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Highlights From the January 2020 Democratic Debate in Iowa 6 Takeaways From the January 2020 Democratic Debate
(about 1 hour later)
Moderators: Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip of CNN and Brianne Pfannenstiel of The Register. DES MOINES In the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, six Democratic candidates were more restrained than roaring, as they sought to make their best positive political cases to the state’s party faithful before the Feb. 3 voting. Here are six takeaways from the debate:
Candidates: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the billionaire Tom Steyer. Among the Democrats who did not qualify for the debate are former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and the entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Expectations for conflict in Tuesday’s debate were at their highest point in the 2020 campaign cycle. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spent the previous two days sparring, Mr. Sanders has been fighting for a week with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has been in the cross hairs of Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders for weeks.
Ms. Klobuchar: Zinged liberals and says she’s the candidate in the middle, inside of the “extremes of our politics.” All of these fireworks did not really materialize in the debate.
Mr. Steyer: Said Mr. Trump had kicked the American people “in the face,” and that he wanted to be a good “teammate” to the American people as a political leader. With the top four candidates in an effective tie three weeks before the caucuses, none of them saw much incentive in going on the attack.
Mr. Buttigieg: Described himself as the unity candidate who can win both Democrats and Republicans. It’s a reflection of the muddled state of the race. The candidates have all made a calculation that being the aggressor in any interpersonal conflict would only lead to increasing their unfavorable ratings or falling down Iowa caucusgoers’ second-choice lists, a critical element because supporters of candidates who don’t receive 15 percent support will be free to back someone else.
Mr. Sanders: Said “this is the moment when we have to think big,” arguing unambitious plans will not do in 2020. But for Iowa Democrats who remain undecided in the race a sizable chunk of the electorate, according to public and private polling the debate did little to delineate differences between the leading candidates.
Ms. Warren: Offered a message of “hope and courage” as she detailed the challenges facing the nation, and raised the prospect of being the first woman president of the United States. Heading into the debate, tensions between Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders were high amid news reports that he told her at a private meeting in 2018 that he didn’t believe a woman could be president.
Mr. Biden: Called for restoring “decency” at home and American leadership abroad and warned that eight years of Mr. Trump’s presidency would be an “absolute disaster.” On Tuesday, the disagreement between the traditional liberal allies didn’t end onstage: Mr. Sanders denied the story and Ms. Warren indicated that it was true. But neither appeared eager to escalate their conflict much further at least not publicly. The Democratic electorate has demonstrated little appetite for intraparty warfare, and an all-out brawl carried risks for both contenders.
In the final minutes of the debate, several of the contenders delivered sharpened pitches about how they believe they can defeat Mr. Trump. For Mr. Sanders, the issue threatened to revive anger among Democratic women who believe that he was insufficiently supportive of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. And for Ms. Warren, who is eager to make inroads with some of the left-wing voters who are also considering Mr. Sanders, sharp criticism of the Vermont senator was unlikely to be persuasive.
“What Americans want is something different,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “I am going to be able to stand across from him on that debate stage and say to my friends in Iowa, the Midwest is not flyover country for me.” Ms. Warren did highlight her status as the top-polling female contender at several points in the debate, ending her closing statement with a reference to the possibility of electing the first woman president.
Mr. Buttigieg highlighted his background as a military veteran. And yet: after the debate ended, in a much-remarked-upon moment, Ms. Warren declined to shake Mr. Sanders’s outstretched hand, and the two had a brief exchange of words before Mr. Sanders appeared to cut off the conversation and turn away.
“I’m ready to take on Donald Trump because when we get 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,” he said. One of Ms. Warren’s biggest political obstacles is the perception among some voters that she would face daunting challenges in a general election both thanks to her boldly progressive outlook, and to societal sexism that many Democrats believe damaged Mrs. Clinton in 2016.
Ms. Warren, as she often does, invoked her Republican brothers and noted her ability to find common ground with them. Time after time on the debate stage, Ms. Warren, who has slipped in some polls and struggled to regain the momentum she had in Iowa last fall, sought to take the “electability” issue head on.
“They understand that we have an America right now that’s working great for those at the top,” she said. “It’s just not working for anyone else.” “Look at the men on this stage,” she said. “Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.”
And Mr. Biden referenced his months of clashes with Mr. Trump, who asked the government of Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden, helping to lead the president’s impeachment. And she invoked her 2012 victory over then-Senator Scott P. Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, as she declared herself “the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years.”
