The Iowa Caucus didn’t provide much clarity, but it definitely caused an earthquake that’s still delivering aftershocks. One frontrunner has fallen, another is on the ropes, a new national leader may be emerging, and the once “dark horse” contender has suddenly burst out the gates and raced to the very front.
And right in the nick of time, we have another Democratic Debate tonight. And oh, by the way, since many Nevada Democratic voters will start turning in preference cards next weekend, this is the last debate for them to watch before making up their minds.
Prelude: What the hell are we getting into tonight??!!
In just over seven days, Nevada Democratic voters will have their first chance to turn in preference cards, thanks to the Nevada State Democratic Party’s addition of in-person early voting (February 15-18) to the caucus calendar. Because the MSNBC-Nevada Independent Debate won’t happen until February 19 (as in, after early voting closes), tonight’s ABC News-Apple News Debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, is the final debate many of our voters will watch before they finalize their caucus game plans.
Despite the Iowa Democratic Party’s claim of reporting all precinct results, the discovery of multiple inconsistencies in those results leaves New Hampshire and Nevada voters in the awkward position of having to provide the clarity and “field winnowing” that we all thought Iowa would deliver. While former Vice President Joe Biden holds onto a very narrow lead in the national poll average, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) now appears to be the new #1 frontrunner thanks to his strong Iowa performance and his good odds of winning New Hampshire and Nevada.
Yet if former South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg overperforms again next Tuesday, then Nevada voters will really have a white hot horse race in their hands. Joining these three men tonight at St. Anselm College are U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), along with very rich guys Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang.
8:00 PM New Hampshire time/5:00 PM Nevada time: We begin!
I’m drinking a (Santa Lucia Highlands) Monterey Chardonnay tonight, because fermented grape juice helps me sit through these debates without throwing things at my TV. ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, and Linsey Davis are joining WMUR’s (the New Hampshire ABC affiliate) Adam Sexton and Monica Hernandez to moderate.
While I’m appreciating the nice notes of lemon and oak with this Chardonnay, the ABC crew are introducing the candidates and laying the ground rules. The first question goes to Biden, as Stephanopoulos asks flat out about Biden’s recent attacks on Sanders and Buttigieg as “too risky” and why he thinks Iowa Democrats rejected his line of attack on them.
Biden did his usual “we’ve got to restore the soul of this country” quip, along with some other words. He said something about winning the Senate and South Bend being a small city before he finally gave a clearer message of Buttigieg’s struggle to connect with voters of color (hint, hint, Nevada and South Carolina, we matter to Biden!).
5:10 PM: How to beat Trump?
“Every one of us is united. We will defeat Trump. […] The way we beat Trump is with the largest voter turnout in this country.” As per usual, Sanders argues that “yuuuuuge!” base voter turnout is what’s needed to beat Trump.
Stephanopoulos countered that 2020 Iowa Caucus turnout barely topped 2016’s, and Sanders conceded that was a “disappointment” for him. Klobuchar then responded, “We won’t be able to out-divide the Divider-in-Chief.” She then went on to claim the only way to counter “the noise and the nonsense” is to attract a bigger tent that’s welcoming to moderates.
Steyer then tried to blend together Sanders’ and Klobuchar’s message: He argued that the Democratic nominee must find a way to excite the base and attract persuadable moderates. And Yang? What else: He talked about UBI!
5:15: How to beat Trump, continued
Warren jumped in and centered her “e word” argument on her central message of combating corruption. As she’s been trying for the last month, Warren’s arguing that she’s the “unity candidate” because she brings together the ideological and policy commitment that Sanders embodies with the practical messaging that Buttigieg and Klobuchar thrive on.
Speaking of Buttigieg, he once again leaned in on his “generational change” argument by suggesting Democrats need a new strategy (as in, a younger candidate) centered on “addition and inclusion” (as in, attract moderates) rather than nominate another old person.
Sanders then retorted, “The need you bring people together is by setting an agenda centered on working people.” He basically went on to argue he has substance that voters want, as opposed to style that will ultimately fall flat. Buttigieg countered that his platform is designed to “energize, not polarize”.
5:20 PM: Here we go, it’s health care time again.
