During an explosive day in the impeachment hearings that increasingly loom over Donald Trump’s presidency, even political junkies might have forgotten that Democratic candidates for president were debating Wednesday night in Atlanta.
Those appearing in the fifth presidential primary debate were: Former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii; Sen. Kamala Harris, California; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota; Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont; billionaire Tom Steyer; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
They took on everything from Gordon Sondland, Kim Jong Un, the patriarchy, inequality and, uh, Tulsi Gabbard.
Hare are some of the bigger moments.
Gabbard vs. Buttigieg
Gabbard used one of her final moments to take a dig at Buttigieg, who said recently that he’d be willing to send U.S. troops to Mexico to fight gang violence.
She said the “careless statement” was a sign of his “inexperience.”
Buttigieg bristled at what he called a mischaracterization.
“That is outlandish, even by the standards of today’s politics,” he said. “Do you seriously think anyone on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?"
He said he had been talking about longstanding U.S.-Mexico cooperation.
Buttigieg then questioned her judgment in meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a 2017 trip to the war-torn country.
“I have enough judgement that I wouldn’t have sat down with a murderous dictator like that,” he said.
“What you’ve just pointed out is that you would lack the courage to meet with both adversaries and friend to ensure the peace and national security of our nation,” Gabbard replied.
-- Lawrence Mower
In a heated portion of the debate on race, the stage’s two black candidates, Harris and Booker, had standout moments when talking about how communities of color need to be kept in the mind after candidates are done seeking their votes.
“There are plenty of people who applaud black women for the success of the 2018 election ... but at some point, folks get tired of just saying, ‘Thank me for showing up’ and are saying ‘Show up for me,’” Harris said.
On an unrelated question, Booker chose to jump back into the issue of race, saying he would have liked to be included.
“We don’t want to miss this opportunity and lose because we aren’t nominating someone who isn’t trusted and doesn’t have an authentic connection (to black voters),” he said, before taking a jab at Biden.
“I have a lot of respect for the vice president ... this week I literally hear him say that ‘I don’t think we should legalize marijuana.’ I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Booker said, to laughter from the audience. “Because marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people.”
Biden had said that he did not want to legalize pot. Decriminalization can mean that possession will still carry fines, for example, unlike full legalization.
“I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period,” he said, before saying he still has the support of many black voters.
But he gaffed when he said he was endorsed by “the only African-American woman who’s ever been elected to the U.S. Senate,” prompting Harris, a senator, to shrug, open-mouthed.
Then she replied: “The other one is here.”
-- Emily L. Mahoney
The end is nigh
Some viewers were angered when the previous debate skimped on questions about climate change, but that was far from repeated in Atlanta.
Steyer said he is the candidate who will place climate first on his agenda, and create “good-paying jobs” in the process.
“When we ask, ‘How are we going to pull this country together?’ How about this: we take on the biggest challenge in history we save the world and we do it together,” he said.
But perhaps no candidate responded as soberly as Sanders, who noted that the point of no return is in the present — not the future.
“What the scientists are telling us if we don’t get our act together over the next 8 or 9 years, we’re talking about cities all over the world, major cities, going underwater,” he said, going on to add there will also be increased drought, extreme weather, and millions of “climate refugees.”
Sanders suggested that the fossil fuel industry should be held criminally liable.
“They have lied and lied and lied when they had the evidence that their carbon products were destroying the planet,” he said.
-- Emily L. Mahoney
Is this a worthless photo-op?
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un “punked” Trump, Harris said during the debate’s first foray into foreign policy.
Asked if she would make concessions to meet with authoritarian government on the peninsula, Harris said she couldn’t.
“There are no concessions to be made. He has traded a photo op for nothing.”
Trump’s historic 2018 meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore and his impromptu handshake with the leader on North Korean soil have not yet yielded the peace agreement once promised.
Biden was reminded that Trump inherited the North Korea situation, one that didn’t improve during the “strategic patience" of the Obama administration. So what would Biden do differently than the commander-in-chief he served under?
Essentially, Biden said he would return the world back to where it was before January 2017: reengage with South Korea and other allies, and pressure China to keep its Korean partner in check.
-- Steve Contorno
Wanted: affordable housing
For the first time, the candidates discussed an issue affecting millions of Americans and many Floridians: affordable housing.
“Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life,” Steyer said. “It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.”
Warren said she had a plan to build 3.2 million homes for working families and the working poor.
“Housing is how we build wealth in America,” Warren said. “The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people and has said for black people, ‘You’re cut out of the deal.’ That’s called redlining."
Booker had a different idea: help renters. He said he would give tax credits to anyone who pays more than a third of their income in rent. The tax credit would equal the amount the renter is paying compared to their area’s median rent.
“That empowers people in the same way we’ve empowered homeowners,” he said.
-- Lawrence Mower
If it came down to it, would Biden pardon Trump, just as Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon with the hope of bringing the country together?
Biden wouldn’t say.
Instead, the former veep pivoted to a hypothetical scenario in which he would let law enforcement agencies decide if Trump broke any laws — either as a private citizen, as a candidate or as president.
“I would not direct my justice department like this president does,” Biden said. “I’d let them make their independent judgment.”
Sanders said he agreed, but he added: “My inclination is the American people do believe the president is in violation of the law."
Neither said they wanted to see Democrats adopt Trump’s “Lock her up” rhetoric, no matter what the impeachment investigation finds.
-- Steve Contorno
Harris, Democrats vs. Gabbard
The debate took a left turn when Gabbard was asked about past comments disparaging Hillary Clinton, and she dug in her heels.
“Our Democratic party, unfortunately, is not the party that is of, by and for the people. It is a party that has been and continues to be influenced by the foreign policy establishment in Washington, represented by Hillary Clinton and others,” Gabbard said, adding that she would “rebuild” the Democratic party as nominee.
Harris clapped back.
“It’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States who, during the Obama Administration, spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama ... criticizing people on this stage,” she said.
Harris stated the nominee should be someone who can unite the country, which prompted Gabbard to reply that Harris was “continuing to traffic in lies and smears.”
-- Emily L. Mahoney
‘Women are held to a higher standard’
Klobuchar was asked about saying that a woman with Buttigieg’s lack of experience wouldn’t be in this race and she turned her answer into a battle cry for women.
First she said Buttigieg absolutely belonged on the stage and she respects him, but then she launched off on the undeniable double standard she and others trying to break this glass ceiling are facing.
“Women are held to a higher standard, otherwise we could play a game called name your favorite woman president,” she said, quickly pointing out, there isn’t one.
She talked about how she and others have to work harder “and that’s a fact,” then made a memorable soundbite: “I govern both with my head and my heart and if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”
-- Amy Hollyfield
First question of the night was, of course:
So, how about those impeachment hearings?
All day Democrats asserted that European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s explosive testimony had broken the impeachment case wide open. But Warren criticized Sondland for landing a job in the state department without qualifications.
“Except one,” Warren said. “He wrote a check for $1 million.”
Sondland donated to Trump’s inauguration. The latest impeachment developments prompted Klobuchar to quote former vice president Walter Mondale: “We told the truth. We obeyed the law. We kept the peace.” Trump has not lived up to that, she said.
Sanders, meanwhile, said Democrats cannot “simply be consumed by Donald Trump” and the impeachment hoopla. “If we are, we’re going to lose the election," he said.
Asked how he would engage Republicans in Congress who have counted the impeachment hearings by calling for an investigation into him and his son, former Vice President Joe Biden stumbled and demurred.
“The bottom line is we’re going to have to ask ourselves the honest question: Who is most likely to do what needs to be done.”
-- Steve Contorno
Here are some other notable remarks: