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PBS-Politico Democratic Debate Live(ish) Blog: Warren and Sanders for the Wins

Disclaimer: I’m dealing with a lot, so I have a very short fuse. Maybe I’m not in the ideal mood to recap a three-hour-long Democratic Presidential Debate. But then again, maybe I’m in the ideal mood to call out BS wherever and whenever I see it.

On that note, let’s get up in this gig and get on with the debate!

Prelude: What the hell is happening tonight
health care
Photo by Andrew Davey

Notice anyone missing? Now that U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) has exited stage left and fellow U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) failed to meet the polling criteria, we’re down to just these seven candidates: Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, tech investor Andrew Yang, and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer

Tonight’s debate is at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, just 40 miles from my present location. But as I’ve explained this month, my dad’s heart attack and subsequent fight for recovery has been one of those major life-changing moments for him, for me, and for others in our family. I visited him again at the hospital earlier today, and he wants you to know that he’s doing fine as he prepares for what’s next.

Right now, I’m sipping on a spiked iced tea with fresh lemon juice and a shot of tequila. So far, it really seems to be working on a strange night like this. So on that note, let’s just get this (three hour??!!) show on the road.

5:00 PM (Both California and Nevada time!): We start with impeachment.
Joe Biden
Photo by Andrew Davey

PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor are moderating tonight, along with Politico’s Tim Alberta. Fortunately, Woodruff is wasting no time in kicking this off with a question on President Donald Trump’s impeachment. Biden goes first, declaring this a “constitutional necessity”. According to Biden, “We need to restore the integrity of the office of the presidency.”

Next up, Sanders: “We have a president who is a fraud. We told working people one thing, yet he’s doing something else. […] We have a president who’s sold out the working families in this country.” Then, Warren: “I see this as a constitutional moment. […] We’ve now seen the impact of corruption, and that’s on the stage in 2020. We have the most corrupt president in living history.” 

Already, the differences are materializing as Biden sticks to a message of “Trump’s bad” while Warren and Sanders go for a bigger message of “root out the corruption that catapulted Trump into power”. Next up, Klobuchar: “The president is not king in America. The law is king.” For being another of the moderates, Klobuchar is bringing the fire in going for a strong argument against Trump.

5:10 PM: More impeachment, then the economy and trade
Photo by Andrew Davey

Next, Buttigieg: “We can not give into helplessness, because that’s what they want.” As per usual, he’s trying to spray his brand of “high, high hopes for a living” into this dark and deadly moment. Next, Steyer: “Let’s remember that I’m the one who started the Need to Impeach movement.” 

And finally, Yang: “Americans don’t trust the media networks to tell the truth. […] Americans around the country know differently.” Surprise, he’s promoting UBI again.

Woodruff then asked Sanders about the new NAFTA (or USMCA) trade deal that the House just passed by a lopsided margin. Sanders called it a “modest improvement over what we have now”, but then added, “It’s not going to stop outsourcing. […] What we need is a trade policy that stands up for workers.”

Klobuchar disagreed: “We have better labor standards and better environmental standards.” She called for “trade agreements that are fairer”, and she touted Congressional Democratic negotiators for forcing Trump to accept those “better labor standards and better environmental standards”.

5:20 PM: More economy, jobs, inequality
Photo by Andrew Davey

Woodruff then asked Biden how he can convince voters to remove Trump from office when the economy looks fine. Biden corrected Woodruff: “The middle class is getting killed. […] The working class isn’t getting a good deal.” He added, “We must change this presidency now.”

Next up, Buttigieg: “They’re not measuring the economy by how the Dow Jones [Industrial Average stock index] is doing. They’re measuring the economy by how they’re doing at the kitchen table.” He continued, “The problem with the economy is simple: They’re not getting paid enough.”

So far, plenty of agreement, including from Yang? (No UBI pitch this time!) Oh wait, here comes Warren: “We’ve got a government that works great for folks with money, and not great for everyone else.” Now, we’re seeing more of a contrast as Warren goes for a bigger message of rooting out “corruption, pure and simple”.

