A whole lot has happened since last month’s CNN-New York Times Debate in Westerville, Ohio, from the latest bout of back-and-forth arguments over “Medicare for All” to the nascent “Pete Wave” in Iowa and a recent batch of polls suggesting “Joe-mentum” may really be happening right here in Nevada. As we’re quickly nearing the home stretch before real voters start casting real ballots, tonight’s MSNBC-Washington Post Debate in Georgia is all about figuring out the real state of the race for the next three months and beyond.
Preface: What we’ve seen on our “Midnight Train to Georgia”
Since the Democratic National Committee (DNC) tightened the qualifications for tonight’s MSNBC-Washington Post Debate at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta (165,000+ unique donors, and at least 3% in select national and/or early state polls or 5% in select early state polls), two Texas Democrats are missing. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has dropped out, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro missed the cut and may now be on political life support.
In happier news, these ten candidates are back, back, back again: 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, tech investor Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.
Now that we’re fewer than 100 days removed from the first nominating contests, tonight’s debate poses a critical test for all of them. Newly minted frontrunner Pete Buttigieg faces a multitude of questions on how he can unify the increasingly multicultural Democratic Party of 2020 with a message that thus far has mostly resonated with a narrow band of upscale white voters. More established frontrunners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren face questions of how they’ll get their groove back after surviving vicious rounds of attacks (“Ukraine-gate” for Biden, and health care for Warren). And for the middle and lower-tier candidates who are struggling to break away from the pack, they face questions on why they’re still running and why voters should give them another chance.
So far Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris, and Klobuchar have guaranteed spots in next month’s PBS-Politico Debate in Los Angeles. (180,000+ unique donors, and at least 4% in select national and/or early state polls or 6% in select early state polls are needed to qualify.) Gabbard and Yang each needs one more poll to qualify, Steyer needs a few more donations to qualify, and Booker’s most at risk of getting cut. And while they’ve already made the cut for PBS-Politico, Harris and Klobuchar are still under pressure to turn up or bow out ASAP. On this note, let’s all turn up in Atlanta and get this party started.
6:00 PM: Impeach-a-palooza
So I’m changing the game tonight and sipping a Hot Toddy because it’s almost winter and it’s starting to feel a lot like winter here in Vegasland. Tonight’s Hot Toddy features Irish whiskey, green tea, lemon, and an agave-maple syrup blend. Try it. You’ll thank me later.
Meanwhile, it’s a very HER-storic night with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, and Kristen Welker joining The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker to moderate the debate. Maddow’s wasting no time in throwing Elizabeth Warren the first question on impeachment.
Warren answered that she wants her Republican colleagues to read the Mueller Report and realize that juiced-up party hacks are not qualified to direct the nation’s foreign policy. As Warren put it, “We have to establish the principle that no one is above the law.”
Amy Klobuchar was next: “What this is about is our democracy is at stake.” She continued, “It’s very important that we have a president who puts our country first.” So far, two of the Democratic Senate women are setting the tone in presenting a united front on Trump and impeachment.
6:05 PM: More impeachment, then how Democrats can work with the Trumpist GOP
“We simply can not be consumed by Donald Trump. Otherwise, we will lose the election.” Surprise, surprise, that was Bernie Sanders. As we’ve been noting for some time, despite Sanders’ positioning himself as “the candidate of the left”, he’s tended to steer the conversation away from impeachment at his campaign events.
Pete Buttigieg was next, and he also “after Trump’s presidency comes to an end”. He did another twist of his “After the sun comes up, we must unify the nation” stump speech.
On this note, Andrea Mitchell asked Joe Biden about his frequent promises of a restoration of the golden age of American bipartisanship should he win. In an interesting twist, Biden pivoted, “Democrats must be able to do two things: 1) Beat Donald Trump, and 2) win states like Georgia.”
Kamala Harris, however, pivoted to her current applause line of, “Justice is on the ballot.” Like the other Senate Democratic women, Harris used this moment to pivot back to Trump’s corruption and the danger it poses for all of America. She contrasted the consequences of crimes for most other Americans with the lawlessness of Trump and his crew.
6:15 PM: More bipartisanship? Nah, let’s talk economic justice.
Mitchell then asked Warren how she’ll work with Republicans. She pivoted to her signature “wealth tax” plan. “We want an America that works for the people, not just an America that works for the rich,” she declared. Cory Booker then said, “We need to bring in a lot of revenue,” but he tried to dismiss Warren’s wealth tax as infeasible and talked up “opportunity” instead.
