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Saturday, January 18th, 2020

Iowa 2020 Democratic presidential debate recap: How did the six candidates fare?

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.

Joe Biden

Biden campaigns in Des Moines, Iowa

Biden cam­paigns in Des Moines, Iowa (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders walking in a parade

U.S. Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders walk­ing in the Inde­pen­dence Day parade with sup­port­ers in Ames, Iowa. (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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!”

Eliz­a­beth Warren

Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Marshalltown, Iowa

Eliz­a­beth War­ren cam­paigns in Mar­shall­town, Iowa (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa. He is expected to perform well at the state's caucus.

May­or Pete Buttigieg at a cam­paign event in Des Moines, Iowa. He is expect­ed to per­form well at the state’s cau­cus (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Amy Klobuchar


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.

Tom Stey­er

Tom Steyer addresses 2019 California Democratic Party state convention

Tom Stey­er achieved nation­al fame through the Need to Impeach cam­paign (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

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