And again, Sanders and Warren are staying on the same page: “Tonight 500,000 people, including 30,000 veterans, are sleeping on our streets. […] We need an economy that works for working families, not just the 1%.”

5:25 PM: Wealth tax!
Photo by Andrew Davey

This was quite the moment. When Woodruff asked Warren about conservative economists who have trashed her tax proposals, she responded, “Oh, they’re just wrong.” Then, she added, “For two cents, what can we do? We can invest in the rest of America. […] We can rebuild our economy from the ground up.”

Then, Steyer tried to argue that his wealth tax plan is better because he’s a businessman who can talk about “growth”. (Le sigh.) And of course, Buttigieg called Warren’s plans “extreme” and part of some “Washington mindset”. 

Just when I was feeling good about this…

5:30 PM: Climate crisis
Photo by Andrew Davey

Alberta jumped in to ask about climate change and whether people in the most risk-prone communities (extreme fires, hurricanes, famines, etc.) must be relocated. Klobuchar side-stepped the question of mandatory relocation. Instead, she insisted, “We can not wait to act” in re-entering the Paris Agreement, shifting to renewable energy, and finally placing some kind of universal price on carbon.

Next up, Steyer: “Not only can we clean up the air and water in black and brown communities where this crisis is most concentrated, but we can also create good, well-paying, union jobs.” He also rejected Alberta’s framing on mandatory relocation and shifted to the need to act on climate.

Next, Buttigieg: “I know what’s at stake, and that’s why I know we must act on a carbon tax and dividend.” Again, he mocked the olds sharing the stage with him for talking about climate and not doing anything (allegedly).

5:35 PM: More climate
Photo by Andrew Davey

Again, we’re seeing some hinky framing by Alberta (a former contributor for the right-wing National Review) with a question for Biden on “taking away people’s jobs”. Biden also rejected his framing and noted how renewables are already boosting California’s economy (and ours). 

Sanders also joined the pile-on: “We have got to declare a national emergency. The U.S. has got to lead the world. […] Instead of investing in deadly weapons, we pool our resources together to fight our common enemy of climate change.”

Next, Warren: “We have got to stop putting more carbon in the air. We have got to get carbon out of the air.” She also deftly explained why nuclear power is not as “clean” as some want us to believe it is. She then directed back to her central message of fighting corruption that currently prevents meaningful climate action: “If we don’t attack the corruption head-on, we can not solve these problems.”

Klobuchar first suggested she agreed with Warren, then she claimed, “The way we [win on climate] is by winning big, and the way we win big is by picking someone who’s from the Midwest.” Yang was just as hokey with his call to “move people to higher ground,” which loops back into his endless UBI loop.

5:45 PM: Racism
Photo by Andrew Davey

Nawaz confronted Biden on his ongoing promise to bring back the golden era of bipartisanship. Biden (again) suggested that removing Trump from office will somehow convince Republicans to “reach a consensus” with him. And yet, Trump and most other Republicans continue to attack Biden and his family.

Nawaz then asked Yang about the absence of Harris, Booker, and other candidates of color (other than Yang himself) on the stage. He said, “I miss Kamala. I think Cory will be back.” Then, he called out the racial wealth gap. And just as he seemed to go for higher ground, Yang… pitched UBI again.

Sanders wanted to talk more about climate change. Nawaz wanted to speak with him about racism. Sanders decided to go for all of it and explain how his platform of “political revolution” addresses all of these crises, which are very connected to each other.

5:50 PM: Racism, continued
Photo by Andrew Davey

Alcindor then asked Klobuchar on race, as she and several other white Democrats have struggled on racial justice on the campaign trail. Klobuchar did promise action on voting rights, but only offered a MLK quote on other matters of economic injustice and institutionalized racism.