Warren wasn’t having Booker’s attempt at a smooth transition away from her policy stomping grounds. Instead, she talked up what the revenue from her “wealth tax” can do, such as making college tuition-free for nearly all students and making universal pre-K a reality. Booker kept fighting Warren on her “wealth tax” while trying to talk up fairness, which just sounds awkward considering Warren’s offering a path to making Booker’s ideas a reality.
Then, Buttigieg popped in. “We have the majority to do the right thing.” As per usual, he talked up his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan as superior to Warren’s “Medicare for All” single-payer plan. And on that note…
6:20: “Medicare for All”, AGAIN??!!
Yes, again. Kristen Welker asked Warren whether her health care plan will scare away all those allegedly persuadable Trump voters in roadside diners. Warren wasn’t having it. Instead, she tried her best to succinctly explain her new transition plan: A temporary(?) public option, several executive actions to expand access to health care, and a full switch to single-payer by the end of her first term.
Come on, you know Bernie Sanders wanted in on this discussion. “People have been talking about health care for all for some time. I think now is the time!” He name-dropped FDR, JFK, and Obama as he explained why he feels the debate has gone on for far too long, and why his “Medicare for All” plan is the right one.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, tried his hand at Pete Buttigieg’s applause lines: “I trust the American people.” He name-dropped Nancy Pelosi in calling Sanders and Warren poopy-heads because “Medicare for All” is impossible, Democrats should never aspire for more, and yadda-yadda-yadda, blah-blah-blah, [insert GIF of Biden driving a convertible while wearing sunglasses and a shit-eating grin here].
6:30 PM: Grab bag of other stuff
Oh, jeez. Tulsi Gabbard is yelling at Kamala Harris again. Gabbard has accused not just Harris, but most other Democrats of being “warmongers”, but check Gabbard’s own record before you start Amen-ing her just because you hate the rest of this field.
“If we didn’t have [extreme voter suppression] here, Stacey Abrams would be governor now!” Whoa. Props to Amy Klobuchar for bringing up an under-discussed yet very relevant issue on the debate stage.
Surprise, surprise, Andrew Yang talked about technology and UBI again. Then, Buttigieg tried to explain away his one disastrous attempt at a statewide run in 2010 with plenty of Trump-bashing red meat. On that, Klobuchar pointed out, “Women are held to a higher standard […] We have to work harder.” As if on queue, Klobuchar humble-bragged about her legislative accomplishments and her multiple landslide victories in her state. She then added, “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi does it every day.”
6:40 PM: Trump and Twitter
Oh, jeez. A question on Trump’s tweets? Booker dismissed Trump’s social media habits as his tool to “demean and divide”, then pivoted to contrasting his Mayoral record against Buttigieg’s. As expected, it’s increasingly feeling like a pile-on targeting Buttigieg… And let’s admit it, a whole lot of us are here for it.
As per usual, Biden proclaimed, “Let’s bring our country together,” and, “Let’s restore the soul of his country.” He was trying to argue he won’t go tit-for-tat with Trump on abuse of power, but I suspect more voters watching are having a hard time following along with Biden as his rhetoric fades into the background like the faceless teacher in the Peanuts cartoons. Honestly, Sanders made a bigger splash with his pointing out of Trump’s violation of the Emoluments Clause.
Oh, look, Andrew Yang’s talking about UBI again!
6:50 PM: Paid family leave, and other matters of economic justice
“I want to make sure we help people, because we’re way behind. We must do this, and we will do this.” That was Klobuchar explaining why she opted for a three-month paid family leave plan, then humble-bragging about how much work she put into figuring out how to pay for it and how to pass it. As per usual, the women in this field put in a hell of a lot of work and rarely get the credit for any of it.
“Part of why I believe we’re going to win this election is we’re going to focus on the future.” Kamala Harris then explained why the changing dynamics of not only America’s workplaces, but also America’s families (including women waiting more to have children), requires changing public policy. Harris then added, “We need to focus on the inequities and the injustice facing America’s working families.”
The other California Democrat running, Tom Steyer, used his time to pivot to housing and the growing homelessness crisis. He promised “millions of new units” that will be environmentally sustainable and affordable for working families.
Come on, did you expect Warren to stay silent here? “The housing problem in America is on the supply side.” Building on her presentation at the Black Community Summit here in North Las Vegas on Monday, Warren explained how “too many McMansions and not enough affordable units” are exacerbating this crisis. Warren also noted the longstanding racial disparities in the nation’s housing market, and Booker saw that as the perfect queue to jump into this discussion.
7:00 PM: Trade, farm subsidies, and climate
Maddow asked Buttigieg whether he’d continue farm subsidies, subsidies that Trump’s boosted since launching his trade wars. He sought to fit in some climate talk while showing love for rural communities and hate for “wasteful spending”. Maddow then said, “Sorry to interrupt, but I need you to answer the question,” and Buttigieg responded that the heightened subsidies won’t be needed once he resolves the trade wars.
