The final Democratic presidential debate of the year brought together seven 2020 candidates in California for an at times heated argument on their qualifications, policy proposals and path to the White House, one day after the impeachment of Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Facing off in Los Angeles on Thursday in the smallest lineup yet were the former vice-president Joe Biden and senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg; Senator Amy Klobuchar, the entrepreneur Andrew Yang and the billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer.
On the heels of a historic day in Washington, the debate, hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico, opened with a question on Trump’s impeachment but quickly pivoted to key issues for Democratic voters, such as social injustice and climate change. Facing repeated criticism was Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor, who has been rising in the polls in early primary states.
Klobuchar questioned the mayor’s level of experience in national politics. The Minnesota senator touted her accomplishments and those of other senators in the race to highlight Buttigieg’s relatively short career. Buttigieg responded by stressing his experience as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and his ability to get elected as “a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana”.
“I certainly respect your military experience,” Klobuchar countered. But she added: “That’s not what this is about.”
Buttigieg and Warren continued an argument over fundraising tactics they’ve been engaged in for several weeks, with Warren criticizing Buttigieg for a recent fundraiser at a private Napa winery. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said.
Buttigieg replied by noting he was the least wealthy candidate on stage, telling Warren: “Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.” The mayor said he was willing to receive contributions from anyone who wanted to defeat Trump.
Although Washington has been held in the grips of impeachment for weeks on end, the topic only briefly came up in the debate.
Biden argued for the need to “restore the integrity of the office of thee presidency.”
Warren and Sanders, who as senators will vote in Trump’s Senate trial, referred to the president’s 2016 promise to “drain the swamp”, arguing Trump instead had furthered the interests of the wealthy and well-connected. Trump was “the most corrupt president in living history”, Warren argued.
Klobuchar criticized the White House’s refusal to let administration officials like the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and the former national security adviser John Bolton testify: “He should be not scared to put forward his own witnesses.”
Yang stood out, arguing Democrats should stop “being obsessed over impeachment, which, unfortunately, strikes many Americans like a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be, and actually start digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place”.
Throughout the night, Warren stressed the key argument of her campaign: that the success of the US economy is not being shared with everyone and that corruption is hurting everyday Americans.
Asked how she would answer economists who say her plans would stifle growth and economic investment, Warren responded: “Oh, they’re just wrong!”
Sanders briefly made news, revealing that he would not be voting for the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which the House of Representatives had passed earlier on Thursday. Sanders, who has been skeptical of trade agreements in the past, acknowledged that the deal was a “modest improvement” over Nafta but argued it did not address key issues such as outsourcing.
The candidates agreed on the need for bold and urgent action to combat the climate crisis, reflecting Democrats’ overwhelming recognition of global heating as an imminent threat. “The issue is whether we save the planet for our children and grandchildren,” Sanders said.
Concerns over diversity
Thursday’s debate was the first in California, which has grown in importance this election cycle. But it did not reflect the diversity of the state’s electorate. There were no black or Latino candidates among the nearly all-white lineup debating at Loyola Marymount University. Senator Cory Booker and the former housing secretary Julián Castro both failed to qualify and Senator Kamala Harris recently ended her campaign amid polling showing her struggling in the state, which is her home.
Andrew Yang said it was “both an honor and a disappointment to be the only candidate of color on the stage”. Yang pointed to the structural challenges Latinos and African Americans face in America, arguing that his proposed universal basic income would help to address those issues.
The PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor pointedly asked Klobuchar what she tells white Americans who are uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a racial minority.
“I’d say: this is America,” Klobuchar responded, vowing to combat voter suppression and gerrymandering efforts.
When Biden was asked directly about whether he supported reparations, he responded with a long speech about immigrants but didn’t directly answer the question. Buttigieg said he supported proposed legislation to study reparations.
When Sanders was questioned about concerns that there are too many older white men in positions of power, he said: “The issue is not old or young, male or female, the issue is working people standing up, taking on the billionaire class.”
Sanders also gave a generic answer pivoting to his healthcare plans when asked about rights for transgender people and violence against trans women of color. Warren said as president, she would go to the Rose Garden and read the names of trans women and people of color who had been killed.
In a series of exchanges on foreign policy, the conversation turned to China, the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan and Trump’s incoherent approach to international affairs, with the candidates vowing to bring stability and a focus on human rights back to US diplomacy.
Bernie Sanders called the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election while under indictment, a “racist” and argued US policy “can’t just be pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian as well.”
California’s growing importance
The debate’s location was a reflection of California’s growing importance in the primary race. Its vote will take place in March 2020 and could play a critical role in selecting the nominee. Some recent polls have shown Sanders ahead of Warren in the state, and the two are expected to be competing for progressive voters in the region. Biden has also remained a frontrunner in California polls. Buttigieg has attracted significant support from Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
The Democratic National Committee required candidates to hit at least 4% in four national polls or at least 6% in two early-state polls in the weeks leading up to the debate . Several candidates, including the US congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and the author Marianne Williamson, failed that bar. Also missing from the event was Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor who made a surprise entrance into the race last month and has poured an estimated $13.5m into TV ads in California.
Outside of the debate venue on Thursday, Christine Sanders, 35, and Beatina Theopold, 36, were both second-guessing themselves as Los Angeles Democrats who have lived on both coasts. They knew who they liked, the women said, but they worried about what candidate would be most electable in the midwest. Theopold, a field organizer for Obama in 2008, said she was still undecided.
Alayshia Barker-Vaughn, 18, said she was leaning towards Warren. Barker-Vaughn praised her outreach to voters of color, her focus on healthcare, the fact that she is a woman, and her “charisma”.
“Her charisma and how she engages with an audience is very unique,” she said.
California has led the opposition to Trump’s policies on immigration, the climate crisis, healthcare and other issues. Recently, the president has increasingly attacked the state’s Democratic leaders over the homelessness crisis, suggesting he might pursue some kind of law enforcement crackdown on people living outside.
A labor dispute had threatened to derail the LA debate earlier in the week when the candidates, led by Warren, announced they would boycott the event in support of a union planning to picket the Loyola campus. On Tuesday, the union, Unite Here Local 11, announced it had reached an agreement with the campus food services contractor.