Last night’s debate almost didn’t happen. UNITE HERE Local 11, a union that represents 150 cooks, dishwashers, cashiers, and servers on Loyola Marymount’s campus, had threatened to protest over the breakdown of contract negotiations with their employer, Sodexo. Elizabeth Warren was the first Democratic contender to refuse to cross the union’s picket line and, shortly thereafter, all other Democratic contenders followed suit. With the debate in jeopardy, DNC Chairman (and former Obama Labor Secretary) Tom Perez stepped in to help broker a solution. According to UNITE HERE, the new three-year agreement includes a 25% increase in compensation, a 50% drop in health care costs and increases to workers’ job security.
“I am thrilled that we were able to reach an agreement, and that the candidate debate can continue as scheduled,” said Angela Fisher, prep cook at LMU. “I am homeless, and knowing that I will be making a better wage because of this new contract gives me the hope to put a roof over my head and take my mother out of her nursing home.”
With a crisis averted, the stage was set for the sixth debate… with the fewest participants — and the fewest number of female candidates and candidates of color — since debates began back in June.
Since early November, polls have shown Pete Buttigieg leading the Democratic field in Iowa. Frustration with Buttigieg has been rising along with his poll numbers, though: with Cory Booker and Julian Castro — neither of whom met the polling threshold to appear on the debate stage last night — expressing frustration that Buttigieg’s time as mayor is celebrated in a way their tenures, of much larger, more diverse cities is not. In an interview with CNN, Amy Klobuchar lamented Buttigieg’s rise, saying outright the Mayor was benefitting from his male privilege and that a woman with such a short record of experience would not be on the debate stage. Buttigieg escaped the last debate relatively unscathed — with none of the other major candidates directing their attacks at him — but last night, he was not so lucky.
After a relatively dull first hour of debate, Elizabeth Warren was asked to respond to a recent quote from President Obama about most problems in the world being the result of “old people, usually old men” not getting out of the way. She pivoted away from the age critique skillfully — her line, “I’d also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated,” gets my vote for line of the night — and into discussion about Obama’s broader point: who gets access to power and who doesn’t (specifically acknowledging people of color and trans people in her response). She contrasted her selfie lines, where everyday, ordinary people get a chance to share their problems with the woman who might be president, with lavish fundraisers where rich people pay $5,000 for time with a presidential candidate. The critique was a thinly veiled reference to Buttigieg’s recent Napa fundraiser and, to his credit, he responded in the only way he could.
“This is our chance. This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump. And we shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our back,” Buttigieg answered. He invited everyone — from struggling grad students to rich people with disposal income — to contribute to his fight to make Trump a one term president.
Warren noted specifics about Buttigieg’s lavish fundraiser and warned that the days of rich people, in smoke-filled rooms (or crystal-filled wine caves, as it were), picking the president were over. Buttigieg shot back that Warren was subjecting him to an unfair purity test which neither President Obama, Speaker Pelosi or she, until very recently, could pass.
Then Bernie Sanders hopped into the fray, noting that he was the only candidate on the stage without a billionaire contributor. He pointed out that Buttigieg had fallen behind Joe Biden in contributions from billionaires — Buttigieg has 39 to Biden’s 44, according to Sanders — but Sanders was sure that if Buttigieg kept trying, he could catch up. Even Biden was happy to draw an indirect contrast with Buttigieg: while they may court the same donors, at least Biden has been transparent about it, making all of his fundraisers open to the press. And while initially Klobuchar seemed reluctant to jump into the fray, eventually, she too began to attack Buttigieg directly.
“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show that they can gather the support that you talk about of moderate Republicans and independents, as well as a fired-up Democratic base,” Klobuchar said. “[I’ve] not just done it once, I have done it three times.”
Since the campaign began, Buttigieg has positioned himself as someone, like Klobuchar, who’s won in the Midwest, a place home to voters that Democrats need to reach. Even last night, he touted himself as someone who put together a coalition of voters that re-elected “a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana” with 80% of the vote. But while that’s technically true, Buttigieg is talking about a city election; he’s never won statewide in Indiana and the one time he tried, he lost by 25 percentage points. Buttigieg’s lone statewide run remains the single worst performance for a Democrat in Indiana since 2000 and, until last night, no one had ever brought it up in a debate.
The Mayor handled the attacks as well as he could have — none of them seemed to catch him totally off guard which is the best you can hope for, in situations like this — but still, you get the sense that Buttigieg’s fellow competitors don’t seem to like him very much.
