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: