Democratic Debate #7: Only 19 Days Left Until the Iowa Caucus

Last night’s debate, the final one before the February’s Iowa caucus, was supposed to be pivotal. With polling showing four candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren — within five points of each other in Iowa, the race remains fluid and the debate offered candidates their last, best shot at separating themselves from the pack. Additionally, with an impeachment trial looming that could have the three Senators running for president — Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar — spending the days leading up to the caucus in hearings in Washington, the debate seemed to take on even more importance. Ultimately, though, the stakes proved inconsequential.

The seventh debate of the primary season was largely forgettable, void of any strong clashes between the candidates and eclipsed even before it started by the release of documents from Lev Parnas in the impeachment inquiry. The debate marked the first time this primary season that the Democratic stage was without a person of color on stage, with Andrew Yang and Deval Patrick having failed to qualify and Cory Booker having withdrawn since the last debate.

CNN Is the Worst

Earlier this week, Gallup released a poll on the most important issues for the 2020 Election. Of chief importance to Democratic voter were healthcare, gun control, climate change, education, the “distribution of income and wealth in the United States” and race relations. And yet, last night’s debate saw no debate about gun control and a paltry discussion about race; instead, the first 45 minutes of last night’s debate were devoted to discussing foreign policy, terrorism and the Commander-in-Chief test which, coincidentally, rank very high on the list of issues important to Republican voters.

Even when the discussion moved to the issues that Democrats care most about, the framing of the questions seemed to tilt to the right. Candidates were interrogated about how they’d pay for universal healthcare, despite never being asked how they’d pay for military excursions or efforts to thwart Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The questioning of Sanders seemed particularly egregious: he was asked if his plans would bankrupt the country or if identifying as a socialist would cost him the election. Questions about a private meeting in 2018 in which Sanders allegedly told Elizabeth Warren that a woman can’t win the presidency, were framed like this:

Abby Phillip: Senator Sanders, Senator Warren confirmed in a statement that in 2018, you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?

Sanders: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it, and I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want. Anybody that knows me knows that it’s in comprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be President of the United States…

Then, later:

Phillip: So Senator Sanders, Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?

Sanders: That is correct.

Phillip: Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?

Even if CNN and the Des Moines Register consider Sanders the frontrunner in Iowa — their most recent poll gives the Vermont Senator a slight lead — the tenor of the questions was out of line. But perhaps the most troubling question of the entire debate, which crossed the line from egregious to offensive in my view, was the question posed to Pete Buttigieg about his lack of support among black voters.

We’ve heard Buttigieg tackle some version of this question before but what struck me as particularly bothersome about employing it here is that just last week, Michael Harriot of The Root dropped a blistering report about Buttigieg’s time as mayor that, at best, detail a case of willful ignorance about racism in South Bend during Buttigieg’s tenure or, at worst, implicate him in a gross abuse of power with the intent of advancing white supremacy’s hold in the police department. It is a damning report, one that would, assuredly, impact Buttigieg’s standing with black voters and yet, Buttigieg was not asked to address it. Why ask Sanders and Warren bout their latest controversy and not ask Buttigieg about his? It was journalistic malpractice by CNN.

This was not an effort to help caucus goers in Iowa or Democrats at large make judgment about who’d be the best candidate to advance their interests, it was a preview of Republican attack ads in the fall. It’s disappointing that more candidates didn’t call the network out directly for their bias. CNN should be ashamed of the effort they put forward last night…if they were capable of such a thing.

Highs & Lows

+ 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. His strategy is paying off in South Carolina where his omnipresence on television has vaulted him into second place, according to a recently released Fox News poll. As is his wont, Steyer’s best moment of the debate came on his signature issue of climate change. I was particularly impressed with how Steyer handled a question about making his money through investments in coal, oil and gas. Steyer did a better job describing his evolution from hedge fund manager who invested in fossil fuels to environmental activist than Biden does in explaining his voter on the Iraq War.

“Look, we invested in every part of the economy and over 10 years ago I realized that there was something going on that had to do with fossil fuels, that we had to change,” Steyer admitted. “So I divested from fossil fuels. I took the giving pledge to give most of my money away while I’m alive. And for 12 years, I’ve been fighting the climate crisis. ”

Low: As I noted in my recap of the last debate, outside of climate change, Steyer doesn’t offer much of a rationale for his candidacy at large. He disappears from the debate for long periods of time because he hasn’t put forward his own ideas on key issues like healthcare and education. Instead, when the moderator goes to him, he devotes the bulk of his time simply repeating what another candidate has said and tacking on a few of his own thoughts. He’s like the kid in class who’s bullshiting his way through a class discussion without having read the book.

