the president.

MS. GEARAN: He worked – Bolton would work the Hill. And he was a good point of contact. I mean, Bolton is – yes, he’s an ideologue, but he comes from a different era and a different political world.

MR. COSTA: And he’s his own man. I mean, you think about Bolton, this long-time Washington lawyer. I was texting with him, talking with this week. He said: I’ll have my say in due course.

MR. HULSE: In a book.

MS. GEARAN: Yeah, he’s – yeah, but for now he’s gone back to his PAC and he’s going to be giving money to Republican candidates. And he’s got a perch.

MR. COSTA: You think he breaks with President Trump?

MS. GEARAN: I mean, eventually? Yes. I think they disagreed on too many things to begin with. I don’t think – I don’t have the sense at all that he’s interested in, you know, doing – having a Scaramucci moment, by any stretch, but I’m sure –

MR. COSTA: Maybe on policy grounds.

MS. GEARAN: I’m sure he will point out a number of places on policy grounds where they had disagreements and why.

MR. SHERMAN: I think the other thing with Bolton, why Senate Republicans are so worried, is because a guy like Bolton understands process. The NSA job, national security advisor job, is a process job, right? I mean, it helps the president –

MS. GEARAN: It’s supposed to be. (Laughter.)

MR. SHERMAN: It’s supposed to be a process job, right? I mean, it’s supposed to help the president make decisions within a traditional kind of process-oriented foreign policy world. And something that Bolton understood, as being ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush and having a history in Washington as a kind of a foreign policy operator. Now it’s kind of the guardrails, as Juana said, and – the guardrails are off. And that’s a scary thing for members of Congress who love nothing more than predictability when it comes to their chief – their commander in chief.

MR. HULSE: And they differ with Trump on Russia, certainly, and some of these other areas.

MS. GEARAN: Yeah, for sure. So did Bolton. (Laughter.)

MR. HULSE: Right. And that’s where – you know, and that’s one of the few areas where they’ve been willing to sort of speak out. And you heard Mitch McConnell talk about that, and Lindsey Graham. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.

MR. COSTA: Are they making any recommendations, Capitol Hill?

MR. HULSE: I presume they – probably not recommendations, but maybe slyly kind of getting behind some of the people they want. I’m not really –

MS. GEARAN: Bolton – excuse me – Pompeo is largely driving the discussion around who will replace Bolton.

MR. COSTA: And there was even talk of having Pompeo possibly do the job.

MS. GEARAN: Yeah, which the president has taken off the table, the Kissinger model. I never thought that was quite real. But what is very real is that Pompeo is pushing some names who are not household names for most people outside Washington foreign policy circles. And that will mean that he – that Mike Pompeo has more influence going forward, not less.

MR. COSTA: Even Democrats, Speaker Pelosi, issued a statement saying it was a shame, in a way, that Bolton was going.

MR. SHERMAN: Well, I don’t think Nancy Pelosi agreed with John Bolton on Iraq, or many – perhaps any other foreign policy decision he had ever made. But, again, it’s a way to knock the president and his processes.

MR. HULSE: It is kind of funny to watch the left embrace Bolton a little bit there at the end. (Laughter.)

MR. COSTA: Quite a way to end quite a week. Thanks for sharing your evening with us. I appreciate it. And the Washington Week Extra is coming up next on our website, Facebook, and YouTube. We will discuss the special election in North Carolina that tested President Trump’s clout.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064