Six Key Takeaways From the 8th Democratic Presidential Debate

Despite what you may have heard, Iowa remains a clusterf*ck. While the Iowa Democratic Party has declared a winner, neither I nor the Associated Press feel confident enough in the caucus’ administration to join them in their declaration. It’s a frustrating conclusion to what could have been an incredible stories, both for Pete Buttigieg, who could have been the first out gay person to win, and for Bernie Sanders, who could have had the ultimate comeback story after his narrow loss in 2016. But while the final numbers remain unknown, the feelings and frustrations from the Iowa experience have lingered and they manifested last night on the debate stage.

The Participants:

+ Andrew Yang – Former Tech Executive
+ Pete Buttigieg – Former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
+ Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachusetts
+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President
+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont
+ Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota
+ Tom Steyer – Businessman


1. Biden Will Not Compete in New Hampshire

In the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus, multiple polls showed Joe Biden competing for a first place finish. His opponents stepped up their attacks on his record on Social Security and his vote on the Iraq War — a sign that their internal polling was echoing public polls — and the Biden campaign shifted more resources to the Hawkeye state. If Biden could win in Iowa and hold onto leads in Nevada and South Carolina, he’d go into Super Tuesday with tremendous momentum and with the opportunity to sew up the nomination by early March. But even though many details about the caucus remain in dispute, one thing is certain: Biden did not even come close to winning… and, in hindsight, his decision to go all in on Iowa was a folly.

In the wake of what Biden called a “gut punch,” the campaign is making changes: firing staff that, in their view, insufficiently prepared supporters for the caucus and effectively backing out of the First in the Nation primary. The former vice president conceded, “It’s a long race. I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here. Traditionally — Bernie won by 20 points last time — and usually it’s the neighboring senators that do well.”

Biden deemed the early states as just starting points and pledged to continue his campaign to “restore the soul of this country.” It’s a risky strategy for Biden: His entire campaign, until now, has hedged on inevitability — both as the likely nominee and as the candidate most likely to beat Donald Trump in November — so any loss undermines his entire narrative.

2. Sanders Bats Back Trump’s Attacks on Socialism

For years, much of the president’s focus with respect to his 2020 reelection campaign has been on Joe Biden; indeed, it was his dogged pursuit of information on Biden that led to his impeachment. But, as Sanders continues to pick up steam and stake a claim at the frontrunner mantle, the president’s started to shift the focus of his attacks: from “sleepy Biden” to “Sanders the Socialist.” He devoted portions of his State of the Union to highlighting efforts being made to end the reign of socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro. Almost transparent in his targetting of Sanders, Trump said, “socialism destroys nations, but always remember freedom unifies the soul.”

Sanders has been challenged consistently throughout the primary on his label as a Democratic Socialist so getting the question during last night’s debate wasn’t a tremendous surprise. That said, the fact that Trump was engaging him directly, elevated Sanders’ candidacy and added new vigor to what had become a somewhat stale answer. In addition to rebutting the president, Sanders took another opportunity to voice his support for Party unity and it was one of the strongest moments of the debate for the Vermont senator.

“Donald Trump lies all the time. It doesn’t matter what Donald Trump says, it’s a sad state of affairs, it really is,” Sanders said. “At the end of the day, the way we defeat Donald Trump and everybody up here by the way, is united. No matter who wins this damn thing, we’re all going to stand together to defeat Donald Trump.”

3. Klobuchar Has Had It With Buttigieg

Perhaps more than anyone, Amy Klobuchar had to do well in Iowa. Her path to the nomination, though narrow, was predicated on a strong showing in Iowa — a state next door to her home state of Minnesota — which would catapult her to the top tier. That, of course, did not happen. But what seems more frustrating to Klobuchar isn’t that she came in (presumably) a distant fifth place in Iowa, it’s that Pete Buttigieg finished ahead of her in the standings.

Both are candidates who wrap themselves in the Heartland but only Klobuchar has won statewide. In fact, she’s won multiple times while Buttigieg’s only statewide run was one of the worst losses by any Democrat in the nation in 2010. It’s clear that Buttigieg’s success, despite his short resume, grates on Klobuchar more than others in the field… and any woman who’s ever watched a younger, less accomplished man be promoted over her can relate.

Last night, Klobuchar took out her frustration on the former mayor. She chastised him for him for dismissiveness of experience in Washington, pointing out that it is the place where the hard decisions get made. She criticized him for diminishing the importance of the impeachment hearings to curry favor with voters as the “cool newcomer.”

“It is easy to go after Washington, because that’s a popular thing to do. It is much harder… to lead, and much harder to take those difficult positions,” she said, punctuating it with the line of the night: “We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us.”

She struck out at Buttigieg again later over his failure to take a decisive position on healthcare, quoting Buttigieg’s 2018 tweet in support of Medicare for All, a position he criticizes Sanders and Warren for holding now.

I don’t know if there’s a path to get Klobuchar to the nomination — and, frankly, I’m not sure her campaign knows — but last night, she certainly made a case that if she’s not the nominee, Buttigieg shouldn’t be either. Perhaps more importantly, she made a case that she’d make a very strong vice presidential candidate.

