The seventh Democratic debate saw the smallest set of candidates on stage yet in the contest for the party’s presidential nomination. The debate, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa, was the final one before the Iowa Democratic caucuses take place on February 3rd. The candidates on stage were:
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- Senator Bernie Sanders
- Senator Elizabeth Warren
- Mayor Pee Buttigieg
- Senator Amy Klobuchar
- Billionaire Tom Steyer
Here’s an assessment of how each candidate fared in the debate.
Biden’s performance was, at best, underwhelming.
In previous performances, the Vice President has tried to stir the crowd with rousing exhortations on the greatness of America and, while he expressed similar sentiment this time round, the energy seemed to have been drained from his message.
While he never quite devolved to the level of his famous “record player” gibberish, his answers were occasionally rambling and confused. His description of his own healthcare plan in particular was incoherent, but he did at least get across the vital point that people will be able to stay on their current insurance.
While Biden failed to give a great performance, it hardly mattered.
He is the de facto frontrunner and – incredibly – none of his rivals on stage laid a glove on him. While the two progressive candidates sparred with each other (egged on by the CNN moderators Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillips), and Klobuchar and Buttigieg briefly renewed their spat over experience, nobody felt inclined to take on the candidate who remains consistently ahead in the polls.
There were so many opportunities to take Biden to task, and all of them were dropped without notice. He was able to pass off his enthusiastic support for the Iraq occupation as a mere “mistake,” and in return Bernie Sanders merely offered that he “had a different opinion.” When the debate turned to trade agreements, nobody even mentioned that Biden voted for NAFTA and other controversial trade deals. Nobody batted an eye when he said he would leave troops in the Persian Gulf – in other words, on the borders of Iran.
When moderators asked how the candidates could draw black support, nobody brought up his highly problematic past in racial politics. The list goes on and on!
The other candidates’ failure to take Biden to task cannot be credited to Biden, especially since he outright lied concerning his Iraq invasion position.
However, their failure will be to Biden’s advantage, and this debate will go down as another missed opportunity to weaken Biden’s position.
Sanders had a tough night, fending off attacks from all sides.
Attacks against Sanders’ policies by Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar by this point are to be expected, given his proposals’ radical aims and these candidates’ preference for status quo solutions. Most of these candidates’ attacks on Sanders’ plans were ineffective re-hashings of lines from previous debates.
The hostility of the CNN moderators towards Sanders was rather more surprising; the very first follow-up question he received unfairly equivocated Biden’s vote on the Iraq occupation (an illegal invasion based on false evidence) to Sanders’ vote for the conflict in Afghanistan (a direct response to the September 11th attacks).
The hostility continued from the moderators throughout the night:
- his opposition to Trump’s trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement was described as “unwillingness to compromise”;
- his call for troops to leave the Middle East was compared to speeches by Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei;
- they asked if his Medicare for All plan would “bankrupt the country”;
- and when the debate turned to the question of whether a woman can be president, the moderators addressed a question to Senator Elizabeth Warren as if Sanders wasn’t even there.
The most surprising opposition Sanders faced was from Elizabeth Warren.
The Massachusetts Senator used a CNN story that claimed Sanders didn’t believe a woman could win a presidential election to burnish her electoral credentials (she has never lost an election) and make a pitch for her own candidacy.
Sanders response was strong and substantive, but it was obvious that he felt hurt by Warren’s attack. While pointing out that he had encouraged Warren to run for President if the United States in 2016 and supported the Clinton campaign against Trump, some of his best lines were undermined by a clear irritability in his voice: “Who believes a woman can’t win? Of course a woman can win,” he huffed.
In this debate, the two progressive champions soured on each other – rather than moving on, Sanders decided to dispute Warren’s claim that none of the men on stage had beaten a Republican incumbent in thirty years, bringing up his 1990 election to Congress in Vermont to the U.S. House of Representatives.
This created an awkward pause while the candidates did math on live television (technically, Sanders’ victory was twenty-nine years and two months ago).
