2020 Election

Biggest Takeaways of the December Democratic Debate

11 minute read

Less than 24 hours after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump, seven Democratic candidates took the stage at the last debate of 2019 to hash out what they’d do differently if elected.

From California’s Loyola Marymount University, the candidates sparred over their campaign financing decisions, their past support of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how to best combat climate change. The debate stage was the smallest and least diverse yet, but the two women on stage — Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren— had some of the most memorable moments: rebuking Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigeig for his relative inexperience compared to the other contenders, and criticizing him for his fundraising methods, respectively.

Former Vice President Joe Biden also evoked a rare criticism of the Obama Administration, pushing back on the notion that he supported the 2009 decision to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. “I’m the guy from the beginning who argued it was a big, big mistake to surge forces to Afghanistan. Period,” he said. “We should not have done it, and I argued against it constantly.”

Here are some of the night’s other biggest takeaways:

The Democrats’ diversity problem

Seven women and men took the stage on Thursday night, and the only non-white candidate among them was Andrew Yang. Except for Yang and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out at the start of the month, only white candidates qualified for the debate. This forced the uncomfortable conversation about how the party that talks so big about including diverse voices and that depends on minority voters ended up with such a white set of candidates in a field that was, at one point, historically diverse.

Yang was asked to respond to this from stage, where he argued that if more voters had disposable income, more would donate to political campaigns, resulting in more diverse candidates. He also predicted that Sen. Cory Booker, who BuzzFeed News reported was circulating a letter to other campaigns urging the Democratic National Committee to make its qualifications more inclusionary, would be back. (Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Gov. Patrick Deval, the other minority candidates still running, also did not qualify.)

Sen. Sanders, asked the same question about what message that sent to voters, pivoted to climate change, though the moderator interjected to say that the question was about race. “People of color, in fact, are going to be the people suffering most if we do not deal with climate change,” Sanders shot back. Twitter was immediately alight with tweets from progressives afterwards backing Sanders, arguing that climate change was climate justice. —Lissandra Villa

Warren and Buttigieg spar, exposing fault lines in party

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg came to blows over campaign funding and what Buttigieg called “purity tests.” The exchange mirrored an internal debate in the Democratic party, between progressives who denounce the influence of money in politics and candidates who accept big money donations in the name of beating Trump. The question is whether big money is inherently corrosive: Warren (and Sanders) say yes, Buttigieg says no.

Warren, who has vowed to reject corporate donations and closed-door fundraisers, argued that “we can’t have people who can put down $5,000 for a check drown out the voices of everyone else.” Buttigieg pointed out that Trump and his allies would stop at nothing — even foreign interference — to win the election, and that Republicans had raised hundreds of millions for his re-election campaign. “This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump, and we shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our backs,” he said.

Then Warren went for the jugular, bringing up the recently revealed Buttigieg fundraiser that took place in a wine cave. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” she said. Buttigieg hit back hard. “I’m literally the only person on this stage who’s not a millionaire or a billionaire,” he said. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.” He then referenced the fact that Warren used money she had raised in previous fundraisers to help seed her presidential campaign. “Did it corrupt you?” he asked. “Of course not.”

It was an exchange that illustrated the battle lines of a party at war with itself, torn between the progressives like Warren and Sanders who want to remake the American political system and liberals like Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar who think that getting rid of Trump is the priority. And it’s an exchange that could haunt both Warren and Buttigieg, depending on how the race plays out. Warren’s grassroots fundraising strategy means she’s cultivated thousands of small donors, but it will be hard for her to compete with opponents (like Trump) with no qualms about raising money from billionaires. And Buttigieg’s willingness to take money from big donors — and the potent image of the wine cave — could make it difficult for him to win over the young progressives who embrace the “purity tests” he denounces. —Charlotte Alter

Biden earns his standing

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been at the top of the Democratic field since his spring entry to the race in the spring, finally delivered a debate performance to justify his membership in the top tier. Largely spared barbs from his rivals and offering his most solid showing yet, the veteran politician was forceful, level and clear. He successfully deflected any criticism about his deep-pocketed donors by saying his average donor gave $43. He dodged a question about a Washington Post report that Barack Obama’s administration misled the world about conditions in Afghanistan. He brushed past a suggestion that he may only commit to serving one term. And he turned a question about climate change into a moment to promote an infrastructure.