Highs & Lows
+ Andrew Yang – Former Tech Executive
High: I thought Yang had his best moment early in the debate when asked about how he’d debate the current president on the subject of the economy which, according to various metrics, is doing very well. Yang rightly pointed out that metrics like the unemployment rate and GDP have very little connection to people’s lived experiences. He pointed to another set of metrics — rising rates of depression, increasing student loan debt, lowered life expectancy — as evidence that our existing systems aren’t telling the full story of the American family.
Low: In response to almost every question he got asked, Andrew Yang referenced the data. His recall of finer data points bordered on encyclopedic. He cited data about the percentage of people who contribute to political campaigns (5) and the average net worth of black and Latino households (10 and 12 percent of the worth of white households). He’s literally written a book about data. And yet, when it comes to the election of Donald Trump and what provoked his election, Yang ignored the mountain of data that points to racism, not economic anxiety, as the cause.
“If your turn on cable network news today, you would think he’s our president because of some combination of Russia, racism, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, and emails all mixed together,” Yang said last night. “But Americans around the country know different. We blasted away 4 million manufacturing jobs that were primarily based in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri.”
This is a falsehood. The evidence on what produced the Trump victory is overwhelming and Yang’s continued insistence that that’s somehow #fakenews is a stain on his candidacy and his character.
+ Pete Buttigieg – Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
High: It was not a good night for the South Bend Mayor. He was finally treated like the frontrunner he is (in Iowa and New Hampshire at least) and had his competitors challenging him on his two greatest weaknesses: his relative inexperience and his fundraising. That said, I thought he handled the situation as well as one could… his attack on Warren as establishing purity tests that she, herself, could not pass was a good counterattack. His campaign has to hope that his counterpunches stem any defections from Buttigieg’s coalition of early state voters.
That said, I appreciated Buttigieg’s answer on reparations, both for the descendants of slaves and for those who we are currently doing great harm to at the border. He said, “Harms compound, just like a dollar saved in its value compounds over time. So does the value of a dollar stolen.”
Low: Aside from a visible snarl during Klobuchar’s attacks on him, I’m not sure that Buttigieg had something that I’d point to as a low. That said, even his best answers to the attacks against him — essentially saying, “I’ll take money from whomever wants to give it,” in this debate or comparing his experience as a gay man to the experience of black people, in the last debate — are bad answers… and I can’t imagine they resonate with voters.
+ Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachussetts
High: After being a frontrunner for a while, Elizabeth Warren’s poll numbers have been slipping precipitously, but last night, it seemed like Warren got her swagger back. She was quick witted, ready for the attack and focused on emphasizing key pieces of her platform. One of Warren’s great gifts as a politician is being able to weave her personal story into a narrative about her political agenda… giving you insight into the candidate and an understanding of her policy prescriptions, simultaneously… and I thought she was at her best last night when she did that.
“I was a special education teacher. And I loved that work, because it gave me a chance to work straight out with people to recognize the worth of every human being,” Warren said, having bullied her way into answering a question about support for those with disabilities. “That’s why I have a plan, as a special ed teacher, to fully fund IDEA, so every child with disabilities will get the full education they need.”
I’ll be interested to see if Warren’s debate performance helps her rebound with early state voters.
Low: Much of Warren’s fall in the polls has been attributed to consternation about her Medicare for All proposal and I don’t think she was as engaged in the back-and-forth over the issue as, perhaps, she should’ve been; instead, it was left to Biden and Sanders. I think she missed an opportunity to discuss the elimination of the filibuster, when asked about what she’d do if Congress rejected a Medicare for All proposal. I’m someone who believes that without filibuster reform, a progressive agenda is DOA in the Senate regardless of who is elected president, so Warren’s decision to ignore that issue — which is a distinct difference between her and the field — was a mistake.
+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President
High: I think this was Joe Biden’s best debate of the campaign… admittedly, given how bad some of his debate performances have been, I think that was low bar to cross, but still, Biden crossed it comfortable. Two things Biden’s campaign have struggled with recently are 1. his tentativeness when it comes to addressing attacks on him and his son with respect to Ukraine and 2. his seemingly pie-in-the-sky notion that Republicans will want to work with his administration, post-Trump, as if he didn’t live through the Obama presidency. To his credit, he seem to take on both my frustrations in one answer:
“If anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans and not want to cooperate it’s me, the way they’ve attacked me, my son, and my family. I have no — no — no love,” Biden said. “But the fact is… we have to be able to get things done. And when we can’t convince them, we go out and beat them like we did in the 2018 election in red states and in purple states.”
I’m still not sure that I’m buying what Biden’s selling but it was a great answer that addressed some real issues voters have with him and, at the same time, stresses his biggest selling point, electability.
Low: I could quibble about Biden’s answer on the Afghanistan papers which I thought lacked the emotion that should come from knowing, unequivocally, that you were right years ago and that top commanders in the field were lying to a sitting Vice President. Overall, though, Biden had a good debate.
Others, however, had some very low moments in response to Joe Biden’s debate performance and given Sarah Sanders’ past work, I didn’t think it was possible for her to stoop any lower.
+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont
High: For years, Sanders has been reluctant to weave his own personal story into the story he tells about America. It’d be easy for him to integrate his own personal story — as someone whose life was recently saved by government-funded healthcare — into a pitch for Medicare for All, but he’s just not that kind of politician. That said, perhaps because he doesn’t do it often, the moments in which he chooses to evoke his own personal history, as he did last night when asked about the change in American policy on Israeli settlements, feel that much more powerful.
“Israel has — and I say this as somebody who lived in Israel as a kid, proudly Jewish — Israel has the right not only to exist, but to exist in peace and security. But… U.S. foreign policy must be about not just being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian, as well,” Sanders said. He pledged to adopt a foreign policy that’s committed to human rights and democracy and works to avoid endless wars through cooperation with other nations.
Low: One of Sanders’ biggest failings as a candidate, in my view, is his inability to talk about identity. He is very good when he can couple identity with another issue, like Medicare for All or the economy, but he hasn’t proven yet that he can consistently address the ways in which identity specifically impacts people’s lives. Last night he had an opportunity to do so when Yamiche Alcindor asked him about the violence that’s plaguing trans women in this country… and, once again, he failed spectacularly.
Alcindor: Senator Sanders, at least 22 transgender people were killed in the United States this year, most of them transgender women of color. Each of you has said you would push for the passage of the Equality Act, a comprehensive LGBTQ civil rights bill. But if elected, what more would you do to stop violence against transgender people?
Sanders: We need moral leadership in the White House. We need a president who will do everything humanly possible to end all forms of discrimination against the transgender community, against the African-American community, against the Latino community, and against all minorities in this country.
But above and beyond providing the moral leadership of trying to bring our people together, what we also need for the transgender community is to make sure that health care is available to every person in this country, regardless of their sexual orientation or their needs.
And that is why I strongly support and have helped lead the effort for a Medicare for all single-payer program, which will provide comprehensive health care to all people, including certainly the transgender community.
As one of two candidates who missed both LGBT forums, I was glad to see Sanders get this question but that was not at all an answer to the question being asked.
+ Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota
High: Amy Klobuchar won the debate, unequivocally. She knew exactly what she needed to do and she did it. Aside from her skillful attacks on Buttigieg, I thought she was the lone candidate on the stage to deliver a really solid answer on impeachment. She did two things that were really significant in her answer: first, she reframed the impeachment as a national security issue, calling it a “global Watergate,” which has been shown to persuade voters; and, second, she challenged the president to live up to Nixon’s example in allowing his witnesses to testify.
I thought Klobuchar also gave a great answer on the new NAFTA, a bipartisan trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico. She was willing to acknowledge Sanders’ disagreements with the legislation but said that she — and Sherrod Brown in a not-so-casual namedrop of the Ohio senator — wasn’t willing to let good be the enemy of great.
Low: Klobuchar’s debate performance was great but her jokes? Aside from the ones she steals from Trevor Noah, Klobuchar’s jokes are still bad.
+ Tom Steyer – Businessman
High: Much to my dismay, Tom Steyer continues to channel millions of dollars of his own money into television ads and earn himself a space on the debate stage. That said, he spent the bulk of his stage time trying to push the rest of the field to be more aggressive on the issue of climate change.
“Our biggest crisis is our biggest opportunity,” Steyer said. “And if we don’t declare a state of emergency on day one, I don’t understand how we go to the people around the world to lead the coalition that has to happen and that only America can lead.”
Low: His strong answers on climate change notwithstanding, Steyer has yet to offer a strong rationale for his candidacy.
Steyer has ideas, clearly, but outside of climate change, doesn’t seem to have plans for how he’d accomplish his goals. It’s not clear to me why, instead of running himself, he didn’t just use his wealth to fund a SuperPAC to support the candidacy of Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) who made climate change central to his short-lived campaign. I guess billionaires are really struggling to find hobbies these days so why not run for president?
So now it’s your turn: what’d you think of last night’s debate? Were there any surprises? Did this debate do anything to help you find your preferred candidate? If you missed it, you can watch the debate in its entirety on Youtube, courtesy of PBS.
If you haven’t already, please consider adding your voice to Autostraddle’s Ultra-Comprehensive Politics Survey. It’s a great opportunity for us to create a benchmark for where LGBTQ+ women are in this election, compared to general population, but also, as we step into 2020 campaign in earnest — we’re just 45 days away from the Iowa caucus — these numbers will help guide our political coverage.