After the debate, the two had a terse interaction in which Warren refused to shake Sanders’ hand and Sanders turned his back on his one-time ally.
If this proves to be the end of the unspoken “nonaggression pact” between the two campaigns, it is more likely to harm progressives than help their cause.
However, Sanders certainly helped the cause of Democratic socialism in America. When asked if a socialist could be elected in the U.S., he responded by laying out the “fraudulence” of the Trump Administration. In contrast to Trump’s corruption and fraud, Sanders placed his policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All – “that’s what Democratic socialism is about and that will win this election!”
Warren had the best performance of the night by focusing intensely on two issues: the corporate corruption in our nation’s capital, and her electability as a woman.
Possibly taking a leaf from Bernie Sanders’ style of rhetoric, Warren skillfully showed how every issue facing the country is inhibited by corporate greed, whether it be fossil fuel companies denying climate change, corporations “whispering in the ears” of U.S. trade negotiators, or the military industrial complex prolonging the destruction of war in the Middle East.
Warren described the issue of corporate corruption in Washington in such depth and sophistication that it made candidates with similar arguments (particularly Tom Steyer) appear to be following her lead.
Warren’s even greater achievement in this debate was to dispel the notion of “electability” that has dogged her campaign from the outset.
Confronted at the start of a campaign with a moderator questioning her credibility as a commander-in-chief, she brought up her three brothers in the military, and her time as a senator visiting troops overseas.
She also used the boldest language of any candidate in describing America’s wars, saying that combat troops in the Middle East “are not helping” the situation, showing a stronger grasp of foreign affairs than most American political figures.
Despite the long-term damage she may have brought upon her candidacy by choosing to spar with Sanders, she also managed to demonstrate that – as a woman – she is electable. Her point that she has never lost an election was bolstered by approving comments from Amy Klobuchar, and evidence that since 2016 female candidates have outperformed male ones in U.S. elections. Her declaration got by far the largest cheer of the night from the audience.
Warren, like Biden, was helped by the fact that none of the other candidates or moderators seemed keen to take shots at her ideas.
While Sanders was lambasted for his proposals, Warren remained unscathed.
In earlier debates her biggest weakness was healthcare, but this time she easily put Pete Buttigieg on the defensive over the issue, implying simultaneously that his numbers didn’t add up and his plan was unambitious.
The only other criticisms she faced over healthcare were a few easily-ignorable “pipe dream” quips that Amy Klobuchar had recycled from earlier debates.
Warren did a better job than any other candidate of wedding her plans to the tough issues that Americans face: her healthcare plan would help the 36 million Americans who couldn’t fill prescriptions in 2019; she called her 2% wealth tax “an investment in our babies”; her military credentials ran through her family; and she promoted her position on trade deals as a way to help struggling Iowan farmers.
Warren proved once again in this debate that she is formidable.
However, her hopes of winning the nomination may well depend on being able to secure the support of Bernie Sanders and his supporters; if so, she cannot afford for her relationship with Sanders to degrade any further.
Buttigieg had a somewhat disappointing debate, as he failed to capitalize on his strongest attributes. Despite it being one of the key factors in his campaign, he didn’t really emphasize his military record, except to make a long-winded and fairly pointless aside about a comrade who was forced to leave his toddler to be on duty.
This was despite an obvious attempt to stir conflict between him and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar by the moderators over earlier comments both had made concerning experience (neither candidate took the bait).
In earlier debates, the mayor had been an effective critic of Warren and Sanders’ Medicare for All proposals. Perhaps learning from experience, Warren put Buttigieg on the back foot over healthcare straightaway, suggesting that his plan was only more affordable because it is less ambitious than hers. He found himself almost pleading with the Senator that his plan “would be a game-changer, this would be the biggest thing we’ve done in American healthcare in half a century.”
On other policy issues, he was substantive – for example, he had clear targets for affordable childcare, something Americans badly need – but he failed to make his plans stand out in the way the leading candidates did.