On this note, Alcindor asked Sanders about ongoing Middle East strife. “We must not just be pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinean as well.” He called out Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu for his “racist” actions against Palestineans and Arab Israelis. And as a Jewish-American progressive Senator, Sanders called for a more balanced and humane approach to both countries and the larger region.

Buttigieg said something about “values” again. Alcindor asked Warren about the continuing incarceration of people at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, base. She also had a “values talk”, though hers was meatier: “It does not just cost us money. It’s an international embarrassment. We have to be an America that lives our values every single day.” She, like Sanders, called for a more substantive restructuring of American foreign policy.

5:55 PM: Foreign policy, from Israel/Palestine to China
Photo by Andrew Davey

Biden said something about Israel and Palestine, and that did include “more pressure on the Israeli government to accept a two-state solution”. Woodruff then asked Buttigieg about China, including China’s ongoing human rights violations against Uyghurs and Hong Kong residents and many more, and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Buttigieg sidestepped the Olympics question, but made this news: “If they perpetrate another Tiananmen Square [1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists], they will be isolated from the free world and we will lead that isolation.”

Steyer rejected Buttigieg’s call to isolate China, and instead said the U.S. “needs a good relationship with China” to get anything done on climate. Biden then tried to thread the needle between them: “We are not looking for war, but we will not back away.”

Yang noted China’s race to conquer all the tech, and actually had a great point on America’s need to catch up with China and other developed countries. Klobuchar declared that a post-Trump America must “stand with our allies” and promote a “clear and coherent foreign policy and [policy] on human rights.”

And just when Buttigieg was going for another of his “values talks”, Klobuchar had one of her own: Her father worked in journalism, so values like free speech and free press mean a lot to her. As she described it, “This isn’t just talking points. This is the real world.”

6:15 PM: Where’s the power, and who has it?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Alberta asked about former President Barack Obama’s comments: “If women were in charge, you’d see an improvement on just about everything.” Also, Obama suggested too many Western leaders are too old and too white. Alberta hit Sanders with this first, and Sanders replied that “the issue is not our race or our age”, but rather working class solidarity.

Biden was next. And when Alberta asked Biden whether he’ll promise to serve two full terms in office, he replied, “I’m not even elected one term yet. Let’s see where we are.” Klobuchar raised her hand, noted she’s a woman on this stage, and heralded her gold standard of “electability” in Minnesota. She then declared, “I will be proud to serve as the nation’s first president, but I will also be proud to serve as a president who gets things done.”

Warren joked that she will be “America’s youngest woman president”, then explained why she believes her campaign is the most electable of them all. On her famous selfie lines, Warren declared, “Those selfies cost nobody anything. […] People who can put down $5,000 to have a picture taken don’t have the same struggles as people who are struggling to pay medical debts and student loan debts. I am running a campaign where people’s voices are heard.”

Buttigieg complained about Warren sending that cruise missile his way, then suggested he’s so inclusive and inspirational because he’s increasingly relying upon high-dollar donors. He accused Warren of subjecting him to “purity tests you yourself can’t pass” because of her net worth, and she responded, “I do not sell access to my time.” Buttigieg tried to make this fight about Warren’s personal assets, while Warren’s trying to make this about who’s seeking money from where to do what.

6:25 PM: Money, politics, corruption, continued
Photo by Andrew Davey

“I haven’t even been to a wine cave. I went to a wind cave in South Dakota.” Well, that was one interesting way for Klobuchar to blow past the Warren vs. Buttigieg fight over money in politics.

Sanders, however, led everyone back in by calling out Buttigieg and Biden for their respective lists of billionaire backers. Sanders agreed with Warren that this matters: “This is why three people have more wealth than the bottom half. We need to get money out of politics. We should run our campaigns on that basis.”

Steyer, one of the billionaires running, said this debate over money helps Trump. Perhaps Steyer doesn’t remember how Trump has been running on this very issue by obfuscating his own truth.

6:30 PM: Immigration
Photo by Andrew Davey

Nawaz asked Yang about immigration. He instead wandered between women’s rights and money in politics to get to… You guessed it, UBI.

