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Week In Politics: Debriefing The 3rd Democratic Presidential Debate


It finally happened. The top three candidates for the Democratic nomination for president appeared together on stage for the first time. In last night's debate, along with seven other candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden stood before podiums at the historically black college, Texas Southern University.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Our Democratic primary debate starts right now.

ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm sure glad to be in Texas tonight.

BERNIE SANDERS: We must and will defeat Trump.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Both Senators Warren and Sanders want to replace Obamacare.

SANDERS: "Medicare for All" is the most cost-effective approach.

WARREN: ...Medicare for All. Costs are going to go up.

JOE BIDEN: How are we going to pay for it? I want to hear tonight how that's happening.


The other seven candidates were trying for their own breakout moments, too.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: Bernie wrote the bill. I read the bill. And on Page 8...

ANDREW YANG: My campaign will now give a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month...

PETE BUTTIGIEG: It's original. I'll give you that.

KAMALA HARRIS: But first, I have a few words for Donald Trump, who we all know is watching.

CORY BOOKER: We know Donald Trump's a racist, but there is no red badge of courage...

BETO O'ROURKE: Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.

JULIAN CASTRO: Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?


CASTRO: Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?

CHANG: All right, those are just some of the more memorable moments from Houston last night. We're going to talk about all this and much more in our weekly politics chat with two Democratic strategists - Karen Finney, a longtime senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and director of communications for the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009. Heather McGhee is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos Action, a progressive advocacy group. She was also an adviser to Senator John Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign.

Welcome to both of you.

KAREN FINNEY: Good to be with you.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Glad to be here.

CHANG: OK, Let's start with probably the most divisive topic last night - health care. How much did last night's tussle between, say, Sanders and Warren on the Medicare-for-All side and Biden on the Obamacare side - how much did last night move the health care conversation forward for you, Heather?

MCGHEE: You know, I think every time Democrats talk about health care, they're winning, right? They're comparing themselves to the Republicans who want to take away the protections for preexisting conditions, who want to kill Obamacare altogether. And it remains the most popular and important and pressing issue for American voters.

That said, there's a lot of education still to be done because health care is very complicated. And so that's where when someone like Elizabeth Warren, who's just a real master communicator on policy, where she comes in and she explains the for-profit health care system by saying, basically, they profit when they say no to you. That's really helpful. It helps put the whole idea of a government single-payer plan in context. And so I do think the debates are important for giving opportunities for what's not just a Democratic primary audience but a general election audience who's also watching the basic facts about what is health care, who pays for it, what it costs.

FINNEY: But I think what's missing in that...

CHANG: Yeah.

FINNEY: ...And what I think they were trying to get to and I hope we get to at some point in one of these debates is most people that I talk to in different focus groups, they want to understand, OK, what does that mean for me? What's - so tomorrow morning, I get up in this new system. What happens? Do I get to see my same doctor? Is it a different doctor? Does it cost me more? Does it cost me less? Where do I go? And so I do worry that as we're talking so much about the system, I think there is still a portion - there's a lot of people in the electorate who are not quite sure, what does that mean for me? And that's the part that scares people, which is part of why I think Kamala actually changed her plan to try to respond to what she was hearing from people, which is, what's that transition going to look like?

CHANG: I want to get to that question - what does that mean for me? - because there was this moment in the debate last night where Warren was directly asked, will Medicare for All raise taxes for the middle class?


WARREN: Look; what families have to deal with is cost - total cost.

CHANG: OK, again, that was from ABC News. So we never actually hear Warren say yes or no to the question, will this raise taxes? She answers by talking about overall costs, about how overall health care costs will go down for people. But is that argument going to work with regular voters, people who just want to know if their taxes will go up, Karen?

FINNEY: Well, maybe. I mean, you know, you never want to say you're going to raise taxes, right? Politicians on all sides know that. And I think the argument that both she and Bernie are trying to make is that your costs overall will end up sort of balancing out because you might pay a little more in taxes, but you'll be paying less in your health care costs. I think at some point, we're going to have to have that conversation, as I say. And people are going to want to understand that level of detail.

At the same time, look; I think the other thing that they keep going to last night that was so important is these are details that are, you know, minuscule in comparison to Donald Trump trying to take away your health care, trying to raise your costs. So I think that's part of why you saw them still feeling like we don't have to totally get in the weeds because the bigger picture is still where they really want the electorate to focus.

CHANG: Yeah. Heather?

MCGHEE: I agree. I think that, you know, frankly, the American people are paying lots of different people a lot of money for their health care and still not getting the results that they want. And so it is true that people think about, how much, you know, money do I have left at the end of my paycheck? And so I think it makes sense for the Warren, you know, Sanders wing to talk about it in terms of overall cost.

CHANG: Yeah.

MCGHEE: Are you paying a for-profit company, or are you paying, you know, the government yourselves, you know, your community? But I also think that, as Karen said, this health care conversation is one where there still needs to be a lot more education, which makes sense, right? The idea of Medicare for All, although, you know, millions of Americans are already on Medicare and already love Medicare, the idea of transitioning our entire system is a new one. There are pieces of it that are enormously popular already, but they also need more education and more airing.


MCGHEE: And then again, you know, it's all better than kicking 26-year-olds off of their...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCGHEE: ...Health care, which is what the Republicans want to do.

CHANG: Well, beyond health care - we have just about one minute left. We invited the two of you to this week's chat because you represent different parts of the Democratic Party. We're hearing so much about the progressive-moderate split among the Democratic contenders. Where else beyond health care did you see that split last night? Karen, let's start with you.

FINNEY: I think, in part, the economy, just writ large, sort of the economic vision. You know, Biden had his line in there - it was referring to health care - about Bernie is a socialist, trusting corporations. And I'll be honest. I think when we talk about the understanding of things like systemic racism, obviously, we didn't hear enough about - we didn't hear anything about women and choice. But - so those are some of the issues where I don't - I think we could have heard more, frankly. And I think we heard some differences, mostly in people's adeptness at being able to talk about the nuances.

CHANG: What about you, Heather?

MCGHEE: Yeah, I think that Biden's moment, which is sort of being seen as the record player moment, was actually a really much more damning moment if you go back and look at the transcript.

CHANG: This is when he was asked about reparations.

MCGHEE: He was asked, what can Americans do, what responsibility...

CHANG: And we have about 10 seconds left. I'm so sorry.

MCGHEE: No problem. But basically, he went and ended up sort of blaming, you know, implicitly black families for not doing enough to educate their children at home...

CHANG: All right.

MCGHEE: ...And talk to them enough at home. It was a terrible moment for him.

CHANG: Democratic strategists Karen Finney and Heather McGhee, thanks to both of you.

MCGHEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.