Biden decided to go nuclear on Sanders over health care, describing “Medicare for All” single-payer health care as “crazy”. “Who do you think is going to get that passed?”, Biden quipped.
“That’s the status quo, Joe,” Sanders fired back. He said we’re already spending $50 trillion (per decade?) on our mostly private health care, whereas “Medicare for All” will save Americans a “substantial sum of money”. Biden countered that his plan offers choice, then Klobuchar unloaded on everyone else… Including Buttigieg for his recent flip-flops on this very issue.
Warren then tested her more recent health care messaging: “36 million Americans couldn’t afford to have their prescriptions filled, and that includes people with health insurance. […] People asked whether to pay for this or groceries. We need to change our approach to health care.” She continued, “We are the Democrats. We are on the side of expanding health care.”
Buttigieg then claimed, “The truth is I’ve been consistent,” even after Klobuchar provided the receipts. He also attempted to channel Barack Obama with a “turn the page” line.
5:30 PM: Who’s the new Obama here?
That prompted Biden to lay claim on Obama’s legacy. Buttigieg countered that he’s properly primed to handle “this moment”, as in 2020. Buttigieg then dared to “turn the page” again. Klobuchar countered that she’s proven to “meet the moment” because she was on the front lines during the Senate impeachment trial.
Klobuchar confronted Buttigieg with his own “exhausting to watch” line on the impeachment trial while she, Warren, and Sanders had to fight the Republicans every inch of the way. You’d think that would lead to a nice “amen chorus” featuring some of the others on the stage. But instead, Sanders pivoted back to health care and “Medicare for All”.
Sanders exclaimed, “This country belongs to all of us, not a handful of the privileged.” Steyer then asked, “How are we going to beat Donald Trump?” Steyer said he’s uniquely suited to beat Trump because he’s a … Wait for it… businessman! “We’ve got to win, or else we’re in deep trouble,” Steyer warned everyone.
5:35 PM: More Trump talk
Wait for it, it’s another Pete Buttigieg “values talk”! He’s from Indiana! He name-dropped some New Hampshire towns! He said, “You are the jury now,” referring to the voters.
Yang countered, “Donald Trump is not the source of all of our problems. He is the symptom of a larger disease.” Yang made sense for a few moments while describing the challenges of the shifting American economy, but pivoted back to his usual UBI-centric message.
Davis then asked Warren about her plan to investigate the Trump administration after they leave office. Warren explained, “I believe in the rule of law […] We must hold ourselves accountable to the American people.” Warren continued to explain, and do so in a more thorough and clear way than Yang, that Trump is indeed the result of decades worth of American corruption, and that only way to cure the disease of Trumpism is by “rooting out the corruption”.
Warren said, “This is about our democracy. This is about our future.” Yang then counted that “Americans don’t really care” about what specifically Trump and his cohorts did as he claimed Warren’s anti-corruption agenda is “dangerous”.
5:40 PM: How to beat Trump, continued
Sanders backed up Warren here in a nice return to the debates of the seemingly distant past. He also argued that what’s truly dangerous here is Trump establishing the tradition of open corruption as “the new normal”. As Sanders explained about the impeachment trial, “Donald Trump is a crook. Donald Trump is a cheat, And yet, they didn’t have the guts, with the exception of [Mitt] Romney [R-Utah], to convict.”
Steyer humble-bragged about launching the impeachment drive in 2017, but pivoted again to “hitting Trump on the economy”. Davis then asked Buttigieg about the Hunter Biden affair. Buttigieg called the Republican attacks on the Biden family a “dishonorable thing”.
“Whoever the nominee is, the president is going to [attack],” Biden explained. He also commented on Trump’s firing of the Vindman brothers for Alexander Vindman testifying at the House impeachment inquiry, then led the audience to applaud the Vindmans.
5:50 PM: More “e word” talk, then foreign policy
“I like Bernie just fine.” When asked about “the e word” and Sanders yet again, Klobuchar decided to highlight her own “optimistic economic agenda”, note where she’s worked with Sanders in the Senate, and hit Trump over his worsening of the nation’s inequality crisis. She instead hit Buttigieg again, saying, “I believe we need someone who shows the receipts,” contrasting her record of electoral success in Minnesota with Buttigieg’s spottier record in Indiana.