Nawaz then tried to get an answer out of Sanders. He actually did: “Day One: Restore the status of DREAMers on the DACA program.” He also promised to tear down Trump’s anti-immigration executive actions and introduce comprehensive immigration reform with a broad path to citizenship.

Next, Klobuchar spoke of the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) approaching her to work with him on comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. She hinted at Sanders opposing that legislation and contrasted his evolution on immigrant rights with her consistent support for a bipartisan solution. She declared, “I don’t believe immigrants weaken America. I believe they are America.”

6:40 PM: Immigration and racial justice… And a direct hit on Pete Buttigieg
Photo by Andrew Davey

On Trump’s attacks on immigrant communities, Steyer insisted, “This is a racist argument by a racist president.” Then, Buttigieg went into “values talk” mode with talk of making America “a nation of laws and values”. He promised compensation for children incarcerated by Border Patrol prison camps, but sidestepped Nawaz’s follow-up on whether he supports reparations for descendants of ex-slaves.

Biden promised more education dollars for schools serving communities of color, which doesn’t answer much on the actual question(s) being asked. Klobuchar then took the question, tossed it aside, and went in for the kill. She touted Warren’s, Sanders’, Biden’s, and her own work in Congress, then asked Buttigieg why his “values” are worth more than their records.

According to Klobuchar, “We should have someone at the top of this ticket who’s actually won [statewide]. I think winning matters. I think a pattern of getting things done matters.” Buttigieg: “Try winning office with over 80% of the vote in a town in Mike Pence’s Indiana.” Klobuchar: “You tried running [statewide] in Indiana once [in 2010]. You lost by 20%!”

Sanders then jumped in, declared that record-high turnout is needed to take down Trump, and his progressive agenda is what beats Trump.

6:45 PM: Education
Photo by Andrew Davey

Alcindor asked Warren why she offers universal free higher education and wide-ranging student loan forgiveness instead of more targeted assistance. Warren replied, “This is about our values. This is about investing in our children.” She also explained how more education leads to more opportunities for more people.

Buttigieg then accused Warren of “offering free college for rich kids”. She responded, “The Mayors want billionaires to pay one tuition for one kid. I want them to pay tuition for all their kids!” She also described this as a racial justice matter, as students of color are hit hardest by this current crisis.

Sanders jumped in, agreed with Warren again, and compared their broader education plans to Social Security in that benefits for everyone ultimately benefit everyone.

6:50 PM: Americans with Disabilities, then judges and the courts
Photo by Andrew Davey

Alberta actually seemed to ask a relevant question by hitting the candidates on their proposals to integrate Americans with disabilities. Steyer promised he’ll take action, then he made an awkward pivot to saying he’s better at promoting the Sanders-Warren progressive agenda than Sanders and Warren. (What??!!)

Warren noted she was once a special ed teacher, and that she has a plan to fully fund special education for students with disabilities along with plans to ensure equal work and equal pay for workers with disabilities. She then sideswiped Buttigieg again with this little line: “Treat everyone with value, and that’s how you make a better America.”

Woodruff then pivoted the stage to the judiciary. She name-dropped judges she recommended to then President Obama: “I knew they were qualified people who could take those jobs.” She pointed to yesterday’s Fifth Circuit decision on Obamacare as a sign of a greater crisis as she declared, “We have to immediately fill judges on the bench.”

Buttigieg noted that his marriage couldn’t have happened had it not been for the U.S. Supreme Court, then promoted his complex plan to rework the Supreme Court into a larger body composed of some permanent Justices and some rotating Justices.

7:00 PM: LGBTQ civil rights, then foreign policy again (Afghanistan)
Photo by Andrew Davey

On the matter of LGBTQ civil rights, Alcindor asked about the growing crisis of missing and murdered transgender women of color. Sanders promised immediate action, but then pivoted to “Medicare for All” single-payer health care. He promised “comprehensive health care to all people, including certainly the transgender community.”