Nothing, in fact, seemed to ding him hard. In one stand-out moment, Biden challenged rival Bernie Sanders over his Medicare for All plan that would spike federal spending on health care. “Now tell me, you’re going to add 84% more, and there’s not going to be higher taxes? At least before, he was being honest about it,” Biden said. In another, he used the ongoing impeachment drama unfolding on Capitol Hill to promote his calls for civility and bipartisanship. Democrats say Trump used a July call with his Ukrainian counterpart to condition U.S. aid on Ukrainian prosecutors publicly pursuing an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, who was hired by a Ukrainian energy company. “If anyone has reason to be angry with Republicans, and not want to cooperate, it’s really me, the way they’ve attacked me, my son, my family,” he said, before adding: “I know we have to… be able to get things done.” — Philip Elliott

Candidates have to talk about age — again

It’s not going away. Three of the top-tier candidates were made to reckon with their age in a question hinged on comments President Barack Obama made earlier this week, arguing that if women in charge the world would be a better place, and that it’s often old men standing in the way of progress.

Sanders, Biden, and Warren, all of whom are in their seventies, responded with quips (“I’m white as well!” said Sanders; “I’m going to guess he wasn’t talking about me,” Biden responded; “I would also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated,” said Warren) before addressing the substance of the question. “The issue is where power resides in America,” Sanders said. “The issue is not old or young, male or female. The issue is working people standing up, taking on the billionaire class, and creating a government and economy that works for all, not just the one percent.”

Biden would not commit either way when asked whether he would run for a second term if elected, even as Politico recently reported he’s been privately signaling that he would only serve one. “No, I’m not willing to commit one way or another. Here’s the deal, I’m not even elected one term yet— let’s see where we are. Let’s see what happens,” Biden responded.

Finally, Warren used the question as an opportunity to talk about her renowned selfie lines, which she argued give people who normally have not had the opportunity to substantively interact with candidates the chance to talk with her. “I believe that President Obama was talking about who has power in America, whose voices get heard. I believe he’s talking about women and people of color and trans people and people whose voices just so often get shoved out. And for me, the best way to understand that is to see how people are running their campaigns in 2020.” —Lissandra Villa

Klobuchar works hard for the Midwestern vote

Iowa will be the first state in the nation to cast ballots for a Democratic nominee, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar leaned into that fact during Thursday’s debate. “The way we take on climate change in a big way is by talking about what’s happening on the coast as I just did,” the Minnesota lawmaker said, “but also by talking about what’s happening in the midwest — where I’m from. It’s not flyover country to me, I live there. And what we are seeing there is unprecedented flooding.” In her answers, she was more determined than ever to reach midwestern and other blue collar workers, many of which have seen their farm bankruptcies increase by 25% in one year, and extreme rain increase by 50% since 1900.

Later in the night, Klobuchar garnered a rousing round of applause after rebutting Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg for their brawl over billionaire donors and the private “wine cave” donor event recently hosted by Buttigieg. “I’ve never even been to a wine cave,” joked Klobuchar. “I’ve been to the Wind Cave [National Park] in South Dakota.” Klobuchar will need the support of these middle America voters to stay in the race. Though a recent Emerson poll clocked her at 10% in the Hawkeye State, her nationwide polling average is still hovering just above 3%. — Abby Vesoulis

Disability policy makes a debut

Health care largely took a back seat on Thursday night, but the moderators asked about a related topic not often discussed on the debate stage: people with disabilities. One in four Americans has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but politicians have historically not paid much attention to disabled voters and no other Democratic debate has featured a question explicitly about disability issues. However, voter turnout surged among people with disabilities in 2018 and this time around, many of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have started to talk about the topic, with many publishing disability policy plans and hiring disabled campaign staffers.

So when a moderator told the candidates about a disabled man named Kyle and asked how they would help ensure people like him were more integrated into the workforce and their communities, disability activists were excited. Billionaire Tom Steyer answered the question first, saying he wanted to “treat everybody equally” but then quickly pivoting to talk about taxes that he would need to pay for increasing services. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang was up next, and he gave a personal answer that referenced his autistic son, who he has often mentioned before.

However, the way Yang talks about people with disabilities is controversial. “How many of you all have a family member or a friend or a neighbor with special needs or autism?” he asked. Many disability advocates see “special needs” as outdated phrasing and would prefer politicians not use euphemisms to refer to their disabilities. Advocates have also stressed that they would like to see politicians treat them as people who matter on their own, not just as family members or neighbors or friends of voters.

The most detailed person to answer the question was Warren, who spoke about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as helping people with disabilities secure housing, jobs and equal pay. But even Warren ended her answer by calling disabled people the “least of thy brethren,” a reference that many on social media saw as pitying, even if well intentioned. For Democrats’ first time answering a disability question on stage, their responses showed that they are paying attention, but still have more learning to do. —Abigail Abrams

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