Tulsi Gabbard then claimed “hyperpartisanship” is why we’re experiencing a worsening climate crisis. Tom Steyer smartly pivoted away from that psychobabble and promised action “on Day One”.
Biden hit Steyer for his past investment in coal power, and Steyer responded that most Americans have had to live under an economy dominated by fossil fuels. Hmmm, I wasn’t expecting Biden to hit Steyer tonight, but OK.
Oh, wait, guess who wants in on this party: “You talk about making climate change a national emergency. I’ve introduced legislation to actually do that!” Bernie Sanders spoke of the global security implications of the climate crisis as he called for bolder and more immediate decarbonization of the global economy.
7:10: Foreign policy
Long-time foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell gave Harris the first crack on foreign policy. On Trump’s deference to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, Harris quipped, “Donald Trump got punked. He traded a photo-op for nothing.” She added, “Donald Trump is the greatest threat to national security,” and Harris said she won’t offer any concessions to North Korea any time soon (unlike Trump).
Biden tried to take control of what should be his greatest strength, but he mostly just added exclamation points to Harris’ argument. Sanders then humble-bragged about voting against authorizing both Iraq Wars (1991 and 2003) as he called for an end to “endless wars” and “bringing our troops home”, but tried his best to tout his antiwar bona fides without sounding like Gabbard.
Yang suggested a new “World Data Organization” can and will “bring Russia back to the table”. Booker called for better “American leadership” to rebuild the Western democratic alliance. And when asked by Mitchell about evidence of Saudi Arabia ordering the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, Biden promised they will be “held accountable”, along with China and the growing crisis in Hong Kong.
7:20 PM: More foreign policy
Klobuchar quipped, “We need a new foreign policy in this country,” yet she seemed to signal more of a restoration of the pre-Trump American consensus. Still, she cogently made her points on America getting back to business in restoring nuclear arms treaties and respecting human rights norms.
Sanders, however, suggested a truly new foreign policy: “What we need to know is Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally. We need to lump Saudi Arabia and Iran together.” He then called himself “pro-Israel” and added, “We must treat the Palestinean people with the respect and dignity we deserve.”
Warren followed that up with her own family members’ military service in describing the human toll of war. She also touted her policies to provide military veterans new work opportunities and better opportunities to reintegrate into civilian society.
Buttigieg then got to toss in another of his applause lines: “We do not have a 21st century security strategy from this president. […] He’s relying on 17th century ideas, like moats and allegators.” After feeling the heat early in this debate, Buttigieg has had an easier run this past half-hour.
7:30 PM: Criminal justice, gun violence, and terrorism
Gabbard got the first stab on criminal justice reform, and she promised action to end “the failed war on drugs”. She also kept talking about bipartisanship. Who does she thinks she is, Joe Biden?
Then when he was asked about white nationalism, Yang responded, “We have to classify white supremacist hate as terrorism. Period.” He then called for action to give more disaffected men more opportunities to make better choices and reject hate.
Welker asked Biden about #MeToo. He used this as an opportunity to call for Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. He exclaimed, “No man has the right to raise a hand to a woman,” and, “We will not tolerate this culture.”
7:40 PM: Racial justice… And a full reading to filth of Pete Buttigieg
Oh, wait, here comes the dragging of Buttigieg we’ve been waiting for. Welker asked about Harris’ response to a question on the Kenyan stock photo while she was here in North Las Vegas on Monday. Harris then struck at the heart of the growing debate within the Democratic Party over connecting with voters of color: “At some point, folks get tired of being thanked for showing up. How about, ‘Show up for me!’” Harris argued she’s best fit to “rebuild the Obama coalition” because she’s part of it.
Harris continued, “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. But after they help us win, they’re still paid less, more likely to lose their sons to gun violence, and more likely to die in childbirth.” Buttigieg’s response? “I have breathed the successes and struggles of this community.” He then argued his “faith” taught him to “care for the oppressed and marginalized in this society”, never mind his actual record in South Bend and his lackadaisical approach to diversity outreach thus far.
Unlike the others earlier, Harris wasn’t letting Buttigieg skate by. And this time, Warren also went harder: “I think it’s really important to talk about what we’re in the fight for.” She pointed out racial disparities in student loan debt to tout “Let’s do something tangible and real.”
7:40 PM: Trump’s “border wall”, immigration reform, and… Marijuana??!!
