Here we are, Democratic Debate #4! Well, at least we made it. And since a couple more candidates made it back in, we have an extra large field on the stage in Westerville, Ohio, tonight.
A whole lot has happened since the candidates debated in Houston last month, from the U.S. House opening an impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump to one candidate’s health scare and another being questioned over her pregnancy 48 years ago (??!!). Tonight, it’s time for some answers.
Preface: Houston, we’ve had some problems
Since the Democratic National Committee (DNC) decided to keep the same qualifications for entry (at least 2% in select national and state polls, and 130,000+ unique donors) this time that they used at the ABC-Univision Debate last month, all ten of these candidates are back: Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Kamala Harris (D-California), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former San Antonio (Texas) Mayor and federal HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and tech investor Andrew Yang. In addition, the extra time allowed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) to re-enter the debates and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer to make his debate debut.
Yet because the qualifications are tightening for the MSNBC-Washington Post Debate on November 20 in Georgia (165,000+ unique donors, and at least 3% in select national polls or 5% in select early state polls), tonight’s debate poses a critical test for all of them. For Biden, Warren, and Sanders, they must prove the ability to knock down the nonsensical “haute faux scandals” (such as Ukraine for Biden, “Pregnant-gate” for Warren, and the recent heart attack for Sanders) that Republicans are already pouncing upon. For everyone else, they must prove that they’re worth a second (and maybe third) look, and that the race shouldn’t narrow to just the “Top Three” who currently sit atop the polls, the fundraising charts, and most other metrics (more on that tomorrow!).
Eight candidates already have tickets for that “midnight train to Georgia” next month, and it’s very up in the air whether anyone else will join them there. On that note, let’s head to Ohio for tonight’s main event.
5:00 PM: Let’s get this party started! (And it’s starting with impeachment.)
Since it’s still warm here, (un)screw it: I’m opening the Rosé. It’s from Provence in the South of France, and it has great berry notes without being too dry or sweet. CNN anchors Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper and New York Times national editor Marc Lacey are tonight’s moderators, and thankfully they’re not wasting time in Ohio (like they did in July in Michigan).
Cooper asked Warren why Congress should consider removing Trump before the election. Her response? “Sometimes, there are issues bigger than politics. I believe that’s the case with the impeachment inquiry.” She continued, “We took an oath to uphold the Constitution. No one is above the law, not even the President of the United States.” Warren was among the first of the 2020 candidates to endorse impeachment in April.
Next up, Sanders, who had waited longer to endorse impeachment. He agreed with Warren and added, “Mitch McConnell has got to do the right thing and allow free and fair proceedings in the Senate.” Biden, who’s been targeted by Trump and Rudy Giuliani, also concurred.
Next, Kamala Harris: “He’s committed crimes in plain sight.” She continued, “He has consistently been selling out the American people. […] He’s been selling out our democracy.” Thus far, she’s been showing passion and focus in making the case against Trump and for impeachment. This is the kind of energy she needs to keep up tonight.
5:10 PM: More impeachment
“This is a moral moment, not a political one.” That was Cory Booker. “We can do two things at once. That’s our job.” That was Amy Klobuchar, echoing the message she gave here in Vegas earlier this month in explaining how Congress can continue working on legislation while advancing the impeachment inquiry.
More from Klobuchar: “I want to hear how coddling Vladimir Putin makes America great again. […] It doesn’t make America great again. It makes Russia great again.” Finally, someone pointed out one of the most dangerous aspects of Trump’s actions while explaining the importance of this moment.
Pete Buttigieg basically took this as an opportunity to give a condensed version of his stump speech. Tulsi Gabbard then mocked her colleagues on the stage for succumbing to “hyperpartisan interests”, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering she’s Vladimir Putin’s favorite Democrat. Tom Steyer, who previously made impeaching Trump his main cause before deciding to run for president himself, said something. And Andrew Yang followed in Buttigieg’s bootsteps by giving a condensed version of his stump speech.
5:20 PM: Hunter and Ukraine’s economy, then the U.S. economy and health care
Cooper then asked Joe Biden about his son Hunter’s role in “Ukraine-gate”. He responded, “My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.” Biden then turned it around and pointed out Trump’s habit of inviting foreign interference in domestic politics. He also took the clearest step yet to clear the air in explaining Hunter’s board position on Burisma had zero impact on U.S. foreign policy.