Sanders then declared, “I believe we need to look forward, not backward.” He hinted at his own frustration with Hillary Clinton’s recent “no one likes him” attacks on him, but pivoted to his record as “The Amendment King” in passing a number of amendments to appropriations bills.
Muir then asked about Trump’s recent actions in Iran. Buttigieg got to go first, and he declared, “I believe that action made no one safer,” referring to Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani. He then did another “values talk”.
Muir then pressed Buttigieg on when he’d order these types of “targeted strikes”. He danced around the question some more, even saying, “This isn’t an episode of ‘24’.” Biden, however, said he wouldn’t have ordered the Soleimani strike. And in one of the clearer moments we’ve seen from Biden at a debate, he spoke of the real stakes of playing war games.
5:55 PM: Foreign policy
Sanders then got the Iran/Soleimani question, and he warned of “international anarchy” if America continues down the road of unilateral military strikes against anyone for any reason. “We need debate and discussion in the UN, not more wars,” Sanders warned.
Warren then warned, “Nobody sees a solution to this war. Nobody sees an end to this war,” on Afghanistan. She thanked the troops for their service, but then said, “We need to be there for them. […] It’s time to end this ‘endless war’ in Afghanistan.” When Muir asked how she’d respond to generals saying they want to keep some troops there, she responded, “I want to see the plan,” and she called for the U.S. to work more closely with allies on a diplomatic and humanitarian solution.
Biden poo-pooed Warren’s call to end the “endless wars”, and he warned that a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East would empower America’s foes. Biden then claimed, “I was against the whole notion of nation-building in Afghanistan,” even though he (and Sanders) voted to authorize the Bush administration to do just that and more in 2001.
6:00 PM: Foreign policy, continued
“I believe I have the judgment to help us get through these situations.” That’s how Buttigieg contrasted himself with Biden, after Muir noted Biden’s prior support for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Buttigieg then threw around terms like “cybersecurity” to make himself look younger and cooler.
“I trusted George Bush to keep his word.” Ouch. Biden actually said that to justify his 2001 and 2002 votes. He went on to warn about what Trump’s doing to destroy the Western Alliance, but that line on Biden “trusting Bush” may make its way into attack ads if Biden somehow survives past New Hampshire.
Steyer jumped in and seemed to agree with Sanders and Warren as he said those dollars being used to keep troops stationed abroad will be better used to fund K-12 public schools here at home. Biden got visibly upset over what may have appeared to him as noobs who don’t understand what foreign policy is mouthing off popular applause lines that don’t work in real life. There may be some truth to that, but there’s even more truth to the fact that the 20-year-old “war on terror/endless wars” status quo isn’t working.
6:15 PM: Drug policy and the opioid epidemic, then gun violence
After the commercial break, WMUR’s Hernandez asked about his proposal to decriminalize drug use. Buttigieg claimed that’s not true, instead, “I call that we end incarceration as the response.” Ummm, that’s basically decriminalization. Why not simply point out that criminalization of drug use hasn’t really solved the problem?
Yang once again hawked UBI as a solution. Klobuchar countered that her own work to direct more low-level drug cases to “drug court” in Hennepin County actually reduced the number of “repeat customers”. She then put Yang on blast for misusing the question to talk UBI, and she rattled off facts and figures to demonstrate she actually knows what she’s talking about.
Sexton then pivoted to gun violence and confronted Sanders with his own spotty record on gun safety. Sanders countered that the NRA has more recently given him “D” and “F” ratings, and that he’s proud of that. He then finally declared, “The world has changed, and my views have changed,” as he touted his plan to expand background checks and ban military-grade assault weapons.
Biden then took a rare opportunity to run to Sanders’ left as he contrasted his opposition to legal immunity for gun manufacturers with Sanders’ vote to give gun manufacturers such immunity in 2005, along with Sanders’ opposition to expanded background checks prior to 2013.