The only original idea that he pushes, besides his climate emergency, is term limits which are a supremely bad idea. Imagine a Washington, DC where the people with the most institutional knowledge are all lobbyists…that’s the future Tom Steyer is imagining.

+ Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachussetts

High: If I had to pick a winner of the debate, I’d give the edge to Elizabeth Warren who was as good as we’ve seen the senator in a long time. She navigated a tricky situation in responding to Sanders’ denial about their 2018 meeting — despite assertions to the contrary, it is never to a female candidate’s benefit to call out sexism — and pivoted towards safer, more general, ground where she delivered one of the night’s highlights.

Additionally, I thought her closing statement was strong on two fronts: first, seemingly taking a page from Julian Castro’s playbook, she devoted time to recognizing communities whose questions weren’t addressed during the debate, including trans women of color, and second, she tapped into the same hope — “I come here tonight with a heart filled with hope and it’s filled with hope because I see this as our moment in history, our moment when no one is left on the sidelines” — that fueled the rise of Barack Obama in 2008.

Low: Last week, Warren released a plan to revamp the bankruptcy system and, in doing so, set the stage for a direct confrontation with Biden who joined a majority of Republicans in support of the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill. The animus between Biden and Warren, which continued through the Obama administration and lingers in today’s campaign, traces back to that 2005 bill and Warren’s testimony before the Judiciary committee:

But, for whatever reason, Warren chose not to make her new bankruptcy plan an issue during last night’s debate and passed on the opportunity to draw a direct contrast with the race’s frontrunner.

+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President

High: After being somewhat feckless in his response to the president’s repeated attacks on him and his family, Joe Biden has been more forceful in his responses lately and last night was no exception. He’s changed his word choice a bit — he referred to Hunter Biden as his “surviving son,” for example — but his conviction shines through.

“I can’t hold a grudge,” Biden said of the attacks against his family. “I have to be able to not only fight, but also heal, and as president of the United States, that’s what I will attempt to do.”

I thought Biden also did well in weaving his personal narrative — having to travel to and from Wilmington, Delaware each day after having lost his wife — because he was unable to afford childcare as a newly elected US Senator.

Low: The latest polls from Iowa have Joe Biden either leading or running just behind the frontrunners…it’s a change for a campaign that, while leading nationally, had not been able to replicate those numbers in the first caucus state. With his improved standing in the polls, Biden has a real shot at winning the Iowa caucus and, while he didn’t do anything to hurt his cause in last night’s debate, it’s not clear that he did anything to boost his chances either. Biden disappeared for long stretches during the debate and barely made an impact.

Additionally, I’m astounded that Biden hasn’t come up with a better rationale to defend his decision on Iraq. I don’t think it’s as pivotal to his candidacy as others seem to — Democratic voters supported Hillary Clinton after all — but he needs to find a more cogent response because the issue will not go away.

+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont

High: Like Biden with the Iraq question, Bernie Sanders has to know that his identification as a socialist will be a potential topic anytime he steps onto the debate stage. But unlike Biden with the Iraq question, every time Sanders gets the question his answer gets a little sharper. He opened with calling out the president as pathological liar and a fraud and then exposed the president for his enacting his own brand of socialism where he, personally, benefits from tax cuts and subsidies. Then Sanders went on to make his case for democratic socialism…and it was his most successful moment in the debate.

“My democratic socialism says healthcare is a human right,” he said. “We’re going to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. We’re going to make public colleges and universities tuition free. We’re going to have a Green New Deal and create up to $20 million, saving the planet for our children and our grandchildren. We are going to take on the greed and corruption of the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance company. That is what democratic socialism is about and that will win this election.”

Low: Just like Warren, I thought Sanders missed the opportunity to connect on some attacks against Biden that he’d been telegraphing in the lead-up to the debate. Recent weeks have seen Sanders trumpeting his record on Social Security, setting up a direct contrast with Biden who, despite his current proposal to expand benefits, has been an advocate for cuts in the past. It’s a crucial issue for Biden’s opponents to exploit to help diminish Biden’s support from older voters. As recently as 2018, Biden expressed support — however timid — for means-testing Social Security. But Sanders didn’t see an opening to pivot the conversation to Social Security and launch an attack against Biden…which is particularly disappointing for Sanders as CNN stymied his attack on Biden’s Iraq War vote with their bizarre questioning.