After Sanders tried to use his answer to pivot to domestic affairs, Lacey took that as a queue to ask Warren whether she will “raise taxes on the middle class”. Warren shared personal stories she learned on the campaign trail, then declared, “Costs will go up for the wealthy and big corporations. […] I will not sign a bill that results in costs going up for the middle class.”
Buttigieg then pounced and claimed she will cause a “multi-trillion-dollar hole” with “Medicare for All” single-payer. Warren rebutted, “When someone says ‘Medicare for All Who Want It’, understand that means ‘Medicare for All Who Can Afford It.’” She turned around the cost question and pointed out that Buttigieg’s plan likely means many Americans will still be paying insurance premiums, which like taxes, cost people money.
Sanders then jumped in: “Under ‘Medicare for All’, premiums are gone. Co-payments are gone.” He concurred with Warren that he doesn’t mind taxes rising on the rich while overall costs drop for the poor and middle class.
5:30 PM: More health care
Klobuchar then tried what Buttigieg tried five minutes ago. While Warren isn’t directly stating “middle class taxes” may rise, she is trying to explain her desired end-goal of overall lower costs without falling into the rhetorical trap that Republicans in D.C. and the more moderate Democrats on this stage want her and Sanders to fall into.
Next, guess who said this: “First off, the plan we’re hearing discussed is the Biden Plan.” Indeed, there are many similarities amongst his plan, Buttigieg’s plan, and what Klobuchar seems to want. Still, the plan that’s actually front and center is the “Medicare for All” single-payer bill that Sanders and Warren back (and Harris and Booker also used to tout).
Speaking of Harris, “This is the sixth debate and not one word about women’s reproductive healthcare and it is not an exaggeration to say that women will die. Women are the majority in this country & that is a significant healthcare issue.”
This actually has been one of the biggest mistakes made by all the past debate hosts and moderators. Seriously, with women’s reproductive health care under attack throughout the nation, why did it take a candidate’s possible attempt to avoid another prickly health care question for anyone to address abortion, contraception, and other critical reproductive health care services?
5:35 PM: More economy
Finally, someone else is going after Sanders for something other than single-payer or taxes. He wants a national job guarantee, while Andrew Yang wants universal basic income. Some economists across the political spectrum see Yang’s UBI proposal as more efficient, while Democratic strategists obviously see Sanders’ and other candidates’ (like Booker’s) jobs guarantee as more politically palatable.
Oh, wait, speaking of Booker, he also brought up reproductive health care! Burnett then pivoted back to questions of automation threatening present and future jobs. Warren responded by pivoting to the matter of “corporations having no loyalty to anything other than their bottom lines”. She then touted her plans to expand access to unions, promote more worker ownership in the companies they work for, and expand Social Security’s reach and benefits.
One concern that some progressive wonks have about Yang’s UBI is that some on the right support UBI as a way to “repeal and replace” social safety net programs like Social Security and SNAP (or food stamps) with UBI. Both Warren and Booker subtly reminded the crowd of the risk behind Yang’s seemingly simple and enticing offer.
5:50 PM: More economy… Now, income inequality
Burnett straight up asked Sanders what he meant when he said, “Billionaires should not exist.” He took it as an opportunity to point out the suffering of the working poor, and by extension, the suffering that persists under our current “free market” system.
Steyer, the one billionaire on the stage, then claimed he was the first candidate to endorse a wealth tax and generally tried to channel a sort of “Bernie Sanders without the shouting”. For me, it wasn’t as compelling as Sanders’ own answer. Then, Biden tried to sidestep his own previous comments about “not demonizing the wealthy” by claiming he “doesn’t want to demonize anyone.”
Warren then turned another set of Biden comments against him: “Show me your budget, show me your tax plan, and I’ll show you where your values are.” She proceeded to challenge the other candidates why they evoke fear of “middle class taxes”, but refuse to specify a wealth tax plan to redistribute the tax burden back towards the top. Buttigieg responded with… Another excerpt from his stump speech, “Something something Washington isn’t working, something something I’m young and they’re old.”
