Democrats Clash In Fifth Debate

The fifth Democratic debate brought some candidate clashes, but hardly the no-holds-barred type of event you might expect for this late in the pre-primary process.

With voting in the 2020 campaign set to start in 76 days in the Iowa Caucuses, Democrats met in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia for their fifth debate of the election cycle. While the debate stage was smaller than it was last month when there were a record twelve candidates on the stage, my first observation is that the debate itself was quite simply too damn long at three hours and the format was unhelpful. As was the case with the third debate, the earlier start time of 8:00 p.m. rather than 9:00 p.m. was far better. As with the previous debates, there are still simply too many candidates on the stage for anything that approaches a useful exchange of ideas and positions, or for any candidate to get off anything more than short statements that are hardly useful in making any rational judgment about whether or not that candidate would make a good President or a good nominee capable of beating Donald Trump.

Notwithstanding that, given in no small part to the fact that the days before voting starts is dwindling quickly and for several candidates, last night’s debate may have been their last opportunity to make a case before a large national audience, we did get a fairly good clash of ideas. Not unexpectedly, many of the more interesting moments in the debate came as candidates further down in the polls sought to take on the candidates at or near the top of the polls, including former Vice-President Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and newly-minted member of the frontrunners tier, and to some extent South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg who finds himself leading in the polls in Iowa and moving swiftly upward in New Hampshire. When it was all over, we got a lively debate, but it’s unclear exactly how much will have changed when the smoke clears.

ATLANTA — The top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination largely sought to speak directly to the American people rather than to draw contrasts with one another Wednesday night, in a wide-ranging presidential debate that came at a critical point in the party’s nominating contest.

For much of the debate, the candidates shied from the biting exchanges and intraparty contrasts that marked the first four gatherings, opening new lines of conversation on issues as disparate as racial justice, marijuana policy and child care. But there were also pointed if brief disputes as the night wore on, some of them focused on black voters, a key Democratic constituency.

The fifth Democratic primary debate, sponsored by The Washington Post and MSNBC, was the first since South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg showed signs of surging in several polls, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) obliquely criticized him for his lack of support among black voters.

“For too long candidates, I think, have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Harris said. “They show up when it’s close to election time, show up at a black church.”

She urged the party to do more to rebuild the Obama coalition.

“I completely agree,” Buttigieg said. “I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters who don’t know me.”
Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) criticized former vice president Joe Biden in blunt terms, attempting to peel away the black voters who have been the backbone of Biden’s support.

“Black voters are pissed off, and they’re worried,” Booker said. “I have a lot of respect for the vice president … But this week I heard him literally say that ‘I don’t think we should legalize marijuana.”

Looking toward Biden, Booker said, “I thought you might have been high when you said it.

Biden said that marijuana should be decriminalized but that its long-term effects need to be further studied before it was fully legalized.

“I come out of the black community in terms of my support,” Biden said. “They know me.”

Biden also claimed to have the support of “the only black African American woman had ever been elected to the United States Senate.” It was an apparent reference to an endorsement from former senator Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), but disregarded Harris — who, onstage, laughed and shrugged.

Given the fact that the debate came mere hours after the conclusion of the blockbuster testimony the American Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland, it was inevitable that the impeachment inquiry was part of the subject matter of discussion but there was obviously little disagreement among the candidates:

“The president felt free to break the law again and again and again,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “We have to establish the principle: No one is above the law. We have a constitutional obligation, and we need to meet it.”

“We have a criminal living in the White House,” Harris said.

Biden chided his party for the chants that have been breaking out at some Democratic events where attendees have been shouting “Lock him up!” — a reference to Trump that echoed the line about Hillary Clinton that Trump supporters rallied around during the 2016 campaign

I don’t think it’s a good idea that we mock that — that we that we model ourselves after Trump and say, ‘Lock him up,'” Biden said. “Look, we have to bring this country together. Let’s start talking civilly to people and treating — you know, the next president starts tweeting … anyway,” he said, trailing off.

“Look, it’s about civility,” he continued. “And that’s not who we are. That’s not who we’ve been. That’s not who we should be. Follow the law.”

Biden said emphatically that he would not order his Justice Department to prosecute Trump, but he held out the possibility that it could do so if the attorney general he appointed thought it was warranted.

