Updated Sep 12, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Debate night: Biden, Warren, Sanders and the fight for frontrunner

Warren and Biden shaking hands.

Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

The top 10 Democratic presidential candidates sparred on health care, criminal justice, gun control, immigration, trade, the military and climate change in the third debate. But 3 contestants have clearly become the top contenders: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The big picture: The 3 are firmly divided, with Warren and Sanders residing far left of Biden on issues including Medicare for All, college tuition and views of the overall "system." Warren and Biden faced off for the first time in Houston.

  • Warren has steadily risen in the polls to second place. But she still trails Biden, who’s consistently led the pack since joining the race.

Health care

Sanders and Warren support Medicare for All, while Biden would expand Obamacare. Medicare for All would virtually abolish private insurance, while plans like Biden's often rest on providing a public option while allowing citizens to keep their private insurance if they'd like.

What they're saying:

  • Biden: "[Sen. Warren] has not indicated how she pays for it, and [Sen. Sanders] has in fact come forward and said how he pays for it, but it only gets him about halfway there.
  • Warren: "The answer is on Medicare for All... for hard-working families across this country, costs are going to go down."
  • Sanders: "Every study done shows that Medicare for All is the most cost-effective approach to providing health care to every man, woman and child in this country. I wrote the damn bill, if I may say so."
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also took a bite at Sanders' for his authorship of the Medicare for All bill: "On page 8 of the bill it says we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. ... I don’t think that’s a bold idea, i think it's a bad idea.”

Criminal justice

Many candidates have released criminal justice plans that address mass incarceration.

What they're saying:

  • Biden would release nonviolent drug offenders: "Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime... nobody should be in jail for a drug problem... and so, we have to change the whole way we look at this."
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) also took some heat for her previous roles as a prosecutor and California's attorney general — a pivotal issue for many black voters. In her criminal justice plan, Harris said she no longer opposes the legalization of marijuana and outside investigations for police shootings, going against her prior positions.
    • Harris argued that she'd actually enacted a series of progressive criminal justice initiatives, including body cameras for police officers and racial bias training for law enforcement.
    • "I was born knowing about how this criminal justice system in America has worked in a way that has been informed by racial bias."

Gun control

With mass shootings increasing in regularity, gun control has played a central role in several Democratic candidates' campaigns.

What they’re saying:

  • Biden: “I'm the only one up here that's ever beat the NRA." Biden also sparred with Harris over enacting gun control by executive order, with Biden arguing an executive action could be the wrong path and Harris saying it could be a viable one.
  • Warren: “I like registration, want to see us do background checks, want to get assault weapons off the streets.”
  • Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) recently embraced gun control as a key issue following 2 mass shootings within weeks of each other in his home state of Texas, stating, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”


The Trump administration has drastically hardened immigration policy, with child separation and the proposed wall along the southern border as legacy issues of his presidency.

What they’re saying:

  • Biden: Questioned on the Obama administration’s record 3 million deportations, Biden said: “We didn't lock people up in cages. We didn't separate families. We didn't do all of those things”
    • Castro criticized Biden for embracing his time with Obama when it is favorable and shying away it when it’s not.
    • Biden rebutted: “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years. Good, bad and indifferent,”
  • Warren: “A system right now that cannot tell the difference in the threat posed by a terrorist, a criminal and a 12-year-old girl is not a system that is keeping us safer and it is not serving our values.”


An intensifying trade war with China has affected American consumers and industries alike.

What they’re saying:

  • Warren said she wants to bring unions, environmentalists, small farmers and human rights activists into the discussion on trade.
    • “We have the capacity to say right here in America, you want to come sell goods to American consumers? Then you got to raise your standards.”
  • Sanders: "What we have got to do is develop a trade policy that represents workers, represents the farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere who are losing billions right now because of Trump's policy."
  • Biden: “We're in a position where if we don't set the rules, we, in fact, are going to find ourselves with China setting the rules. And that's why you need to organize the world to take on China."


The Afghanistan war is the longest in United States history, and the controversial vote for the Iraq war took place while both Biden and Sanders served in the Senate.

What they're saying:

  • Warren says she would bring troops in Afghanistan home, even without a deal from the Taliban: “What we're doing right now in Afghanistan is not helping the safety and security of the United States.”
  • Biden stood by his role in withdrawing troops from Iraq, adding “I should have never voted to give [President Bush] the authority to go in and do what we said he was going to.”
  • Sanders: “I never believed what [Vice President] Cheney and Bush said about Iraq, and I voted against the war in Iraq and helped lead the opposition.”

Climate change

What they’re saying:

  • Warren argued for focusing foreign policy around climate change: “It is the threat to every living thing on this planet, and we are running out of time.”
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said his plan for “democracy dollars” would allow citizens to support their candidates of choice and eliminate lobbyist influence on fossil fuel companies.


The candidates offered their takes on education as the final policy-focused segment of the night.

What they're saying:

  • Warren, a former public school teacher, would ensure the Education secretary was a public school teacher and impose a wealth tax to fund universal childcare and pre-kindergarten.
  • Sanders said he would cancel the “incredible burden” of student debt by placing a tax on Wall Street speculation.
  • Biden would "triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year" for the poorest schools and "give every single teacher a raise to the $60,000 level. 

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