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Democratic Debate's Top Ten in Texas

Candidates debate guns—and much more—in an open carry state.

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) raise their hands during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls were chosen from the larger field of candidates to participate in the debate hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) raise their hands during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Well, as CNN’s Jake Tapper told Stephen Colbert Thursday night after the Democratic presidential debate, one thing’s for certain: Beto O’Rourke isn’t leaving the race to run for the US Senate from Texas.

Not after what he said about guns.

“Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he declared. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.”

It was a bravado statement, and in the wake of last month’s gun tragedy leaving 22 dead in El Paso, Texas, O’Rourke’s hometown, very much a heartfelt one, a principled stand most of us can embrace.

But in Texas, where the gun culture still has a rattlesnake’s venomous grip, and despite all the other mass shootings that have occurred there – at least as far back as Charles Whitman’s Texas tower siege in 1966 – O’Rourke’s words were downright dangerous.

Witness Texas state legislator Briscoe Cain, a far right Republican who tweeted, “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis,” using the candidate’s legal name.  After a couple of hours, Twitter took the message down but the O’Rourke campaign reported it to the FBI.

“This is a death threat, Representative,” O’Rourke replied. “Clearly, you shouldn’t own an AR-15 — and neither should anyone else.”

O’Rourke wants a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, rifles that are meant to be used in war, not for civilian use, the kind of firearm that, he said Thursday, “shreds everything inside your body because it was designed to do that, so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield, not be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers.”

Every Democratic candidate has gun reform proposals, all of them valuable, but O’Rourke’s is the most radical and risky and already is drawing the most heat from those conservatives who act as if their barn door-wide interpretation of the Constitution’s Article II is an addendum to the Sermon on the Mount (pay no attention to that “Blessed are the Peacemakers” bull).

Sadly, there’s no likelihood of such an audacious bill passing Congress anytime soon – semantically, "mandatory buyback" instantly becomes “confiscation.” And as others pointed out during the debate, as long as the cash of the NRA and other interest groups pollutes the pockets of politicians, and the current filibuster rules prevent passage of legislation by a simple majority, the gun lobby will prevail despite the overwhelming support of the public for clamping down on America’s weapons epidemic.

At the debate, Beto was using his position on a mandatory buyback not only to make a powerful point but more pragmatically, to set himself apart from the rest of the crowd. This is rapidly devolving into a three-person race among the Democrats – Biden, Warren and Sanders – and Thursday night probably was the last opportunity some of the others would have to make a splash.

Which is why Andrew Yang announced his campaign’s offer of “a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year to 10 American families,” a Let’s Make a Deal-style giveaway that may violate election finance laws (and to which a slightly incredulous Pete Buttigieg, standing next to him, responded, “It's original, I'll give you that.”).

And it’s why Julian Castro jumped on Joe Biden, hectoring the former vice president for a possible bobble made while describing his health care plan: “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? “

Right or wrong on the details, it was a churlish attempt to throw shade at Biden’s age and backfired. Once again, the reasonable Buttigieg jumped in: “This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable.”

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The near-three hours (much too long) had a sufficient share of foolishness (and who could have predicted Cory Booker channeling Yosemite Sam with his exclamation of “Dagnabit”?). But more important, the steady back-and-forth among the ten on stage was yet again a reminder that beyond the urge to win, there remains a thoughtfulness and sense of purpose in all of these candidates.

Each was given the chance for longer responses this time (75 seconds as opposed to 60 in the two previous sets of debates) and it may have made a bit of a difference.

Here’s Kamala Harris, at the end of the discussion on the complexities of improving health care: “Donald Trump's Department of Justice is trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. Donald Trump's administration is trying to get rid of the ban that we placed on denying people who have pre-existing conditions coverage. Donald Trump is trying to say that our kids up to the age of 26 can no longer be on our plans.

“And frankly, I think this discussion has given the American public a headache. What they want to know is that they're going to have health care and cost will not be a barrier to getting it. But let's focus on the end goal. If we don't get Donald Trump out of office, he's going to get rid of all of it.”

Pete Buttigieg on slavery, America’s original sin: “Systemic racism preceded this president, and even when we defeat him, it will be with us. That's why we need a systemic approach to dismantle it. It's not enough to just take a racist policy, replace it with a neutral one and expect things will just get better on their own. Harms compound. In the same way that a dollar saved compounds, so does a dollar stolen.

“And we know that the generational theft of the descendants of slaves is part of why everything from housing to education to health to employment basically puts us in two different countries.”

Elizabeth Warren on trade: “Our trade policy in America has been broken for decades, and it has been broken because it works for giant multinational corporations and not for much of anyone else…

“I want to negotiate trade with unions at the table. I want to negotiate it with small farmers at the table. I want to negotiate it with environmentalists at the table. I want to negotiate with human rights activists at the table… We can use trade not to undermine American workers and not to undermine American farms and not to undermine small businesses in this country. We can use trade to help build a stronger economy.”

And asked by journalist Jorge Ramos to defend democratic socialism, Bernie Sanders gave an answer that will come in handy these next few months as Republicans try to smother opposition with a red flag.  “I'll tell you what I believe in terms of democratic socialism,” he said. “I agree with what goes on in Canada and in Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right.

“I believe that the United States should not be the only major country on earth not to provide paid family and medical leave. I believe that every worker in this country deserves a living wage and that we expand the trade union movement…

“You’ve got three people in America owning more wealth than the bottom half of this country. You've got a handful of billionaires controlling what goes on in Wall Street, the insurance companies and in the media. Maybe, just maybe, what we should be doing is creating an economy that works for all of us, not one percent. That's my understanding of democratic socialism.”

Meanwhile, the president was in Baltimore – the city that just weeks ago he called a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” In a rambling, non-sequitur-ridden speech made to Republican House members attending a retreat there, he spent his time complaining about paper straws and energy-saving light bulbs he thinks make him look orange.

But Donald Trump’s not so much the disease as he is its terrible symptom. At Thursday’s Democratic debate, we heard an articulate and sincere commitment to equality and economic justice. Any remaining shreds of such beliefs disappeared from the GOP long before he laid his hand atop two Bibles on January 20, 2017, and for some reason failed to burst into flames.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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