Washington • After spending the first half-hour of Thursday’s debate tearing each other apart over health care — which happens to be their party’s strongest issue — the Democratic presidential candidates realized that their opponent is Donald Trump and acted accordingly.
As a result, despite jabs and disagreements throughout a three-hour marathon, they offered a far less divisive performance than they (and an additional 10 contenders) turned in during the first two debates.
Having often been critical of Barack Obama’s policies during the summer, they fell all over each other to praise the last Democratic president’s many virtues. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke was the beneficiary of a remarkable display of comradely cheerleading, as one rival after another praised his response to last month’s mass shooting in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso. And they underscored the degree to which they broadly agree on issues ranging from gun control, climate change, immigration — and even, despite their fierce disputes on Medicare-for-all, on the need to guarantee health insurance to all Americans.
Thursday's debate seems likely to have a paradoxical political effect. On the one hand, nothing obvious happened to disturb the current advantages of the three leaders in the contest, Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, several candidates running further back in the polls made their presence felt in ways that will keep them in the minds of voters as plausible alternatives should the leaders falter.
Biden had his strongest performance in the debates so far. He showed moments of spark and fluency, and generally avoided the gaffes and awkward pauses that hurt him in the June debate. But he did get a bit lost on an answer about Afghanistan and offered a rather dated reference to a "record player."
Warren was energetic and forceful throughout, returning again and again to her themes of battling corruption, inequality and corporate power, even when discussing gun control. Sanders was his uncompromising and combative self, which, no doubt, reinforced the loyalty of his base.
But it was potentially a breakthrough evening for California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has slipped in recent polling. Viewers saw what might be called "Harris Unplugged." She was far looser, leavened her arguments with humor, and largely kept her focus on Trump. Her opening statement was directed to the president and ended with the words: "And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News." New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker showed passion throughout, assuming the role of preacher in describing "a crisis of empathy in our nation."
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar unapologetically cast herself as the moderate in the race. "If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense," she said, "you've got a home with me, because I don't want to be the president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America." South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg continued to display moments of eloquence, notably in telling the story of his coming out as gay.
Biden came in for a variety of gibes, as one would expect for the front-runner, but only former HUD Secretary Julián Castro launched attacks with gusto, and even a touch of meanness. When Biden denied that his health-care plan required poor people to buy in, Castro argued that Biden was contradicting himself, and seemed to reference the former vice president's age by asking, "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" The crowd booed.
The relative comity did not mean that Democratic divisions went unmentioned. There were clear ideological divides — particularly on health care.
Making arguments Republicans are certain to echo, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar hit hard against Medicare-for-all plans that they said would require higher taxes and force Americans to give up private insurance. Warren and Sanders defended them as guaranteeing universality and taking insurance company profits out of the system.
It was the best debate so far, partly because the ABC News moderators did not focus quite as much as earlier questioners did on inspiring conflict. They also covered a broader range of issues, particularly on matters related to race and racism. Only political junkies were likely to have stuck with the ordeal to the end. Those who did were likely the most loyal Democrats who, on the whole, heard more of what they wanted to hear about Trump's shortcomings and a bit less about divisions in their own ranks that could haunt them next fall.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.