(…)

While impeachment is a unifying topic for Democrats, the presidential race has showcased the party’s internal struggle over how much of the campaign should revolve around Trump’s fate, versus maintaining the issue-heavy focus that led the party’s 2018 House candidates to a majority. Within the policy field is a separate Democratic fight, over whether to pursue the sweeping policy changes backed by its liberal wing or embrace a more-moderate vision for bringing the country together after Trump.

“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said. “If we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election.”

Despite those warnings from Sanders and others, The New York Times notes that the candidates tempered their attacks on each other in favor of attacks on the President:

The Democratic presidential candidates yielded to the furor surrounding the impeachment inquiry in Washington in their primary debate on Wednesday, for the first time training their fire more steadily on President Trump than on one another and presenting a largely united front on vital issues like climate change and abortion rights.

One month after the party’s moderate wing led a ferocious attack against Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at the previous debate, the leading Democrats opted to mute their rivalries and restrain their language, mainly detailing their disagreements in gentle or at most passive-aggressive terms. There were moments of direct friction, especially in the final minutes of the debate over matters of national security, but in many cases the candidates’ criticism was couched within jocular one-liners or pragmatic arguments about electability.

(…)

Democrats focused on denouncing Mr. Trump. That was in part because, unlike at previous debates, the moderators avoided stoking rivalries and highlighting differences. Yet the lack of vitriol and the intense focus on electability also owed to the nature of this campaign, which as the impeachment inquiry unfolds is becoming even more centered on finding the best candidate to defeat the president.

The candidates attacked Mr. Trump both for his actions toward Ukraine that have prompted impeachment proceedings and for a longer litany of offenses, including his detention of children at the Mexican border, his warm relationships with dictatorial governments in Saudi Arabia and North Korea and his appointment of political cronies to prominent jobs.

The debate also highlighted the considerable areas of agreement across the Democratic field on overarching policy goals, including taking aggressive action to counter climate change, expanding voting rights and restoring traditional American alliances around the world.

Ms. Warren used the impeachment inquiry, and the testimony on Wednesday by Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union and a Trump donor, to criticize the practice of installing wealthy political supporters in overseas embassies. Mr. Booker railed against Mr. Trump for what he described as his human rights violations at the southern border, such as “when children are thrown in cages.”

Ms. Harris jabbed that Mr. Trump “got punked” by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, in nuclear negotiations. For Ms. Klobuchar, it was Mr. Trump’s forgiving treatment of Saudi Arabia after its agents kidnapped and killed the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“That sent a signal to dictators around the world that that’s O.K.,” Ms. Klobuchar said.

All of this isn’t to say that there wasn’t some clashing between the candidates, and much of it was similar to what we’ve seen before. Elizabeth Warren and to some extent Bernie Sanders continued to come under fire for health care plans that more moderate candidates like Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar contend are unrealistic, unlikely to pass Congress, and likely to prove unpopular with many of the voters Democrats need to attract to win the election. Mayor Buttigieg, for example, talked about his own plan, which he called “Medicare for All who want it,” which would effectively create a public option that would allow anyone to pay into Medicare rather than getting their own health care insurance or using an employer-based plan. Senator Klobuchar has a similar plan, and, of course, Vice-President Biden continues to stand behind the Affordable Care Act and argue that the priority needs to be fixing the existing law rather than tearing it down and starting over again.

The former Vice-President also came under attack to some degree by Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who questioned his commitment to the concerns of the African-American community. Booker, in particular, brought up Biden’s recent comments that he does not currently favor nationwide marijuana legalization pending the outcome of studies regarding the issue of marijuana being a gateway to other, harder, drugs. Biden fought back strongly, noting his decades-long support from the African-American community and, of course, his service as Barack Obama’s Vice-President. In a line that nearly drew attention away from his point, Biden initially stated that he had been endorsed by the only African-American woman elected to the Senate, former Illinois Senator Carol Mosely Braun, a comment that brought laughs considering that Kamala Harris was on stage with him. Biden quickly corrected himself to make it clear he meant to say that Braun had been the first African-American female Senator.

Other clashes of note last night included a clash between Kamala Harris and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard over Gabbard’s Democratic bona fides and her ties to some people close to President Trump. As many have done in the past, Harris brought up Gabbard’s controversial visit with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the middle of the Syrian civil war that has resulted in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. Harris also noted that Gabbard hard previously met with Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart publisher who became a close adviser to the President during the 2016 campaign and in the White House. In some sense the attack was puzzling since, in attacking Gabbard Harris is essentially punching down and giving a little-known candidate more attention than she deserves.