When asked whether she’ll tear down Trump’s border wall, Warren responded that she’ll pay to take down parts of the “fencing” that aren’t necessary for “national security”. She then added, “The real point here is we need to stop this manmade crisis at the border.” Warren spoke of Trump exacerbating the very crisis he screams about by refusing to fix the long-standing poverty crisis in Central America (that the U.S. helped cause), then declared, “We need to treat the people who come here with […] We need to live with our values at the border every single day.”
Booker amen-ed Warren’s immigration rant, then pivoted to another big headline that came out of our wonderful State of Nevada: Joe Biden’s ongoing refusal to endorse marijuana legalization. He smartly pointed out the racial disparities in marijuana sentencing and amen-ed Harris for “coming to Jesus” on full legalization, including righting historic wrongs affecting communities of color targeted by the “War on Drugs”.
“Marijuana is already legal for privileged people,” Booker quipped. Biden angrily responded by pointing out African-American politicians who previously joined in on the “War on Drugs”, but it landed like a Trumpian “I know you are, but what am I!” deflection. Then Biden tried to white-splain black voters to two black Senators, and it got even more cringe-worthy from there.
7:50 PM: Abortion and reproductive health care
“We should codify Roe v. Wade into law.” That was from Amy Klobuchar, one of the centrist candidates on the stage. She then promised to fight for women’s full reproductive rights. And she reassured nervous moderates, “We have to remember that the people are with us.”
Warren then added, “I believe abortion rights are human rights. I believe they’re also economic rights.” She spoke of how poor women and women of color are especially threatened by restrictions to women’s reproductive health care. She successfully framed abortion as a matter of economic justice as she exclaimed, “I want to be in an America where everyone has a chance.”
Sanders amen-ed Klobuchar and Warren as he exclaimed, “It’s women who control their bodies, not politicians.” Booker also amen-ed the women Senators, and he noted Georgia Republicans’ current efforts to restrict access to abortion in the very state where they’re debating.
7:55 PM: Voting rights… Then Klobuchar and Gabbard v. Buttigieg
Buttigieg said, “We need federal leadership to establish voting rights in the 21st century.” He promised action to protect and expand voting rights and restrict gerrymandering. Klobuchar then pounced: “He’s said the right words, but I actually have the right experience. […] I believe this experience matters.”
Klobuchar dragged Buttigieg some more: “Mayor, I have all the appreciation for your work. But when you tried to run statewide, you lost. When I ran, I won.” He then suggested Klobuchar’s a poopy-head for being in Washington for so long, and that his experience is so much more special.
Gabbard then dragged Buttigieg for his suggestion that U.S. troops should fight drug cartels in Mexico. He tried to reframe that as “U.S.-Mexico cooperation”, and Gabbard struck again in dragging down another Democrat on the stage. He said she’s buddies with Bashar al-Assad, and she kept suggesting he’s inexperienced and naive.
Now that Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg have properly dragged each other into a nice pile of mud, Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer jumped in to take us all to church on defeating the (bad) billionaires and cleaning up the culture of corruption. Then came the closing statements, but I’m kind of done with the closing statements.
8:00 PM: Finally, my grades!
Phew, that was a lot! Now that we’ve survived another debate, let’s grade it.
Kamala Harris: A+
Amy Klobuchar: A+
Elizabeth Warren: A-
Bernie Sanders: A-
Cory Booker: A-
Pete Buttigieg: B
Tom Steyer: C+
Andrew Yang: C-
Joe Biden: D
Tulsi Gabbard: F
Tonight was the first debate when Pete Buttigieg got a little bit of rougher treatment. Other pundits seem to think he did just fine, but I noticed some key weaknesses. While Tulsi Gabbard has become notorious for her low-blows at these debates, she’s also become infamous for exposing the other candidates’ weaknesses. And even more importantly, Amy Klobuchar got her chance to contrast Buttigieg’s seemingly aspirational center-left positioning with her results-oriented center-left pragmatism.
If anything, tonight was the night the women Senators finally achieved the respect and recognition they deserved. Klobuchar got to show off her actual record of accomplishment. Warren got to show off her policy chops on everything from women’s health to immigration. And for the first time since June, Harris took the steering wheel at multiple points throughout this debate and steered the conversation right into her strong suit. If this doesn’t breathe new life into Harris’ campaign, I simply don’t know what will.
Booker had more great moments tonight, but we’ll see whether most of the rest of America notices. Sanders had plenty of great moments tonight, and his performance at this debate should be good enough to continue his good momentum. Biden, however, turned in yet another crap-tastic debate performance with more disrespect and tone-deafness, but we’ll see whether the stench sticks this time. It’s getting late, and we’ve all had a very long and rough week, so that’s all, folks.