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without a person of color on stage, with Andrew Yang and Deval Patrick having failed to qualify and Cory Booker having withdrawn since the last debate.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…
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.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) January 15, 2020
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.
Joe Biden says he's prepared for the insults he may face if he's the Democratic nominee running against President Trump: "I've been the object of his affection now more than anyone else on this stage. I've taken all the hits he can deliver" #DemDebate https://t.co/xvUI1vsObT pic.twitter.com/ZWk9XNBTkC
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) January 15, 2020
“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.
+ 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?