When Klobuchar tried to rebut Warren, she retorted, “We succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit when the going gets hard.” Klobuchar then rebutted with her own collection of stories from the campaign trail and a warning not to “tear each other down” when “we all want the same goal”. Honestly, both brought the fire in one of the best moments on any debate stage thus far.
6:00 PM: More economy
The fire continues to burn, as Harris used this wealth tax discussion as an opportunity to tout her own $6,000 annual (or $500 per month) tax credit plan to redistribute support to where it’s needed. O’Rourke then said something that was so forgettable, I can’t remember it now.
Warren then referred to her own stump speech, specifically how everyone pays to help the rich become rich, then pivoted to what it means and who it’s meant to help: “This is universal child care for every baby in this country. […] Raising the wages of every child care worker in this country. Getting rid of the student loan debt burden.”
Booker then attempted to turn the tables when he declared, “We’ve had 20 years worth of presidential debates, and not once have we talked about child poverty.” Booker used this as a chance to promote his own new plan to take on child poverty, then he sampled his own stump speech as he said, “We won’t win this election by focusing on what we’re against. We need to win this election by talking about who and what we’re for.
6:10 PM: Foreign policy- Syria, Iraq, and Turkey
“It is the most shameful any American president has done in foreign policy history.” That’s how Biden described Trump’s bizarre drive to withdraw U.S. troops from Northern Syria, leaving Kurds to cut a deal with Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad to fend off Turkish aggression.
Tulsi Gabbard at first seemed to concur: “The blood of the Kurds is on Donald Trump’s hands.” She then blamed Biden, others on the stage, and even CNN and The New York Times for these atrocities because they dare to point out Gabbard’s cozy relationship with Assad and Putin.
Gabbard then tried to stump Warren on this, yet she responded, “Look, I think we shouldn’t have troops in the Middle East […] but we have to do it the right way.” She then pointed out her Congressional experience on military matters, then countered, “We need to get out, but we need to do this with a negotiated solution.”
Both Gabbard and Buttigieg have served in the military, so Buttigieg used his time to rebut Gabbard’s assertion that he and nearly everyone else are to blame for Syrian and Turkish human rights violation: “You can put an end to endless wars without embracing Donald Trump. What we were doing in Syria was keeping our word.” This highlights a very prickly matter here in the U.S.: Most Americans seem to want an end to the “endless wars” in the Middle East (or at least U.S. involvement in them), yet this tragedy unfolding in real time serves as a reminder that “ending endless wars” isn’t as simple as it seems.
6:20 PM: More foreign policy
When asked about Trump’s move to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Harris responded, “Trump sold out the Kurds. […] What Trump has done with his phone call with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is give 10,000 ISIS fighters a ‘get out of jail free card’.” She highlighted another big problem here: With U.S. withdrawal from the region, the very IS/ISIS/Daesh forces Trump promised he’d annihilate instead have a new lease on life because Erdogan cares more about eradicating the Kurds.
When given the chance to weigh in on Russia and Syria, Biden used his time to urge the country not to “cede ground to Putin” by allowing him to dictate our foreign policy. O’Rourke then spoke, and he basically reiterated the points made by everyone not named Tulsi Gabbard, and so did Steyer just seconds later (but with a little climate flourish added).
Yang then equated Russian aggression with America’s before attempting another UBI viral moment. Klobuchar condemned Yang’s awkward comments, but got awkward herself with a shout-out to her daughter.
6:35 PM: Gun violence and terrorism
“I expect my fellow Americans to follow the law, the same way they do in [other aspects of life].” Finally, we get to another big Beto O’Rourke gun violence moment. He stuck with his proposal to mandate buybacks of assault weapons to enforce his proposed assault weapons ban. Buttigieg has been ripping into O’Rourke’s plan as a “distraction” for the last two weeks, and he again insisted, “We can’t wait for purity tests. We have to get something done.” Buttigieg claimed O’Rourke’s insistence on an assault weapons ban with a mandatory buyback jeopardizes momentum for background checks and “red flag” bills.