If there was anything surprising about last night, it was the extent to which Pete Buttigieg was not the focus of more attention from his fellow candidates. Given his recent rise in both Iowa and New Hampshire, one would have thought that the other candidates would have focused more attention on him, but it wasn’t to be. Politico suggests that the reason for this could be that the other candidates are waiting to see if his rise is just a momentary flash in the pan or something more substantial. That makes sense, I guess, and there is another debate coming up in December that could pose a challenge for Buttigieg. However, it’s also possible that his rise will gain so much momentum between now and then that stopping him could prove to be more difficult.

We’ll learn in the coming weeks what impact the debate had on the race, but given the lack of any real soaring moments or utter gaffes by any of the candidates I’m going to guess that it won’t end up having much of an impact at all. Biden will continue to lead the race, while Mayor Pete and Senators Warren and Sanders fight it out for second place. The big question after this debate whether any of the last-chance candidates are able to rise above the crowd. Of all of the candidates on the stage, the one I’d say to keep an eye on is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is slowly moving up in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Whether it will be enough to boost her into a contenders slot remains to be seen.

If you missed it, you can watch the full debate video here:

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Politicians, US Politics, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Fortunato says:

    I don’t know why, but I find it impossible to get enthused about these debates.

    Why in gods name are there still 10 people on that stage?
    It’s like an advertisement for DNC fecklessness.
    Why hasn’t someone told Tulsi she’s not welcomed? And why not tell her in as public a manner as possible! Announce to world we’d prefer she stick with Tucker, Lou Dobbs and the Russian bots that find her mildly entertaining. (maybe ‘entertaining’ isn’t the right word, maybe ‘grift for the winger mill’ is more appropo)

    And why can’t somebody tell Joe it’s over?
    Gdammit Joe, you’re a good man, but so is Robert DeNiro – who you won’t find in a boxing ring any more!

    Thought.. why not Pete & HRC?
    Pete can take the high road – unite and inspire a nation (the sentient portion anyway) while re-establishing and enhancing vital alliances around the globe.
    Meanwhile Hillary can spend every waking moment driving, like a crazed Marine Corp drill sergeant, much needed legislation. In doing so she can also do the nation a service by laying bare the Republicans continuing malfeasance, clubbing senseless intransigent ‘Freedum Caucus’ wingers and generally collecting TEAstained GOP gonads in a scorched earth campaign of legislative achievements benefiting the middle class and working poor.

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  2. Moosebreath says:

    @Fortunato:

    “Why hasn’t someone told Tulsi she’s not welcomed? And why not tell her in as public a manner as possible! Announce to world we’d prefer she stick with Tucker, Lou Dobbs and the Russian bots that find her mildly entertaining. (maybe ‘entertaining’ isn’t the right word, maybe ‘grift for the winger mill’ is more appropo)
    And why can’t somebody tell Joe it’s over?”

    Because the doing so would be reality catching up Bernie Sanders’ complaints in 2016 that the DNC was putting their finger on the scale against him.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    Ten minutes ago I replied to a comment at WAPO to correct a claim that Hillary described Gabbard as a Russian agent. I pointed out “Russian” was a misquote by NYT, Hillary said “Republican”. I also noted that NYT corrected the story, without so much as the usual footnote that a correction had been made. Clinton Rules. FTFNYT.

    She certainly does seem like she may be a catspaw for the Republicans. As does Deval Patrick. And I think she should contemplate the fact that if GOPs are using her as a catspaw, the’d have no reason to tell her. But I think D primary voters will get rid of her soon enough.

  4. Jen says:

    If there was anything surprising about last night, it was the extent to which Pete Buttigieg was not the focus of more attention from his fellow candidates.

    They know that unless his numbers improve with the AA community, he won’t go far beyond IA and NH. He has a hard stop if he can’t get those numbers up and fast. I think that his opponents might be waiting for that to sink in for voters. I like Buttigieg and am voting for him in the NH primary, but at some point it’s going to start dawning on people that the electability issue has many facets, and you cannot win the nomination much less the presidency without broad support.

    Both the DNC nominating process/rules and the electoral college reinforce this.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    Look, it’s about civility,” he (Biden) continued. “And that’s not who we are. That’s not who we’ve been. That’s not who we should be. Follow the law.”

    OK, I could see an argument about “lock him up” being poor optics for the election. But WTF does the law have to do with it? Boomer.