“I’ve been the object of his affection now more than anybody else on the stage,” he said. “I’ve taken all the hits he can deliver, and I’m getting better in the polls.” Ms. Warren proactively brought up the general election as she talked about strong Democratic messaging on health care. As she often does, she referenced her Republican brothers and talked about finding common ground with them.
Mr. Buttigieg faced the biggest question dogging his campaign: Why doesn’t he have more support from black Democrats? asked the moderator Abby Phillip. And, in an effort to cast herself as a unifying figure in the race, she argued, “The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency,” a remark that could be read as a swipe at all of her top rivals.
“The black voters who know me best are supporting me,” he replied. “It’s why I have the most support in South Bend. It’s why among elected black officials in my community who have gotten into this race, by far most of them are supporting me. Now, nationally I’m proud that my campaign is co-chaired by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. And to have support right here in Iowa from some of the most recognizable black elected leaders.” The one candidate throwing punches left and right was Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She needed to make an impact in order to jump from the 6 percent to 8 percent support she’s received in polls to the 15 percent required to accrue any delegates from the Iowa caucuses.
Of course, Mr. Buttigieg didn’t address his miniscule polling support from black voters in South Carolina a huge vulnerability that could hurt his campaign if that weakness is not corrected soon. Ms. Klobuchar attacked Mr. Sanders on health care, Ms. Warren on pushing too-grand plans and said her experience in the Senate is more suited to the presidency than Mr. Buttigieg’s time as a Naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
Ms. Klobuchar said all the candidates’ climate plans pretty much the same. “Nearly every one of us has a plan that is very similar,” she said. “That is to get to carbon neutral by 2045 to 2050.” Yet while she described herself as a winner tethered to the Midwest, somebody whose friends and neighbors hail from flyover country, she didn’t come out of Tuesday’s debate with any significant headlines of her own.
Mr. Sanders disagreed, silently mouthing “no” and shooting his right arm into the air to demand the next speaking time. Perhaps the most interesting moment for Ms. Klobuchar came when she had a brief brush with catastrophe by appearing to momentarily forget the name of the governor of Kansas, Laura Kelly. Ms. Klobuchar briefly bowed her head, mumbled, before spitting out the name: “Governor Kelly.”
“It’s a national crisis,” he said, proceeding to heap blame on the fossil fuel industry and demanding radical changes immediately, not 20 or 30 years into the future. Ms. Klobuchar has defied expectations by surviving in the campaign longer than several of her more famous and more established rivals. The question for her over the next three weeks is whether she can reach a level higher and finally seize a place in the race’s top tier.
“If we as a nation do not transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, not by 2050, not 2040,” he said. “But unless we lead the world right now not easy stuff the planet we are leaving our kids will be uninhabitable and unhealthy.” Only once on Tuesday night did Mr. Buttigieg face a question about the biggest vulnerability facing his campaign: can he grow his appeal with black voters?
Ms. Klobuchar, who is set to be a juror in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, said that the nation’s “decency” is at issue. The CNN moderator Abby Phillip asked Mr. Buttigieg if, contrary to his campaign’s claim that he just isn’t known in black communities, black voters have indeed taken a measure of him and just decided they don’t like what they see.
“This is a decency check on our government,” she said. “This is a patriotism check. Not only is this trial that, but also this election. And no matter if you agree with everyone on the stage, I say this to Americans, you know this is a decency check on this president.” “Is it possible black voters have gotten to know you and have simply decided to choose another candidate?” she said, posing a sharper version of a question being asked of Mr. Buttigieg in interviews and occasionally by voters on the campaign trail.
Ms. Klobuchar said that she has a “constitutional duty to perform,” and warned Republicans against standing in the way of requested witnesses.” Mr. Buttigieg deftly dodged by suggesting that the black voters who “know me best” in his native South Bend chose him twice to lead the city. And he cited recent endorsements from Representative Anthony Brown of Maryland and Mayor Quentin Hart of Waterloo, Iowa, who this week became the two most prominent African-American elected officials to back him.
“When I look at what the issue is it’s whether or not we’ll be able to have witnesses,” she said. “We have asked for only four people as witnesses. And if our Republican colleagues won’t allow those witnesses, they may as well give the president a crown and a scepter, they may as well make him king.” “The biggest mistake we can make is take black votes for granted, and I never will,” he said. “The reason I have the support I do is not because any voter thinks I’m perfect, it’s because of the work that we have done facing some of the toughest issues.”
