Six Democratic candidates gathered at Drake University in Des Moines Iowa on Tuesday night for the final primary debate before the first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 3.
Though the Democratic contenders once comprised the most diverse field in history, all of the candidates who qualified for Tuesday’s event were white, and two-thirds of them were men.
With no clear frontrunner heading into next month’s caucuses, the candidates took on questions over the gender dynamics of the race, climate change, health care, and whether the United States should keep combat troops overseas. Though the Senate is currently preparing for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in Washington, the candidates spent only a few minutes discussing the trial and the allegations the Democratic-led House have lodged against the President.
Moderators also probed each candidate on their perceived weaknesses in being the candidate to beat Trump, including former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg on why he hasn’t gained more support among black voters, Sen. Elizabeth Warren on scaring away swing voters, and how Sen. Bernie Sanders plans to pay for some of his sweeping proposals.
Here are some of the night’s biggest takeaways.
Frontrunners spar on gender question
Sanders and Warren entered the night’s debate with an argument brewing. Both candidates gave conflicting accounts of a 2018 meeting they had to discuss the 2020 election, with Warren claiming Sanders told her that he didn’t think a woman could win the presidency and Sanders repeatedly denying having said it.
On stage, Sanders twice denied ever making the claim, and recommitted to supporting whoever the eventual nominee is. “Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States,” Sanders said, referencing Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote.
“This question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head on,” Warren said. “And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people’s winning record. So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the only other female candidate on stage, was asked how she would respond to anyone who says a woman can’t win the White House. “I point out that you don’t have to be the tallest person in the room. James Madison was 5’4″. You don’t have to be the skinniest person in the room. You don’t have to be the loudest person. You have to be competent,” Klobuchar said. —Lissandra Villa
Foreign policy finally takes the stage
The candidates were forced to delve deeper into questions of how they would use military force as commander-in-chief than in previous debates, when foreign policy has been more of an afterthought as candidates spoke in hypotheticals about the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. But following a dramatic stand-off with Iran after Trump ordered the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, candidates took the opportunity to stress their national security credentials and more clearly outline their views.
Warren and Sanders were adamant that they would withdraw U.S. combat troops from the Middle East. “We’ve turned the corner so many times we’re going in circles in these regions,” Warren said. “We should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg tried to strike a more pragmatic tone. Biden emphasized the need to keep U.S. special forces in the region to prevent threats like the Islamic State from regrouping, insisting that it was different from deploying combat troops. Meanwhile, Buttigieg and Klobuchar said they would work to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal if they are elected, and blamed Trump’s withdrawal from the deal for the recent escalation with Iran.
“By gutting that, they have made the region more dangerous and set off the chain of events that we’re now dealing with as it escalates even closer to the brink of outright war,” Buttigieg said. —Vera Bergengruen
Biden mostly stays out of the fray — and invokes Obama, again
The former Vice President braced for attacks during the final shot that many of the night’s contenders, especially the Senators bound to Washington for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, could take at him. And he was right. In the first moments of the debate, Sanders had at the ready a contrast between Biden’s 2002 vote that authorized the war in Iraq while a Senator, and his against it in the House. “I said 13 years ago it was a mistake to give the president the authority to go to war if, in fact, he couldn’t get inspectors into Iraq. … It was a mistake, and I acknowledged that,” Biden said, all but ending the criticism.
And for the rest of the evening, Biden’s rivals largely spared him. Buttigieg’s campaign cornerstone about changing the way Washington thinks was an implicit ding, but Buttigieg has leveled more specific and more devastating criticism in the past. Warren took a veiled swing at both Biden and Sanders in a statement that she was the only Democrat on stage to oust an incumbent Republican in 30 years, but it was Sanders who took the bait and insisted he be credited for such a task 30 years back. Biden left the critiques of Sanders’ and Warren’s health care plans to Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who have far more need to peel away Iowa caucusgoers than Biden does.