    (Yes, I know he’s not a boomer, I’m a leading edge boomer and he’s even older than I am.)

  6. Gustopher says:

    In some sense the attack was puzzling since, in attacking Gabbard Harris is essentially punching down and giving a little-known candidate more attention than she deserves.

    Harris’ campaign has been floundering the the point that I’m not sure attacking Tulsi Gabbard really is punching down. Plus, it gives Harris an opportunity to show that she can effectively take a swing at someone, and it does so without alienating anyone in the Democratic Party.

    Buttigieg also took a few swings at Gabbard. He does fierce pretty well I thought.

    Maybe people just don’t like Gabbard?

  7. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    Look, it’s about civility,” he (Biden) continued. “And that’s not who we are. That’s not who we’ve been. That’s not who we should be. Follow the law.”

    OK, I could see an argument about “lock him up” being poor optics for the election. But WTF does the law have to do with it?

    Biden doesn’t speak carefully — that’s just Biden. He almost certainly meant that we are a nation of laws rather than a nation of mob justice.

  8. Jax says:

    @Gustopher: That was the first time I’ve seen Buttigieg get angry to the point where he might lose his cool, I wanted to hear his reply, but they went to another person.

  9. Jen says:

    Biden doesn’t speak carefully — that’s just Biden.

    Oh, good. That’s exactly what we need to recover from Trump.

    I know that Trump’s “not careful” is different by orders of magnitude from Biden’s “not careful,” but jeez, come on.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @Jen: Uncle Joe is going to Uncle Joe. It’s fine to dislike him for that, or vote against him for that, but it’s silly to take his sloppy speech as the literal truth and then condemn him for the literal interpretation of the sloppy speech.

    I think he’s too old, and doesn’t have the energy and fight for the general election.

    I don’t think he believes shouting “Lock him up!” is a violation of the law. Not when there’s a plausible interpretation of it that fits with everything Biden has said for years.

    Take him seriously, but not literally, etc.

    There’s plenty of reasons to vote against Biden without having to make up reasons.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    Oh, good. That’s exactly what we need to recover from Trump.

    I know that Trump’s “not careful” is different by orders of magnitude from Biden’s “not careful,” but jeez, come on.

    Can you imagine a debate between the two of them? It’d be like a warped stage production of “Cocoon” without the alien rejuvenation…

  12. An Interested Party says:

    Biden doesn’t speak carefully — that’s just Biden.

    Here’s a possible reason for that…

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Open question to the audience: What does it say about the electorate and/or the Democratic Party that Joe Biden–a person who has failed spectacularly in Presidential runs not once, not twice, but three times–is considered by many the “strongest candidate” in the Democratic Party field?

  14. Hal_10000 says:

    I don’t think it changed much. Biden was Biden and will continue to be Biden. Warren’s down from her peak and, for the first time, seemed to be running out of gas a bit. Mayor Pete wasn’t challenged much but did knife Tulsi pretty well, which I appreciated.

    Two candidates stood out for me. Booker, who pointed out the huge flaws in Warren’s wealth tax (which she’s fibbing about, claiming it’s 2%, when it’s now 3-6%). And he also hit Biden hard on marijuana. His “marijuana is already legal for privileged people” was the line of the night.

    Klobuchar also did well, I thought. I’m surprised she’s not done better, given her background. If there’s one candidate polling back of the pack right now who could suddenly surge, it’s her.

    Neither did well enough to break out, though. So we’re still down to three old farts and the small-town mayor.

  15. Jen says:

    @Gustopher:

    There’s plenty of reasons to vote against Biden without having to make up reasons.

    I wasn’t getting anywhere near that.

    I think Biden’s too old, but I’ll vote for him with no problem if he’s the nominee.

    My point was just that it would be a tiny bit disappointing to go from the malicious imprecision of speech of Trump to the innocuous imprecision of speech of Biden, because how a president speaks matters.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @An Interested Party: Tom Cruise is now older than Wilfred Brimley was during the filming of Cocoon. The alien rejuvenation happens in Scientology clinics apparently.

    Or the opposite. Thetans make us age, and Tom Cruise is getting his Thetans taken care of.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    Tom Cruise is now older than Wilfred Brimley was during the filming of Cocoon.

    I thought you were kidding but it’s true! Good grief! A pity that Scientology couldn’t save John Travolta’s hair…