This was a lively one. The latest Democratic debate won’t change the course of the presidential primary – debates generally don’t. But there were a few spirited clashes between candidates that served to highlight crucial differences.
Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg repeatedly locked horns, even though the differences between them politically are not substantial. It is clear that Klobuchar has an intense dislike for Buttigieg: she professed herself insulted by his previous comments about the limited value of “Washington experience”, pointing out that Buttigieg had never managed to win a statewide election. Buttigieg, for his part, gave a righteously indignant defense of the significance of small-town America that could have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin. (You might not think we matter out in South Bend, Senator, but the firefighters and teachers I proudly serve – this is not an exact quote, but you get the picture.)
Elizabeth Warren forcefully confronted Buttigieg on the question of campaign finance, bringing up Buttigieg’s recent high-priced, closed-door fundraiser at a Napa Valley “wine cave”. She said that, unlike Buttigieg, she would not be beholden to the rich and did not sell access. He defended himself by pointing to his low net worth and saying he was not going to “turn away anyone” from donating. He was ready to take on Warren on the issue, though: Buttigieg pointed out that Warren’s aversion to big money donations was a recent shift, and asked her if she believed she had been corrupted by accepting these donations for her Senate campaign. What should have been a strong moment for Warren was rendered far less effective. Bernie Sanders also brought up campaign finance, pointing out that both Buttigieg and Joe Biden had dozens of billionaire donors. Sanders encouraged them to compete to see who could get the most billionaires. Neither responded.
Warren had the best single line of the night. When a moderator informed her she would be the oldest president ever inaugurated, Warren replied: “I’d also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated.” Warren is quick-witted at these debates: when the moderators ended on an insipid “novelty” question (Would you like to ask forgiveness of another candidate or give one a gift?) she suggested the candidates “could do a labor action and go on strike against this question”. Warren’s performance was strong on the whole, including a moving answer about special-needs education that drew on her own experience as a special ed teacher.
Andrew Yang, too, was funny and sharp. Yang has often been relegated to the margins in these debates, but the smaller number of candidates at this debate allowed him to distinguish himself with some amusing lines (“I know what you’re thinking, America: How am I still on the stage with them?”) and his signature universal basic income proposal. Yang had the single best answer on impeachment, encouraging Democrats to “stop being obsessed” over it and correctly encouraging them to “dig in and solve the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place”. Though Yang is unlikely to get far in the primary, and his knowledge of foreign policy was exposed as thin, having another candidate on stage preoccupied with ordinary people’s economic struggles helps the debates. (Strangely, in response to the final question about “giving a gift”, he promised to give copies of his book to the other candidates, rather than seizing the obvious opportunity to plug his $1,000 a month Freedom Dividend.)
Joe Biden was more lucid than usual, and also angrier. He bordered on enraged when talking about how unrealistic Sanders’ Medicare For All plan is, misleadingly citing only the increases in government spending without mentioning the elimination of private insurance payments. Biden had little to say when called out by Sanders about his support for the Iraq war, and when asked about his strange belief that he can get Republicans to work with him, Biden simply reiterated his existing position. It is unfortunate that Biden brings more energy to arguing against single-payer healthcare than to any other issue, but he certainly seemed more agile and effective in this debate than in previous ones. (Which is not necessarily saying much.)
Bernie Sanders was in strong form and made several important points, bringing up both the oppression of Palestinians and the racial justice aspects of climate change. He dealt reasonably well with a confrontational question about his age, arguing that the most important quality in a presidential candidate was whether they would fight for working people of every age, gender, and race. He also gave a forceful defense of universal programs, after Buttigieg repeated his line about not wanting to pay to send rich people’s children to college. When asked about impeachment, Sanders noted that the issue was not just Trump’s ethical violations, but the fact that he “told working people one thing and ended up doing something else” and the right had “sold out the working families of this country” by trying to cut social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Sanders also did something rarely seen in politics: admitting error. When asked about his early support of the war in Afghanistan, Sanders said that Representative Barbara Lee was the only one who voted against it. Lee was right, he said, and Sanders was wrong.
Tom Steyer’s presence in the debate was not worthy of note. It is a shame that Julián Castro, Cory Booker, and Tulsi Gabbard were not on the stage, since each tends to bring up important issues (immigration, racial justice, and militarism, respectively). The selection procedure for the debate was unfortunate, since Steyer doesn’t poll any better than these other three. Let us hope they return in future exchanges.
The moderators chose some strange and highly critical questions based on dubious premises. One was based on the idea that Medicare for All would inevitably fail politically, another on the idea that Trump’s economy was working well for people, and another on the suggestion that the worst effects of climate change were unavoidable. Klobuchar was (yet again) given far more time than her dismal polling numbers warrant. The questions’ subjects were not trivial, but it was strange to see no questions about labor issues given that labor politics had nearly prevented the debate from happening.
No candidate did poorly, and there was no clear “winner”. Klobuchar will probably be praised for her performance, and Biden’s supporters will breathe a sigh of relief to see him putting moderately intelligible sentences together. Buttigieg is increasingly revealing himself to be ruthless in combat with the other candidates. Sanders, Warren, and possibly Yang were the only candidates who offered anything resembling a clear and powerful positive agenda for the country, rather than empty rhetoric about “values”. Insofar as the three of them seem to care about ordinary people’s struggles, they should be considered the winners of every debate.