However, Buttigieg dodged a bullet when it came to matters of race.
When asked why he has so little support from communities of color, he responded, “the black people who know me best are supporting me.”
Luckily for him, nobody seemed to notice that his answer was effectively the same as “I have black friends” and the debate moved quickly on.
In a state like Iowa, which has a small black population, racial equity will not be an issue that will hinder Buttigieg’s candidacy. However, if he does not address his history with race and politics in South Bend, it could wreak havoc for his campaign later in the primaries (particularly in South Carolina on February 29th).
Overall, Buttigieg did little to help or harm himself in the Iowa debate.
He failed to land any impressive punches on his rivals, but none of them seemed particularly interested in really taking him on in his weak spots either.
Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar at times seems to be running in a different presidential primary than the other candidates.
While Buttigieg and Biden carefully tried to explain why their plans are really just as ambitious as Medicare for All, Klobuchar laughed and told Democratic audiences that the policy (which is overwhelmingly supported by Democrats) is not a plan, but “a pipe dream.” While Warren reeled off numbers like “36 million prescriptions” and “2% wealth tax,” Klobuchar seemed content to tell stories about looking at name-tags on coats, and promising to give Donald Trump a big telling off: “the Midwest isn’t flyover country for me!”
Although eight years between 2008 and 2016 proved decisively that the Republicans will oppose a Democratic President no matter what efforts they make to reach a bipartisan consensus, Klobuchar seems to believe that she can magically find “common ground instead of scorched earth.”
While discussing her election record (“I have won every race, every place, every time!”) she offered Democrats the tantalizing idea that, after defeat by Klobuchar, Trump would follow the precedent of her other Republican opponents and get “out of politics for good.” Another time, an incredibly sprawling anecdote about the 1950s McCarthy era produced a great line about the 2020 election: “This is a decency check on our government. This is a patriotism check.”
We are not likely to see much more of Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar currently sits in the single digits in Iowa polls, far behind the top four competitors, and given her insistent repetition of her Midwest credentials, a bad defeat in her neighboring state will probably prove fatal for her campaign.
For most of the debate, Tom Steyer just seemed pleased to be on stage with a slightly goofy grin on his face (and an unsettling tendency to talk straight at the camera). He was right to be so pleased; he barely squeaked into the debate with two early state polls at the last moment.
He was asked on stage about whether the millions he spent on a campaign to impeach Trump was “worth it,” but perhaps a more pertinent question would be to ask if the millions he spent to get on the debate stage was worth it.
Steyer had two central themes to his arguments: firstly, that he would prioritize climate change; and secondly that he was able to bring an outsider’s perspective to Washington politics. He didn’t really prove either point.
Although he called climate action his “number one priority” five different times through the night, Steyer failed to lay out exactly what he would do, beyond declaring a state of emergency over the issue.
In contrast, Bernie Sanders touted his Green New Deal and opposition to Trump’s trade deal on climate grounds, while Joe Biden referred back to climate action bills he sponsored back in the 1980s and laid out a number of policies, from charging stations to tree-planting. According to Steyer, these candidates do not prioritize climate justice enough, yet they had more to say on the issue.
While Steyer claims to have an outsider’s perspective, he did little more than parrot the ideas of the other “Washington” candidates on stage.
He cheered Warren and Sanders’ arguments against corporate corruption, and agreed with Biden’s approach to healthcare policy.
He claimed to have the chops for foreign policy based on his business experience, but that pales in comparison to Biden’s diplomatic experience as vice president, Sanders’ decades as an anti-war activist, Buttigieg’s military record or Warren’s proven willingness to take on entrenched interests both at home and abroad.
Steyer, like Klobuchar, is faring poorly in Iowa polls. However, unlike Klobuchar, he is self-funding his campaign, so there is no guarantee that humiliation in Iowa (or indeed, in any state up to the convention) will convince him to bow gracefully out of his attempt to become the second inexperienced billionaire president in a row.