4. Buttigieg Defends Biden

Buttigieg’s path to the nomination has always been to position himself as a moderate alternative to Biden and then waiting for the former vice president’s campaign to falter. Now that that’s happened, Buttigieg has to nudge Biden out of the way but he has to do in a way that Biden’s moderate supporters will be willing support his candidacy. The theory seems to have proved successful in Iowa where Buttigieg, seemingly, dominated as the second choice candidate for campaigns that were viable. Last night began Buttigieg’s polite nudge of Biden out of the race: given the opportunity to criticize Biden over ongoing Congressional investigations, Buttigieg demurred.

“The vice president and I and all of us are competing but we’ve got to draw a line here. And to be the kind of president, to be the kind of human being who would seek to turn someone against his own son, who would seek to weaponize a son against his own father, is an unbelievably dishonorable thing, that is just one more example of why we as a party have to be completely united in doing whatever it takes at the end of the day to make sure that this president does not get a second term.”

Apparently, though, the former vice president didn’t appreciate last night’s polite nudge, as he launched a devastating attack ad against Buttigieg today.

5. Warren Excels on Race

One of the more frustrating things, post-Iowa, has been the media’s treatment of Elizabeth Warren, despite the fact that she outperformed her polling and Joe Biden in Iowa. But three years from removed from being chastised by Mitch McConnell for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King into the record, nevertheless Elizabeth Warren persisted.

Last night, the same treatment that Warren’s experienced, post-Iowa, manifested on the debate stage. Despite raising her hand constantly, Warren got a paltry 15:34 minutes of speaking time, less time than Biden and Klobuchar. But nevertheless she persisted, making great use of her time to call for a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, addressing the gun violence problem in America, the influence of PACs and billionaire donors in politics and a Congressional solution to the continued erosion of abortion rights in this country. But she saved what was, perhaps, her strongest moment for rebutting Pete Buttigieg’s shotty record as mayor when it came to criminal justice reform.

Two things struck me as noteworthy from Warren’s response: first the pivot away from criminal justice reform to talk about a broader set of issues that are of concern to the black community. These debates rarely provide a forum for the concerns of people of color, and in the rare instances they do — it’s criminal justice reform for African-American voters and immigration for Latinx voters (which, of course, did not come up last night). Hearing Warren say, “we cannot just say that criminal justice is the only time we want to talk about race specifically” was a refreshing. Second, it was the second opportunity for Warren in three days — the other being her recent appearance at a CNN Town Hall — where she made it clear that she’d been listening and learning from her black campaign staff and supporters.

If Biden continues to slip and black voters in South Carolina are looking for a place to go, Warren definitely made the case that she is willing to work for their vote.

6. Why Is Tom Steyer Still There?

I mean, I know why Steyer’s still there — money — but, really why is he still there? Does he need a hobby? Can he not think of other things that he can do with his millions of dollars besides this? (Tom, call me, I have some suggestions!)

I’d be less bothered by this vanity project of Steyer’s if he did what Michael Bloomberg or Andrew Yang have done and, at least, put forward an agenda. What’s Steyer’s health care plan? What’s his plan for taxes? How does he plan to fix our broken immigration system? He spoke forcefully again last night, as he has in every debate, about how important it is to challenge Trump on the economy — he repeatedly uttered the famous line from Bill Clinton’s ’92 run, “it’s the economy stupid” — but never bothered to explain how he’d challenge the president in that regard or what made him more qualified than anyone else on the stage. Anytime he’s asked a direct policy question, he just agrees with what another candidate has said, never bothering to add any specific ideas of his own to the debate.

Why is he spending millions of dollars to stand on stage to tell people how much he agrees with another candidate?


New Hampshire voters go to the polls in three days. Do you think this debate helped the roughly 11 percent of voters there who claim to be undecided make up their minds? Did it help you make up your mind?

Next Democratic Debate: February 19th in Las Vegas, NV (hosted by NBC News and MSNBC, in partnership with The Nevada Independent)

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. Spends her Thursday nights trying to make #Shonday happen.

Natalie has written 129 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Natalie, I look forward to your coverage every debate! Thank you for recapping so concisely and for all of the sources; I find that I miss things in the deluge of information that happens each time something in the primary changes

  2. This was a refreshing debate after that awful CNN Iowa debate. Bernie had a really strong response to the question about Soleimani, which stood out to me. I’m glad they held Pete’s feet to the fire about his record with black citizens as mayor. I wish someone would call him out for speaking almost exclusively in political platitudes with no substance…

  3. i have a hard time listening to Biden talk about how he ‘was there’ for xyz policy items without recognizing that if things had gone so well we wouldn’t be in the crisis we are now. otherwise, when i hear them talking, no candidate really discourages me from accepting them as the nominee, though most of them are not what i would prefer the candidate to be.

    mostly i’m hoping that Democrats find a way collectively, and singularly, not to shoot the ticket in the foot, as it were. it would be great if they could stop feeding the controversy machine.

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