6:25 PM: Gun violence, abortion, and the courts
“Look, we have a gun violence problem here in America.” When Sexton threw the issue to Warren, she aimed to hit it out of the park by citing statistics on everything from suicide to domestic violence as she explained the need to fund research and change federal laws. “We can’t get a vote in the United States Senate because the gun industry calls the shots,” Warren warned, as she argued that Democrats must end the 60-vote requirement to stop a filibuster in order to actually pass these bills. (Biden and Sanders have refused to endorse filibuster reform.)
Sexton then asked Biden about his prior remarks on the Obama administration not using “litmus tests” on issues like abortion when choosing judges to appoint. Biden fired back and insisted he will use a “litmus test” to ensure the judges he chooses as president will respect women’s constitutional rights to make their own health care decisions.
Warren then jumped in and pointed to several states’ moves to ban abortions in explaining this is a clear and present danger. “We should be pursuing a Congressional solution as well […] to protect women’s choice,” as Warren promised not just pro-choice judges, but also new federal laws to expand and enshrine women’s reproductive rights.
Klobuchar amen’ed Warren here and promised to fully fund Planned Parenthood community health programs across the country. Sexton then pressed Buttigieg over his proposal to set up a board to appoint Supreme Court Justices to fixed terms, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dislike of his proposal. He did yet another “values talk” with some flowery language.
6:35 PM: The courts, continued
Biden then touted his plan to have universal “clean money” publicly funded elections as a better solution to Citizens United than Buttigieg’s court plan. So far, we’ve been seeing much more clarity from Biden than we’ve seen from him in the past.
Sanders then jumped in and promised, “I will never nominate any person to the Supreme Court, or to any federal court in general, who will try to overturn Roe v. Wade.” He also agreed with Klobuchar’s call to protect federal funding for Planned Parenthood community health care programs.
Steyer then attempted another “Sanders/Warren-lite” argument that Republicans fight hard, Republicans play dirty, and he’s uniquely suited to defeat them.
6:40 PM: Racial justice
Staying on the courts and criminal justice, Davis confronted Buttigieg on South Bend’s troubled record of hitting residents of color with stiffer penalties for drug penalties. As per usual, Buttigieg did another “values talk” laced with attacks on his rivals for their support for “War on Drugs/Tough on Crime” legislation in the 1990s. Davis pressed Buttigieg to answer to his own record in South Bend, and Buttigieg again deflected.
Davis: “Senator Warren, is that a substantial answer from Mayor Buttigieg?” Warren: “No.” Smooth! Warren fired back, “We need to have race-conscious laws in education, in employment, in entrepreneurship. We need to offer opportunities for everyone regardless of the color of their skin.” Warren refrained from going into the weeds on Buttigieg’s record, but she did manage to deploy an effective contrast of her clear solutions with Buttigieg’s foggy “values”.
“I’m the only one on this stage to openly say I’m for reparations.” Steyer can say that with a semi-straight face because Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Kamala Harris (D-California) are no longer on that stage, yet Warren and Sanders have made more statements moving in that direction. Steyer also hit Biden for one of his South Carolina surrogates indulging in racist remarks, and Biden responded with poll numbers, because of course he did.
6:45 PM: Racial justice, continued
Sanders touted his more current racial justice agenda. Steyer bragged that he already got much of it passed in California. Biden actually then said, “We need to stop taking voters of color for granted,” some two months after Harris took him to the outhouse over these very matters at a prior debate.
Davis then asked Biden about his surrogates claiming Biden has “repeatedly betrayed black voters”. Sanders refused to go there, but he continued to argue that his pursuit of economic justice will also deliver racial justice.
Klobuchar jumped in, and she did highlight systematic racism on voting rights. But as has been the case before, she’s had almost as much trouble as Buttigieg when it comes to how she’ll actually deliver progress on a holistic racial justice agenda.
6:55 PM: Racial justice some more, and the Bloomberg question
Warren then married her economic justice agenda with her social justice agenda as she promised she’ll direct some revenue from her “two-cent wealth tax” to programs like debt-free college that will help close the racial wealth gap. She criticized other Democrats for sounding “woke” while doing “broke” as she quipped, “I think the time for that is over. I think the time is now for us to make a change.”