As to his skirmish with Warren, I handled I thought Sanders handled it as well as he could have, given his recent public statements, but I think Warren’s response clearly drew his ire and he got annoyed…promptly his ill-conceived rebuke of Warren for “forgetting” that he’d beat a Republican incumbent when he’d clearly misheard her statement. It was not a good moment for the Vermont senator.

+ Pete Buttigieg – Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

High: Buttigieg’s strongest moment of the debate came, I think, in discussing the need for a new vote on an Authorization for Military Force. He pledged to that anytime he’s compelled to use military force as President, he will seek authorization from Congress and that any authorization will include an automatic sunset after three years. He said, “If our troops can summon the courage to go overseas into harm’s way, often on deployment after deployment, then we’ve got to make sure that Congress has the courage to take tough up or down votes on whether they ought to be there.”

Low: I thought Buttigieg had one of his worst debates on the primary season at the worst possible time for his candidacy. The attacks on him during the previous debate seem to have stalled his rise and left the outcome of the Iowa caucus wide open. Buttigieg had a great line — “I’m ready to take on Donald Trump because when he gets to the tough talk and the chest thumping, he’ll have to stand next to an American war veteran and explain how he pretended bone spurs made him ineligible to serve” — that got lost in a meandering answer about the economy that also included references to South Bend’s revitalization and the president’s effort to “recruit Christianity into the GOP.”

While you can’t blame a candidate for not answering a question he wasn’t asked, even taken at face value, Buttigieg’s answer on why his candidacy hasn’t taken off with black voters was a disappointment…and the idea that he would talk about policing was particularly galling.

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar share the stage at Drake University.

+ Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota

High: I thought Amy Klobuchar did well last night (though not as well as I think she needed to). I thought her best answer came on the subject of health care where she made a strong case — namely that there’s no support in the Senate — for pursuing a nonprofit public option instead of some of the more progressive alternatives. She expanded the scope of the health care debate to include coverage for addiction, mental health and long-term care insurance…and she crouched the latter in purely personal terms, talking about her father’s own issues accessing long-term care.

Low: Last month, Cory Booker’s absence from the debate stage gave Klobuchar room to shine as the more experienced, pragmatic alternative to Biden but, last night, the Minnesota senator seemed a bit off her game. Klobuchar is all-in on Iowa — meaning that she has to win or perform really strongly there to keep her candidacy alive — but right now, she’s polling a distant fifth place and nothing about her performance last night suggested that that positioning is going to change. She didn’t have any particularly bad moments, aside from nearly forgetting the name of the Kansas governor (Laura Kelly) but that’s just not enough for Klobuchar at this point…particularly if she’s called back to Washington, DC with Warren and Sanders to participate in the impeachment trial.

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? Did anything from this debate convince you to change allegiances?

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 404 articles for us.


  1. when bernie corrected warren he was right though! she said 30 years ago and he beat a republican incumbent 29 years ago :)) (at the same time that warren was a republican!)

    • She said 30 years ago and he beat an incumbent 29 years and some months ago – I just feel like saying that she was wrong for saying that Bernie’s 1990 election was essentially 30 years ago instead of saying “the only one in 29 years” or “the only one in 25 years” or whatever is getting pretty far into semantics. If it had been something like 1 year vs 6 months, or 14 months vs 2 years, I’d get it.

      And (very kindly) – 30 years ago, I was “straight”, deeply closeted, and also a Republican! I certainly don’t think affects the validity of my political opinions today. :)

  2. I feel like Bernie needs to get more fresh with his answers – he had the same response to everything and his talking points don’t get more specific.

    I thought Amy had a pretty good night last night, except for a slight gaffe with having to refer to her notes for a name and then not finding it and fumbling!

    Tom Steyer kept looking straight into the cam and that was v creepy

  3. As always, thanks for all your hard work and excellent coverage of the debates. Personally, I think a Warren/Booker ticket would be nice, but some a-holes out there might not cotton to the idea. It’s like Oscar nominations: there’s only one slot for someone who’s not a white dude.

  4. CNN was irresponsible and manipulative. If I were asked a “question” the way Bernie was, I would be pissed. BUT Bernie really missed the point re: sexism’s impact on women who campaign for office and the “electability” question.

