The final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus had moments that further highlighted the distinctions between the leading candidates on issues like free public college and health care but for the most part it covered familiar ground.
However, the candidates closest in policy — Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — had moments when the distinctions in their strategic approaches shone through: Warren described her approach as fighting for smaller reforms to get relief to as many as possible as quickly as possible, and Sanders emphasized that legislative opportunities are rare, and it’s worth the risk of holding out for a more optimal outcome.
The debate started out with Warren and Sanders in alignment on foreign policy. On the conflict with Iran, the candidates concurred that withdrawing from the Iran deal was a mistake. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer all said that if they were commander-in-chief they would leave some combat troops in Iraq, while Sanders and Warren said they would withdraw the troops.
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Warren said “we need to get our combat troops out” and “we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily” and instead focus on diplomatic tools. She cited the many generals she’s heard before the Senate Armed Services Committee saying they’ve just turned a corner, but that “we’ve turned the corner so many times, we’re going in circles,” and called for cutting the defense budget and ending the revolving door between the defense industry and the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, as he did in the December debate, Sanders gave Rep. Barbara Lee credit for her lone vote against the Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) in 2001. Sanders invoked the many problems the United States faces, such as 87 million people who either lack health care entirely or are under-insured, and the 500,000 people “sleeping out on the streets tonight.” Sanders then stressed that Americans are “sick and tired of endless wars which have cost us trillions of dollars,” and that the focus should instead be on diplomacy and rebuilding the State Department.
The candidates agreed that the prohibitive cost of child care is an important policy issue, with Warren and Sanders citing their plans for universal child care. There was also consensus that we face a climate crisis, though Biden argued for more moderate approaches to addressing it, such as returning to mileage standards on cars and making highways green highways. Steyer, who continually stated he was the only candidate making climate change his number-one priority, was confronted with his past as a hedge fund manager whose investments included fossil fuels. He clarified that he’d divested 10 years ago, signed a pledge to give away most of his wealth, and has been fighting the climate crisis for the last 12 years. Warren argued that in order to tackle the climate crisis, corruption in government needed to be tackled first, as it’s the power of the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying that’s been able to block change thus far.
Free public college has long been a source of contention between some of the moderates and progressives, and this debate again highlighted these differences. Despite the fact that universal benefits are more resilient than income-capped programs, Buttigieg repeated his assertion that he wants to prevent the children of the wealthy from benefiting from free public college. Warren countered that she would be fine with the children of billionaires attending free public college, so long as those billionaires are paying a wealth tax.
Sanders and Steyer were the only candidates on stage to oppose the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal. Sanders started to discuss the trade deal in relation to climate policy, noting that the deal does not even mention climate change, but he was cut off by moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel who said they would get to a discussion of the climate later. However, trade is absolutely an issue that impacts the climate — that is why, as Sanders noted, every major environmental organization opposed the deal, something Steyer also noted when he said he couldn’t support the deal.
Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Biden all voiced support for the trade deal, as did Warren, who said the deal was “a modest improvement” that gave relief to farmers and workers. She said she supported the deal because she thought we should “accept that relief” and then “get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal.” Sanders countered that legislative opportunities don’t come that often on trade, and that if this deal is ratified, “it will set us back a number of years.”
The disagreements Warren and Sanders had on trade in many ways embodied the differences in their strategic approaches in other areas, too, with Sanders pushing for a bolder but perhaps more difficult to achieve vision and Warren pushing for smaller, but readily achievable reforms.
On health care, Warren noted that her approach is to “get as much help to as many people as quickly as possible.” She said on Day 1 of her administration, she would create a new agency that would allow the government to produce drugs for expired patents, which would lower the cost of prescription drugs for consumers.
Meanwhile Sanders emphasized his commitment to introduce Medicare for All in his first week, arguing for the importance of fighting for a deeper change to the U.S. health care system, even in the face of challenges that such a bill would face in the likely 2021 Senate. On the debate stage, Sanders spoke about Medicare for All on the merits, explaining that “What we will do through a Medicare for All single-payer program is substantially lower the cost of health care for employers and workers, because we end the $100 billion a year that the health care industry makes and the $500 billion a year we spend” in administrative costs. In both health care and trade, Warren’s inclination appears to be to accept a more limited improvement that could help people right away, whereas Sanders is calling for a longer-term fight for a more ideal solution, since it’s hard to have another bite at the apple.