And when asked about former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presence in the presidential race, she responded, “I don’t think anyone should be able to buy their way to the nomination.” She then added, “The way we build our democracy going forward is with a grassroots movement. […] Our democracy hangs in the balance.”
Klobuchar agreed, and she pretty much shot down the talk amongst some Democrats that a Bloomberg nomination will somehow result in better fortune for the party. She argued that her record of advancing “shared dreams” has more value than Bloomberg’s billions.
7:00 PM: The Bloomberg question, then trade and climate
Sanders joined in on the Bloomberg bash-fest, but he also hit Buttigieg on this matter of billionaires buying more power in our system. Sanders countered, “The way we’re going to [change America] is by building a grassroots movement to stand up to [corporate interests].” He, Warren, and Klobuchar all asked the audience to visit their respective websites to help them in this fight [as in, donate]. Buttigeg, as per usual, tried to deflect from his relationship with wealthy donors by arguing Warren and Sanders are too “divisive”.
Muir then pivoted the conversation to trade as he asked Sanders whether Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) were wrong to vote for Trump’s new NAFTA deal. He said, “Yes,” and he explained that the new NAFTA (aka, “USMCA”) hardly addresses climate change and doesn’t do enough to protect workers’ rights in the U.S. or Mexico.
Klobuchar countered that the new NAFTA does improve labor and environmental standards, and she argued that “having no new agreement puts us at a competitive disadvantage”. Warren agreed with Klobuchar on this, and she thanked her fellow Congressional Democrats for “playing hardball” to secure concessions from Trump on labor and environmental standards.
After Steyer basically regurgitated a lot of what Sanders and Warren said, Klobuchar gave a lecture on building coalitions, whether in Congress or on the world stage, to actually accomplish anything. Klobuchar then contrasted Trump’s complaint about CBC editing him out of an airing of Home Alone 2 with her commitment to rebuilding and strengthening the Western Alliance.
7:15 PM: Poverty and children
Stephanopoulos asked the final question on child poverty, evoking the late Cokie Roberts asking this question at a debate in 1999. Yang, as per usual, made it all about UBI. Buttigieg, as per usual, did another flowery “values talk” targeted to Republican and independent “swing voters”.
Warren, however, declared, “The best investment we can make as a nation, the best investment we can make as a people, is an investment in our children.” She touted her “wealth tax” as the tool by which the nation can raise revenue that can then be used to invest in schools, housing, and other public infrastructure that can make a difference in children’s lives.
Biden cited his own experience as a working-class kid, then as a working single father in the 1970s, to explain why he’s dedicated to solving this crisis. Sanders pointed to his own record as proof of his commitment, and Klobuchar did likewise. She warned, “There is a complete lack of empathy with this guy in the White House right now,” and she made a very compelling personal case that “I know you” to everyone who’s trying to survive the struggles of 21st century America.
7:30 PM: Finally, my grades!
Phew, that was a lot! Now that we’ve survived another debate, let’s grade it.
Elizabeth Warren: A
Amy Klobuchar: A
Bernie Sanders: A-
Pete Buttigieg: B
Joe Biden: B-
Tom Steyer: C+
Andrew Yang: C-
As per usual, Warren excelled on the debate stage. She held solid command on the facts, the policies, the message, and the emotional connection. And as we’ve been seeing for some time, Klobuchar has also developed an expertise in delivering crisp and clear answers that stand in contrast to Biden’s sometimes muddled message and Buttigieg’s often empty rhetoric.
As for the current frontrunners, Buttigieg offered plenty of flowery rhetoric, but he can’t keep doing these “values talks” without showing us what he truly values. Sanders, however, showed not just “fire in the belly”, but also a clear vision of what and who he truly values, and how he intends to govern with his values.
Biden has choked at these debates consistently, and the debates may finally be taking their toll on him. Warren and Klobuchar have been doing well in these debates for some time, but it remains to be seen whether they can actually capitalize on them. Sanders can use an extra boost, and maybe his solid performance will at least help in fending off Buttigieg. As usual, Steyer didn’t offer much beyond his usual talking points (kind of like Buttigieg, but even worse).
That’s all for now. Stay tuned, as we’ll really be ramping up our caucus and election coverage here next week. Thanks for sticking with us!