Mr. Biden said he won’t remain embittered by Mr. Trump even after the impeachment trial over whether the president committed impeachable offenses in seeking foreign help to investigate Mr. Biden’s son. But he didn’t explain how he would increase his support among black voters a question that will be central to his candidacy once the campaign moves to South Carolina and other states with significant black populations.
“I have to be in a position I think of the American people,” Mr. Biden said. “I can’t hold a grudge. I have to be able to not only fight but also heal.” Before the debate, some of the leading Democratic campaigns had telegraphed the possibility of sharp attacks on Mr. Biden, who continues to lead in national polls.
Impeachment, almost uniquely among the Democratic candidates, leads to next to zero disagreement among the party’s presidential candidates. It’s not an issue that voters ask about on the campaign trail and has nothing to do with how the candidates would perform in office since if any of them are president it would mean Mr. Trump is not. Yet onstage, no one landed a knockout punch.
Still, the impeachment trial due to begin next week will be a monster speed bump for the three senators on the debate stage: Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren. Mr. Sanders’s campaign had been especially aggressive in swiping at Mr. Biden’s record on issues from Social Security to war in the lead-up to the debate. While Mr. Sanders drew some contrasts with Mr. Biden, in particular on Mr. Biden’s vote to authorize military action in Iraq, this was hardly the pile-on that Mr. Biden had experienced in earlier debates.
Ms. Warren said she would have no qualms in leaving the campaign trail to sit as a juror in Mr. Trump’s trial. Mr. Biden, who flew under the radar particularly at the last debate, often stayed in his comfort zones discussing foreign policy and health care and he was not the center of the kind of memorable exchanges that had dealt his campaign blows in the early months of the campaign.
“We have an impeachment trial — I will be there because it is my responsibility,” she said.
The contrast on free college between Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren was about as gentle as can be.
Mr. Buttigieg used his response to a question about free college to blast the rich, saying they should pay the way for their children to attend public colleges and universities, while providing free college to everyone else.
Ms. Warren, in defending her free college proposal, said a wealth tax would require millionaires to pay millions of dollars in new taxes, and that if they wish to send their children to public universities, that’s fine with her. She did not ding Mr. Buttigieg for opposing free college.
“What we really need to talk about is the bigger economic picture,” she said. “We need to be willing to put a wealth tax in place. To ask the giant corporations that is are not paying to pay. Because that is how we build an economy and those who want to talk about, bring down the national debt.”
Several of the candidates spoke at length about the exorbitant costs of child care and the personal toll it takes on Americans.
“It makes no sense for child care to cost two-thirds of somebody’s income,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “We have to drive it to 7 percent or below. And zero for the families who are living in poverty.”
Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden spoke in especially personal terms about child care — a financial responsibility that nearly brought her down, Ms. Warren said.
“If I hadn’t been saved by my aunt, I was ready to quit my job,” she said. “I think about how many women of my generation got knocked off the track and never got back on.”
Ms. Warren noted that she has proposed a two-cent wealth tax to provide child care benefits and universal pre-K, and raised concerned about exploitation of child care workers, singling out women of color in particular.
“We can raise the wages of every child care worker and preschool teacher in America,” she said. “That is an investment in our babies and their moms and dads. And it’s an investment in our teachers and our economy.”
Mr. Biden, who said he believed that “people who are not able to afford any of the infant care to be able to get that care,” referenced his experience raising two sons after his wife and a baby daughter were killed in a 1972 car crash.
“I was a single parent too,” he said. “When my wife and daughter were killed, my two boys I had to raise, I was a senator, a young senator.”
Halfway through Tuesday’s debate, the conflict has been muted as the candidates have shown little inclination to attack each other while they aim to refocus ire against President Trump.
Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders each defused the clashes between them that dominated the last two days. Mr. Buttigieg didn’t take shots at Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders about health care, despite the opportunity. And Mr. Biden has once again avoided being attacked by his opponents, despite leading every national poll of the race.
It’s a reflection of the muddled state of the race. With four candidates in a functional dead heat in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, there is little incentive for any of them to risk being seen in a negative light by going on the attack.
The only candidate onstage who appeared eager to throw punches was Ms. Klobuchar, who remains in the high single digits in Iowa polling, leaving her well below the 15 percent threshold to accrue any delegates in Iowa’s Feb. 3 caucuses that are necessary to win the Democratic nomination.