O’Rourke countered, “This is a crisis. We have to do something about it.” He then exclaimed, “Let’s listen to those Moms who demand action and follow their lead and not be distracted by polls and consultants,” yet Buttigieg proceeded to basically prove O’Rourke’s point by sticking with boilerplate Democratic Party talking points that may save some lives, but probably won’t save as many as the thornier policy proposals (like something being done on assault weapons and permit-to-purchase gun licensing) that don’t make such easy talking points.
Booker sounded exasperated when he said, “We’re surrendering our freedoms to fear in this country,” and he tried to explain why this is far bigger than squabbling over stupid talking points. Harris concurred, “Five million assault weapons are on the streets today. […] The leading cause of death for black men is gun violence. This is a serious matter.”
Harris then added, “I’m done, and we need action,” and she repeated her threat to take executive action on gun violence if Congress doesn’t give her bills to sign on background checks, “red flag”, and assault weapons in her first 100 days in office.
6:45 PM: Health care – this time, the opioid crisis
Klobuchar got the first stab on the opioid epidemic. She spoke about her father’s own story of being “pursued by grace”, and she called for fines on manufacturers to pay for expanded access to addiction recovery and job opportunities to rebuild these people’s lives.
Yang and O’Rourke then endorsed decriminalization as necessary to direct people struggling with addiction to treatment rather than jail. Then when asked whether she’s willing to send any pharmaceutical executives to jail for their role in creating this crisis, Harris responded, “I am. And as a former prosecutor, I see this as a matter of justice and accountability.”
Then, just as Burnett tried to pivot to a new question, Sanders insisted upon giving his own answer. He cited the opioid epidemic as a reason why he wants “democratic socialism”. For Sanders, “This is what unfettered capitalism is doing to this country. […] That is why we need a political revolution.”
6:55 PM: More health care… Now, Sanders’… And Biden’s
Burnett actually did want to ask Sanders a health care question: One on his own health. He deftly responded by inviting everyone to his upcoming rally in Brooklyn. She then pressed Biden on his age and health, and Biden responded, “With age comes wisdom. […] I know what has to be done. I will not need any ‘on-the-job training’ when I get in.” He also promised to release his medical records before the Iowa Caucus.
Burnett also asked Warren, and she responded, “I will out-work, out-organize, and outlast anyone, including Donald Trump, Mike Pence, or whoever the Republicans end up with.” She then positioned herself as the forward-thinking candidate in declaring, “Democrats win when we call out what’s broken and we show how we’ll fix it. […] Democrats win when we give people a reason to fight.”
Gabbard at first seemed to condemn the implied ageism of the “Hillary’s Health” style attacks on Biden, Warren, and Sanders. But then, she tried to use her time to try a new line of attack on Warren. Burnett shut that down and instead turned to commercial break.
7:10 PM: Economy – now, the tech economy
Next up: Do they support “breaking up big tech”? Yang, himself a former tech executive, said no and suggested the very question distracts from more pressing matters. Warren stridently disagreed and insisted, “I am not going to give up and let a handful of monopolies stomp out the competition.”
Steyer first seemed to agree with Warren, but pivoted to attacking her for “her plans” rather than being a business-friendly “job creator!” who can magically disqualify Trump like he can (sigh). Booker, who’s also been criticized for his past coziness with “big tech”, actually answered the question and called for better antitrust enforcement.
Sanders used this as an opportunity to condemn “the rigged economy”, and he concurred with Warren and Booker on restoring antitrust enforcement. So did Harris, and she refuted recent Facebook talking points that “breaking up big tech” will somehow further the spread of propaganda (um, where is it being spread now?).
Harris then tried to corner Warren by asking about her own call for Twitter to ban Trump, yet Warren responded, “I don’t just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House.” She also condemned politicians (like some on that stage) who take “big tech” money while lecturing folks like Warren and Sanders who dare to criticize Facebook, Amazon, and others for their monopolistic practices. Harris, meanwhile, criticized Warren and others for trying to sidestep Trump’s use of social media in a way that endangers people’s lives.
7:20 PM: Finally, reproductive health (including abortion)
True to her word, Burnett finally asked the first question at any of these 2019-20 debates on abortion. In another incredibly cogent moments for Harris, she explained the need for legal abortion quite simply: “This is still a fundamental issue of justice for women in America […] It is her body. It is her right. It is her decision.” Harris also spoke about her own plan to codify Roe into federal statute, require preclearance for states seeking to alter abortion laws in a way that could restrict access, and repeal the Hyde Amendment that forbids federal funds for abortion care.