And, as has been the case since he started this campaign, Biden invoked Barack Obama, who in 2008 picked his former rival Biden as a vice presidential nominee. It’s smart politics in Iowa, where voters still remember how they defied the pundits in January of 2008 to give a win to Obama, a first-term Senator with plenty of ambition and a thin resume. Biden is hoping that by wrapping himself in Obama’s aura in Iowa, he’ll tap into an emotional reservoir that is still deep among voters who remember that night 12 years ago. None of Biden’s rivals dare deny Biden the tactic; Obama remains a rock star among the Democratic activists who will show up on Feb. 3 for the caucuses. — Philip Elliott
Candidates still don’t want to talk about impeachment
Talk of the impeachment of President Donald Trump is still dominating the conversation in Washington, as House Democrats gear up to transmit articles to the Senate for the start of a historic trial this week. But even though half of the candidates on the debate stage were Senators who will almost certainly be jurors in the upcoming trial, the historic topic was barely a blip on the debate radar screen. Impeachment came up once in two hours, and the discussion lasted all of five minutes.
Given the brevity of the rhetoric, no new ground was broken; the candidates mainly insisted that even if Trump feels emboldened from what will almost certainly be a Senate acquittal, they could still defeat him. But Warren, who is likely to be trapped in Washington while some of her rivals are on the campaign trail, unequivocally laid down her marker on priorities. “Some things are more important than politics,” she said. “We have an impeachment trial and I will be there because it is my responsibility.” — Alana Abramson
A sitting Senator and former VP admitted they once struggled to afford childcare. Millions of Americans are in the same boat
In response to a question about America’s astronomical child care costs, Warren shared a personal anecdote. “I remember when I was a young mom, I had two little kids and I had my first real university teaching job. It was hard work. I was excited. But it was childcare that nearly brought me down,” she lamented. “We went through one child care after another and it just didn’t work. If I hadn’t been saved by my Aunt Bee, I was ready to quit my job.”
When it was Biden’s turn to address the topic, the former Vice President discussed the difficulties he faced as a single parent after his wife died in a 1972 car crash. He said he commuted daily to Washington from Wilmington, Delaware, because childcare was prohibitively expensive. “It was beyond my reach to be able to do it,” he said.
Warren and Biden’s struggles are not unusual by any means. In 28 states and the District of Columbia, the cost of center-based infant care is more expensive than a year’s worth of tuition at a four-year public university. Accordingly, some families choose to have fewer children, while others risk putting their children in the care of untrained providers. As some candidates alluded to, the lack of affordable childcare can also keep new moms home from work longer, worsening the gender pay gap.
Warren thinks the solution to the widespread issue is creating a network of child care facilities — subsidized by the government — and available to families based on a sliding income scale. Similarly, Buttigieg floated “subsidizing childcare” so that no family has to allocate more than 7% of their income to the expense. Meanwhile, Biden floated an $8,000 tax credit for parents to offset childcare costs. Some candidates also took the opportunity to comment on the low wages common in the childcare industry: “Stop exploiting the people who do this valuable work, largely black and brown women,” said Warren. “Childcare workers are making wages lower than McDonald’s workers,” said Sanders. — Abby Vesoulis
Everyone is (still) fighting over Medicare for All
The health care discussion on the stage echoed previous debates, with the candidates splitting into two camps: those who support the idea of Medicare for All (Sanders and Warren) and those who want to build on the Affordable Care Act (Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden and billionaire executive Tom Steyer).
But while the moderate contenders took several sharp shots at Medicare for All, the most notable aspect of the back-and-forth was arguably Biden’s lack of involvement. It was striking that the race’s frontrunner largely avoided getting into details about his plan for the issue that voters almost always list as their top priority, even as his rivals repeatedly attacked one another.
Klobuchar hit Sanders over costs, telling him “I think you should show how you’re going to pay for things, Bernie,” and noted that the Affordable Care Act is 10 points more popular than Trump while plenty of Democrats still do not support Medicare for All. Buttigieg made the case that his “Medicare for all who want it” public option would be more realistic than Warren or Sanders’ plans, and Warren, on the other hand, dismissed Buttigieg’s idea as only a “small improvement” over the current system.
Left unsaid this time around was that progressives have criticized the fact that Biden’s plan says it would leave approximately 10 million Americans uninsured. The health care conversation on Tuesday seemed to keep the status quo, a state that could help Biden as he heads toward Iowa on Feb. 3. — Abigail Abrams