Ms. Warren cast Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg as incrementalists on health care, saying that their proposals “are an improvement over where we are now,” but are only a “small improvement.”
Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg support adding a public option to the health care system, but oppose the sweeping single-payer Medicare for all proposal.
“It’s just not true that the plan I’m proposing is small,” Mr. Buttigieg shot back. “We have to move past Washington mentality that suggests that the bigness of plans only consist of how many trillions of dollars they put through the Treasury. That the boldness of a plan consists of how many people it can alienate.”
Ms. Klobuchar also jumped into the fray, accusing Ms. Warren of offering shifting answers in her own health care proposal.
“You acknowledge that Medicare for all, you couldn’t get there right away,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “You got on the bill that said on page eight that you would kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance. Then a few months ago you said you’ll wait awhile to get there, and I think that was some acknowledgment that maybe what we’re talking about it is true.”
Mr. Sanders emphatically insisted that he did not make the comment that Ms. Warren has attributed to him: that a woman could not be elected president.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” he said. “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.”
Ms. Warren said she disagreed with Mr. Sanders but sought to defuse the conflict.
“Bernie is my friend and I’m not here to fight with Bernie,” she said.
Ms. Warren continued, leaning fully into her electability argument.
“The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women: Amy and me,” she said. “And the only person who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me.”
The clash between Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders veered, briefly, into unusual territory: math.
The disagreement unfolded after Ms. Warren said that “the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”
“Well, just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress,” Mr. Sanders said.
“When?” Ms. Warren asked. Mr. Sanders said that in 1990, he beat a Republican congressman.
Ms. Warren pressed him again on the timing. “I said, I was the only one who’s beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years,” Ms. Warren said.
“Well, 30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact,” Mr. Sanders replied.
Mr. Biden sought to bridge the divide about whether a woman can win by bemoaning the factionalism that he said could prevent Democrats from defeating President Trump.
“The real issue is who can bring the party together and represent all elements of the party,” he said. “African-American, brown, black, women, men. Gay, straight. The fact of the matter is, I would argue that, in terms of endorsement around the country, endorsements where ever we go, I have the broadest coalition of anyone running up where in this race.”
Mr. Biden mocked the North Korean regime, which has lashed Mr. Biden with graphic insults — and the former vice president received backup from his rival, Mr. Sanders.
“I would not meet with — absent preconditions, I would not meet with the, quote, Supreme Leader, who said ‘Joe Biden is a rabid dog, he should be beaten to death with a stick,’” Mr. Biden said.
“Other than that, you like him,” Mr. Sanders interjected wryly, referencing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“Other than that, I like him, and he got a love letter from Trump right after that,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Sanders took another opportunity to obliquely swipe at Mr. Biden’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq when asked about America’s role in the Middle East.
“What we have to face as a nation is that the two great foreign policy disasters of our lifetimes, with the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. Both of those wars were based on lies,” Mr. Sanders said, adding that he feared President Trump could lead the nation into another war amid tensions between the United States and Iran.
Mr. Biden did not take on Mr. Sanders of Iraq, choosing to emphasize another element of his foreign policy record: the nuclear deal with Iran, achieved during the Obama administration.
“I was part of that deal to get the nuclear agreement with Iran, bringing together the rest of the world, including some of the folks who aren’t friendly to us,” Mr. Biden said. “And it was working.”
Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg each said they would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, though neither of them stipulated what they would do beyond negotiations to stop Iran from doing so.
Another split in the candidates emerged on foreign policy. Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders said they’d remove combat troops from Iraq, while Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Biden said they would leave some in place.
“I would leave some troops there, but not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now,” Ms. Klobuchar said.
Ms. Warren said that it is time to bring the troops home. “I think we need to get our combat troops out,” she said. “You know, we have to stop this mind-set that we can do everything with combat troops. Our military is the finest military on Earth. And they will take any sacrifice we ask them to take. But we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”
And Mr. Buttigieg said: “We can continue to remain engaged without having an endless commitment of ground troops. But what’s going on right now is the president’s actually sending more.”
Mr. Buttigieg said if he is elected president and asks Congress to authorize military force overseas, he would ask for the legislation to expire after three years.
“When I am president, anytime — which I hope will never happen — but anytime I am compelled to use force and seek that authorization, we will have a three-year sunset, so that the American people are included, not only in the decision about whether to send troops, but whether to continue,” he said.