Booker then touted his own plan, which includes a White House office for reproductive health care as well as repeal of the Hyde Amendment. Gabbard then became the only candidate on stage to call for abortion restrictions, specifically bans on late-term abortions.
When asked how he’ll respond to a Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, Biden refused to “pack the court” to dilute the right’s ability to legislate from the bench and instead spoke of campaigning for women’s rights in Ohio. Buttigieg and Castro than spoke of their willingness to pursue court reform, then Warren pivoted back to legislation.
“I lived in an America where abortion was illegal, yet rich women still got abortions. […] The people who are denied abortions are poor, are young, are 14-year-old girls who were arrested,” Warren said. She then touted her own plan, which includes executive and legislative action to protect women’s reproductive rights, and said, “We should not leave it to the Supreme Court. We should do it through democracy because we can.”
7:30 PM: Biden and Buttigieg (and others?) v. Warren and Sanders
“They’re all good ideas, but who’s going to get it done?” That’s how Biden responded to Cooper’s question on why Democrats should choose him over Warren and Sanders. “Tell people how you’re going to get it done. Presidents should be able to persuade.” He also clocked Sanders and Warren on the cost of their “Medicare for All” single-payer health care plan.
Sanders responded by pointing out that Biden’s preferred “bipartisan consensus” approach resulted in the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War, and bank bailouts. Warren responded by hinting at Biden’s and other centrist Democrats’ role in attempting to block Warren’s consumer protection agenda.
Warren then recounted advice from other Democrats, “People told me: ‘Go for something little. Go for something small. Go for something that corporations will accept.’” She rejected that advice, then thanked Obama for ignoring those in his own administration (such as Biden) who pushed such advice. And of course, she added, “We have to be willing to make big, structural change.”
In an added benefit, Warren’s latest fiery moment also pre-butted the inevitable tsk-tsk’s from Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Minutes later, O’Rourke tried again to stand out by sharing a story of fighting for health care for veterans in El Paso, then pivoting to citing his own close race against Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) last year as evidence of his ability to actually further the kind of “political revolution” that Sanders calls for.
8:00 PM: Finally, my grades!
Since CNN decided to waste time at the end with a “friendship is magic” question, even after getting shamed into asking about abortion and continuing to ignore pressing matters like climate change, I’m just going to grade them all now.
Elizabeth Warren: A
Kamala Harris: A
Cory Booker: A-
Bernie Sanders: B+
Pete Buttigieg: B+
Amy Klobuchar: B
Julián Castro: B
Joe Biden: B-
Beto O’Rourke: B-
Andrew Yang: C+
Tom Steyer: D
Tulsi Gabbard: F
Hands down, this is the best debate performance we’ve seen from Joe Biden this year. Think about that for a moment. It apparently took Donald Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine to “give dirt” on him and his family for this Joe Biden to finally show up.
And yet, he still couldn’t rise above the “revolutionary” messages of “big, structural change” espoused by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders that a number of Democratic voters consider far more inspiring than “return to normalcy”. Sanders had some occasional strong moments throughout the night, but it was Warren again who took down those who tried to do that to her (and to a lesser extent, Sanders).
Yet while Biden failed to discredit the more stridently progressive platform of Warren and Sanders, he also sometimes got lost as Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar arose to challenge them from the center/right. This was the best we’ve seen from both Midwestern moderates this year, though Buttigieg’s reliance on canned stump speech lines is at least as notorious as Sanders’. And despite his reliance on his youth to project the image of “big change”, it’s ironic how Millennials and Gen Z’ers seem to be responding better to septuagenarians Sanders and Warren as they offer “big change” in the form of progressive policies.
Oh, and by the way, who else noted Kamala Harris bringing it tonight? Because, come on, she finally recaptured the magic of the first debate and delivered the goods on issues like reproductive rights and foreign policy in a way that reminded me why I’ve considered her a force to be reckoned with since the beginning. And on this note, that’s all for now. Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll release our new caucus power rankings.