Warren stayed more on topic: “One thing the president can do is lift up their voices and lift up their lives.” Warren specifically promised Rose Garden ceremonies to call out this crisis as her administration takes executive action and pursues legislation. She stressed, “I will do all I can to make sure we are an America that leaves no one behind.”

Then, Nawaz asked Biden about The Washington Post’s recent expose on the last 18 years of America’s war in Afghanistan. Biden had plenty of words, but Sanders cut through them in calling him out for supporting “endless wars”. 

Oh, wait, Nawaz then called out Sanders for voting for one of them. He admitted, “My good friend Barbara Lee (D-California) was right on Afghanistan. She was right. I was wrong.” Quick history lesson: Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 war authorization bill that then President George W. Bush used to invade Afghanistan, and subsequent presidents have used that same 2001 law to justify other military actions. Buttigieg then promised to support Lee’s current effort to repeal that 2001 law.

7:10 PM: Health care
Photo by Andrew Davey

Alberta poured cold water on Sanders’ drive for “Medicare for All” and asked whether he’d consider interim efforts to improve Obamacare while he tries to get more Democrats on board for his plan. Sanders rejected that notion: “I think we will pass a ‘Medicare for All’ single-payer system, and I will introduce the bill in my first week in office.”

Biden shot back, “I don’t think [Sanders’ plan] is realistic.” Biden said he respects Obamacare while Sanders risks blowing it all up. Sanders shot back that Biden’s plan risks working-class families paying up to 20% of their incomes on health care costs, and Biden shot back that Sanders and Warren want to “raise middle-class taxes” (never mind that Warren released a health care plan that doesn’t propose that).

Sanders and Biden proceeded to shout at each other, then Klobuchar butted in: “Bernie, I promise when I’m your president, I’ll get our pharmaceutical bills passed.” She then dismissed Sanders’ drive for “Medicare for All”, claiming, “You build a bridge. You don’t blow one up.” Sanders replied, “My fight is not with the Governor of Kentucky. My fight is with the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. The day has got to come, and I will bring that day about, that the function of health care is to provide health care to all our people.”

Next, Warren: “It’s about costs. It’s about costs to middle-class families.” She explained her plan to start with a Medicare public option open to 135 million Americans at no extra costs. But unlike Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, she’ll use that public option to spring-board into single-payer health care by the end of her first term.

7:35 PM: Finally, my grades!
Photo by Andrew Davey

Phew, that was a lot! Now that we’ve survived another debate, let’s grade it.

Elizabeth Warren: A+

Bernie Sanders: A+

Amy Klobuchar: A-

Pete Buttigieg: B

Joe Biden: C+

Tom Steyer: C+

Andrew Yang: C-

It’s been a moment since we last saw Elizabeth Warren take command of the entire debate stage, but she finally pulled it off again, and she pulled it off at a critical junction for the future of her campaign and the larger Democratic Party. Yet at the same time, Bernie Sanders also took control of the debate at multiple points tonight and on multiple subject matters, including health care and foreign policy.

Yet while Warren and Sanders once again teamed up to defend the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Amy Klobuchar once more emerged as a serious, captivating, and very substantive alternative for those in the party looking for a more incremental platform. And yet, Klobuchar finds a way to make her incrementalism feel and sound meaningful, which is something Joe Biden continues to struggle with.

Unlike last month, Klobuchar and Warren decided to go harder against Pete Buttigieg. At certain points, Sanders also joined in on the pile-up. And unless Buttigieg can come up with more substance to back up his “values talks”, he continues to risk walking into more of these firing squads in the near future. And considering how Buttigieg has gone after the other candidates up and until now, it’s hard to have all that much sympathy for him getting what he gives.

That’s all for now. I eventually need to go to bed and get ready to see my dad tomorrow, as we’ll find out when he transfers to the hospital where he’ll have his heart surgery. Take care, and we’ll talk more soon.

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