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Fiery Disagreements Erupt at Sixth Democratic Debate

Democratic presidential candidates clashed over money in politics, Medicare for All and free college Thursday night.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders speak during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019, in Los Angeles, California.

At the sixth Democratic primary debate, a smaller field displayed greater distinctions and fiery disagreements. The PBS/Politico debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, opened with questions echoing GOP talking points, such as claims about the alleged economic harm of wealth taxes (which Warren rebuffed well) but eventually ventured into real substance with challenging questions about Guantánamo Bay, Israel and Palestine, and the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The flash points of the evening were the debates among the candidates on money in politics, universal programs vs. means-tested ones, and what experience prepares one for the presidency.

Early in the debate came a question arguing that the economic prosperity Trump brags about could dampen the field’s chances in the general. The candidates were universal in their pushback, agreeing that there hasn’t actually been an economic recovery, and that the middle class is still suffering. Businessman Andrew Yang pointed out that “GDP and stock market prices” are at record highs, but so are suicide, depression and student loan debts. Warren returned to her core corruption messaging, noting that the government works well for “people who want to make money … in private detention centers at the border, but not for those whose families are torn apart.” Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said, “People aren’t getting paid enough,” and former Vice President Joe Biden said, “The middle class is getting killed.”

Next, Politico’s Tim Alberta asked Yang, Sanders and Biden about Obama’s recent comment that “if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything.” Yang started off well, acknowledging that the United States “is deeply misogynist,” but then veered into misogyny himself, implying that men need to be nannied by women because “if you get too many men alone and leave us alone for awhile, we kind of become morons.” Yang’s joke casts women not as individuals with initiatives and ideas, but rather as babysitters who should be at the highest levels of politics only to modulate the impulses of men.

Alberta pointed out that Sanders was the oldest person on stage, and Sanders interjected, “And I’m white as well!” The audience, ostensibly not sure what to make of his outburst, was awkwardly silent. Sanders continued, “The issue is where power resides in America. And it’s not white or black, or male or female,” but that the nation is “increasingly becoming an oligarchy.”

But Sanders’s answer is an incomplete diagnosis of the problem. As activist Tracey Corder pointed out, “We have to be able to reckon with who has power and why they have it – that means talking race, gender AND class.”

Alberta then asked Biden to weigh in on Obama’s comments, too. Biden responded defensively, saying Obama wasn’t referring to him. Alberta then asked Warren about her age, noting she’d be the oldest president ever inaugurated. Her response became one of the viral moments of the evening, when she quipped, “I’d also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated,” to laughs and cheers from the audience.

There were several moments of moral clarity and vision that stood out. Some came on the heels of the best questions of the night, from PBS reporters Yamiche Alcindor and Amna Nawaz. Alcindor asked Biden about the Obama administration’s failed promise to close Guantánamo Bay; Biden blamed Congress. But Warren called Guantánamo an “international embarrassment.” Alcindor then asked about Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Sanders gave the clearest answer, declaring, “It’s not just being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian, as well.”

Another meaningful moment was when Warren committed to “go to the Rose Garden once a year to read the names of transgender women and POC that are killed in the last year to highlight their vulnerability.” This statement from Warren of public commitment to memorializing murdered trans people and people of color follows ongoing discussions between transgender rights activists and the Warren campaign, as noted on Twitter by activist Charlotte Clymer.

The candidates all agreed that climate change requires urgent action, but billionaire and former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer held the highest ground on climate. He appeared to be auditioning to lead either the EPA or the Department of Energy. He had the strongest climate messaging of the evening, citing the need to declare a climate emergency on day one, and disagreed with Warren and Yang on nuclear power, who contended it should remain a power source for now. Steyer argued instead that we should reject nuclear power, which he said carries the risk of disaster and “isn’t competitive on price,” in favor of wind and solar.

One point of consistent disagreement between the moderates and the progressives has been on how broadly free public college should be available. Sanders spoke vehemently about the importance of universal free public college. He said, “People are sick and tired of filling out forms. I believe in universality,” and pointed out that the enduring strength of Social Security and Medicare comes from the fact that everyone can access it. The debate absolutely suffered from the lack of Julián Castro on stage, who has also made sure to speak about police violence and immigration regardless of if a question arose — though he engaged throughout the debate online with the #JulianSpeaks hashtag. But in Castro’s absence, Steyer spoke quite plainly and lucidly about Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, saying “This president isn’t against immigration, he’s against immigration by non-white people.”

On the foreign policy front, Sanders credited Rep. Barbara Lee for her solo vote against the war in Afghanistan, and admitted his vote was wrong, as was the rest of the House who also voted for the AUMF, which authorized it. Biden was defensive in response to pressure from Nawaz on the failures in Afghanistan. The former vice president, at this debate and elsewhere, has been quick to take credit for more popular aspects of the Obama years like the ACA, but won’t contend with his role in extending the Afghanistan war by another eight years.

One significant development in this debate is it marks the end of Mayor Pete’s grace period among his fellow candidates. Buttigieg has long spoken of himself as a candidate who can unify. And his primary opponents were absolutely unified — against him. Warren was the first to open fire, highlighting Buttigieg’s recent fundraiser in a wine cave full of Swarovski crystals and wine that costs $900 a bottle. From there, Warren and Sanders practically tag-teamed against Buttigieg. Warren declared, “Billionaires in wine caves should not choose who the next president is” while Sanders ribbed Buttigieg by saying that Mayor Pete had fewer billionaire donors (39) than Biden does (44). “You’re an energetic guy,” Sanders challenged, sarcastically. “See if you can take on Joe on that issue.” The criticism resonated: #WineCave trended on twitter, memes were made, and the debate audience applauded both Warren and Sanders’s ribbing of Buttigieg.

Buttigieg had trouble hitting back. When he countered that this was a “purity test” that Warren could not pass (though she and Sanders have disavowed closed-door fundraisers), some in the crowd audibly groaned, while some applauded. Buttigieg struggled to justify the same dynamic that plagued Hillary Clinton, who couldn’t convincingly explain that the money she made giving Wall Street speeches didn’t matter, while refusing to release transcripts of those speeches. Buttigieg’s counter — that one can accept money without handing over influence — contradicts what he’s said about other special interest lobbying. But when speaking about the power of the gun lobby, Buttigieg acknowledges the influence that money can buy, repeatedly citing the “unchecked corporate gun lobby.”

The heat on Buttigieg continued as Senator Amy Klobuchar dug in on both experience and electability. She stood up for her fellow lawmakers who’ve been trying to push policies that makes national changes, and highlighted Pete’s total lack of federal experience. She pointed to the fact that he’s a mayor of a small town, elected by 8000 votes. The only time Buttigieg has run for statewide office, Klobuchar pointed out, he lost by 27 points.

The clashes continued on health care, but moved from Buttigieg to Biden. Biden called Medicare for All not “realistic” given his experience with the fight to pass the ACA. Sanders countered Biden’s questions on how the plan would be paid for by saying we’re paying for it now: “The average worker in America, their family makes $60,000 a year. That family is now paying $12,000 a year for health care, 20 percent of their income.” Warren — when asked what she’d do if Medicare for All couldn’t pass Congress — offered that she would “do the most good I can for the most people” given the constraints.

With a narrowed field of contenders, December’s debate allowed the differences between the candidates to shine through. It also showed which issues are most important to each candidate: climate for Steyer, anti-corruption for Warren, Medicare for All for Sanders and electoral track records for Klobachar. These conversations will enable the Democratic electorate to decide what the face of the Democratic Party should be going forward.

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