Coming so soon after the U.S. House voted to impeach President Donald Trump, impeachment came up quick in Thursday’s debate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Seven candidates qualified, the fewest since the monthly debates began in June: former Vice President Joe Biden; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer; Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
The debate nearly didn’t happen because of a labor dispute on the campus of Loyola University Marymount in California, the host.
The first topic, unsurprisingly, impeachment
The first question to the seven candidates, who all support impeachment, is how they persuade those who don’t.
Biden shared platitudes about restoring “the integrity of the office of the president.” Sanders said Trump is a “pathological liar” who is corrupt and conservatives understand “we can’t have a president with (Trump’s) temperament dishonoring the United States.”
Klobuchar put it most succinct: “If the president claims he is so innocent, then why doesn’t he have all the president’s men testify.”
Buttigieg rejected the premise that the Republican Senate will block impeachment. “We cannot give in to that sense of helplessness because that’s what they want.”
But Yang warned removing Trump isn’t the panacea many Democrats expect.
“The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all of our problems,” Yang said, “the more Americans lose trust that we can actually see what’s going on in our communities and solve those problems.”
Common ground on the economy
When answering a question about how the candidates could convince voters who credit Trump with the strong economy, most on the stage said that the nation’s economic well-being is not evenly spread to the middle class or the poor.
“The middle class is getting crushed and the working class has no way up as a consequence,” said Biden, who added that he would eliminate the “God-awful tax cuts we’re giving to the wealthy.”
Buttigieg agreed, adding that there needs to be a higher minimum wage.
“The biggest problem in our economy is simply that people are not getting paid enough,” he said.
Yang then portrayed a dire picture of America, where he said suicides and drug overdoses have overtaken car accidents as a leading cause of death, because of the economic stress.
But Warren got big applause when she connected the plight of the middle class with misdeeds by the powerful.
“We’ve got a government that works great for those with money and doesn’t work for much of anyone else,” she said. “That is corruption, pure and simple.”
She then prompted laughter with a zinger about her proposed taxes on the wealthy, when she was asked about some economists’ opinion that her tax package could stifle growth.
“Oh, they’re just wrong,” Warren said.
Sanders’ big applause line
Should America expand nuclear? Should there be a program to relocate coastal residents? Maybe the United States should rejoin the Paris Climate agreement?
Bah! Sanders (basically) exclaimed. None of it would stop climate change.
“The Paris Agreement? That’s fine. Ain’t enough,” Sanders said. “We have got to...declare a national emergency. The United States has got to lead the world and maybe just maybe instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year globally on weapons of destruction. Maybe an American president, i.e., Bernie Sanders, can lead the world instead of spending money to kill each other, maybe we pull our resources to fight our common enemy, which is climate change.”
Focus on diversity
When 20 Democrats were debating across two nights, it was the most diverse presidential field in U.S. history.
But there was only one minority American among the seven Democrats who qualified Thursday night: Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
Yang said it was “both an honor and a disappointment to be the lone person of color on the stage” though he forecasted that would change by the time candidates debate again in January. “I think Cory will be back,” Yang said, meaning U.S. Sen. Booker, who is still in the race. Yang then, predictably, steered the conversation to his top talking point: a universal basic income of $1,000 a month for all Americans.
If his plan passed, Yang guaranteed, “I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight" because more black and brown Americans could afford to support candidates who reflected their communities.
When it was Sanders’ turn to discuss race, he said, “I wanted to get back to the issue of climate change for a moment.”
But moderator and PBS journalist Amna Nawaz wouldn’t let him.
“Senator, with all respect, this question is about race,” Nawaz said. “Can you answer the question as it was asked?" The room erupted into applause.
The Democratic contenders have at times mocked Biden’s wistful pining for the pre-Trump days, as though a new president could turn back the clock to a bygone era of bipartisanship with the wave of a hand. His opponents have accused him of being both too optimistic and failing to recognize the plight of many Americans during those supposed good times.
But on Thursday he forcefully responded to that criticism in what was perhaps his most cogent moment in any debate yet.
“I refuse to accept the notion, as some on this stage do, that we can never, never get to a place where we have cooperation again,” Biden said. “If that’s the case we’re dead as a country. We need to be able to reach consensus. If anyone has reason to be angry with Republicans, and not want to cooperate, it’s me. The way they’ve attacked me and my son and my family, I have no, no, no love. But the fact is we have to be able to get things done. And when we can’t convince them, we go out and beat them like we did in the 2018 election.”
‘Wine caves’ and pot shots
The first time candidates starting taking shots at each other didn’t come until more than an hour in, but the spat between Warren and Buttigieg heat up quickly.
It began with a thinly veiled reference by Warren to high-dollar fundraisers, which she said threaten to “drown out” the voices of less wealthy voters. She then got more specific: “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
Buttigieg dined privately with donors at the Hall Rutherford wine caves in the hills of California’s Napa Valley earlier this month, and photos emerged on Twitter of him drinking wine under a chandelier studded with 1,500 Swarovski crystals at an onyx banquet table.
But he hit back, saying that unlike Warren, he doesn’t have his own wealth to finance his campaign.
“I’m literally the only person on this stage who’s not a millionaire or a billionaire,” Buttigieg said. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot, yourself, pass.”
Klobuchar cut in at the end with her trademark tone of unity.
“I did not come here to listen to this argument,” she said. “I have not even been to a wine cave.”
Buttigieg as the target
It’s clear Buttigieg’s surge in the polls has put a target on his back — and perhaps has annoyed some of his more politically experienced opponents.
Take the exchange that emerged after Buttigieg suggested his bonafides to understand the immigration debate come from his experiences as the son of a Maltese immigrant and “not something I formed in committee rooms in Washington.”
Klobuchar took exception to that quip and Buttigieg’s overall denegration of Washington politicians. She then rattled off the accomplishments of the Democrats on the stage who spent years working in D.C.
“While you can dismiss committee hearings, I think this experience works,” Klobuchar said. “I have not denigrated your experience as a local official.”
Oh, but you did, Buttigieg replied, before the commercial break. And he wasn’t going to say anything, but since Klobuchar brought it up, that experience also includes serving the military in Afghanistan.
"That is my experience, and it may not be the same as yours, but it counts,” Buttigieg said.
It’s not about that, Klobuchar said. It’s about the right kind of experience.
"We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won,” she responded. “I think winning matters. I think a track record of getting things done matters.”
Buttigieg fired back, “Maybe what goes on in my city seems small to you. If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
But Klobuchar wasn’t quieted by the comeback.
“If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing,” she said, referring to his first campaign for state treasurer in 2010. Buttigieg lost that race.
“You tried and lost by 20 points.”
First debate question on transgender people
Thursday night featured the first question in any debate about the crisis of violence against transgender people.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 22 trans and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States in 2019 alone. Most were transgender black women.
Sanders said it starts with “moral leadership in the White House,” and that his universal health care plan would also allow comprehensive medical care to everyone, including trans people.
Warren went further. She said she would use the office of the president to draw more attention to the issue, promising to read the names of transgender women of color who’ve been killed each year in the Rose Garden.
She also said she would change the rules for federal prisons, requiring that people are kept in the dorms that align with their gender identity.
“The transgender community has been marginalized in every way possible,” Warren said.