    1. Raising the subject of women’s electability doesn’t help women candidates. If it were true that Bernie said a woman isn’t electable, the take away would still be “even someone as progressive as Bernie acknowledges America might not be ready for a woman president.” The back and forth over whether a comment was said in 2018 doesn’t matter and will be forgotten, the conversation about electability will continue to be a cloud over women who run for office.

    2. Bernie’s response was invalidating and dismissive. He said “how could anyone in a million years not believe that a woman could become president” citing how Hillary got more popular votes. HILLARY DIDN’T WIN. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A WOMAN PRESIDENT. Every day people question whether a woman can win. Trump leveraged sexism to beat Hillary and his sexism continues to embolden his supporters. (*I’m not a big Hillary fan and I think the reasons she lost are far more complex, but it’s undeniable that sexism and violence against women played a role in the election/ rise of Trump.)

    If Bernie really thinks that not in a million years could someone question the electability of a woman, he has a very significant blind spot. And the sexism of this electability conversation benefits Bernie. It may not be his fault that it exists, but it is his responsibility to see it, validate it, and challenge it. He’s very adept at pivoting to the real issues, he could have and should have done that here.

    3. Recounting how he personally is not sexist would not be the right response to allegations of sexism. His history of comments suggesting he would support women and his good deeds both miss the point and sort of position Bernie as the victim. Lashing out at liars isn’t the right response. It feels like a less significant version of “I have a wife and daughters and female friends that think I’m a good guy” response when a woman accuses a man of harassing her. Or crying in a Senate hearing because being falsely accused of assault is the trauma we should all be focused on.

    No one doubts Bernie would vote for a woman—that’s not how the institutional sexism women candidates face works. Questioning electability is always framed as “of course I want a woman to be president, but I’m worried a woman can’t beat Trump because other people won’t vote for a woman.” The political conversation since 2016 has been dominated by the imaginary male factory worker in Wisconsin who at best doesn’t care if the president grabs women by the pussy. If Bernie were part of that institutional sexism, he would owe a more robust response. Assuming he’s not really the problem regardless of a 2018 meeting, his answer still shifts victimhood from the people who experience sexism to the people falsely accused of it. (Bernie listened to Warren take on sexism and still didn’t react to the issue of sexism but to how unfair it was that she said “30” instead of “29 years and 10 months” when referring to his record. Or he didn’t hear her say 30…still, it misses the point.) Bernie is the victim of unfair “questioning” and a misrepresented story, he’s not the victim of sexism. CNN sucks, but it’s women who need to be vindicated here not Bernie.

    The stakes are not whether Bernie personally thinks women are capable of governing, it’s whether the electability argument has teeth. Bernie didn’t really respond to that.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful comment ! It made clearer to me some of the things I’ve been struggling to articulate about institutional sexism and the electability question.

      Also great coverage as usual from Natalie, always very appreciated! <3

  5. When talking about a question asked of Bernie, you said “the tenor of the questions was out of line”. I don’t always pick up on tone (or other human-y things). Can you say a bit more about that?

    I’m not sure where to post for general politics but with the Impeachment Hearings going on someone ( unfortunately I live far away from Washington DC ) absolutely needs to organize some serious impeachment protests like there were during the Nixon Impeachment hearings – I haven’t seen any large protests outside of the White House or the capital building or in Washington DC on any news channels. Showing the senators of every state that they should be taking this hearing seriously and call for witnesses and documents is vital. How can we know his guilt or even innocence if the senate trial doesn’t include documents and witnesses!! protesting will show The senators that the people want to hear the TRUTH, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – it doesn’t matter if you support 45 or don’t support 45 without witnesses and documents there is no way for this to be a real serious trial. I am just one woman and I’m disabled – bedridden really – due to a tick bite 5 years ago (so everyone wear repellent) anyway someone needs to schedule protests all over the capital just like the women’s march just like Any protest march – someone needs to schedule and organize protests all over the capital just lwe need to show the senators that WE THE PEOPLE want to see a REAL TRIAL in the Senate I’m hoping that this comment will spark someone to make a stand and start organizing mass protests like we saw with Nixon because the protests made a difference. The protests impacted the Senators – Make a difference organize protests do it for me because I can’t I am only one person but one person leads to two leads to three leads to a crowd of hundreds of thousands we need to show the senators we want to see a real trial in the Senate !! I’m not even sure this is the right forum to be putting it out into the ethos but I’d rather say something then do nothing!! We deserve the truth and truth can only be found in a trial when the documents are shown and the witnesses are tested. All the best and take great care!! Happybydefault

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