Recap: Fifth Democratic Debate


Keshav Kundassery

Impeachment: “We can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time”

The fifth debate for the Democratic nomination kicked off with discussion about the hot button issue of the year – impeachment. The moderators started by asking Elizabeth Warren how she thinks Democrats can convince Republican voters and congresspeople that Donald Trump is indeed worthy of removal from office. She said that a cursory read of the Mueller report should be enough to convince anyone, and then pivoted to talking about her anti-corruption bill. In Warren’s book, she claims Gordon Sondland was only ever an ambassador because he donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. It was unclear how this related favorably to the initial question of impeachment because Sondland is the supposed bombshell witness Democrats believe to be making their case for them.

The attention then shifted to Amy Klobuchar, who was asked why she had not committed to voting to convict Trump, merely supporting that proceedings move forward in past discussions. She started by condemning Trump for putting the interests of countries such as Russia and North Korea before the U.S., but finished by equivocating yet again on the issue of conviction.

Bernie Sanders was then asked exactly how important Democrats should make impeachment to their 2020 campaigns. He was adamant that although Trump should be impeached, the party cannot focus consume itself with the issue for too long. He then went on to deliver his trademarked statistics about income inequality, a staple of any Sanders debate performance at this point. To the same question, Pete Buttigieg reminded everyone that the day after the Trump presidency ends will be far more challenging than any that have come before.

Joe Biden quipped that his biggest takeaway from the proceedings was that Trump (and Putin) were adamant that he not receive the Democratic nomination. He argued that this was because he was the most electable candidate on stage, and the most likely to flip the Senate. To conclude the segment, Kamala Harris suggested that what is going on in the White House is a criminal enterprise. She believes that more than just Trump’s inner circle is in the loop, suggesting that the powerful play by a different set of rules.


Wealth Tax: “We must talk about what unites us”

Warren was asked whether she thought the division pervading the country was permanent. She insisted that there was much that brings us together, although that may not be what the dominant narrative focuses on. She used this opportunity to introduce her wealth tax into the debate, as an example of an issue that Americans are increasingly coalescing around. Cory Booker was asked about his thoughts on the proposal, which he has rejected in the past. He believes that although we need more revenue, the wealth tax has failed in other countries that have tried it, and is altogether cumbersome. He suggested that increasing the estate tax and closing the capital gains loophole could get the job done, but did not make it clear why all three policies could not go hand in hand. Warren responded with a laundry list of initiatives that her wealth tax could fund – universal childcare and pre-K, tuition-free public colleges, student loan debt forgiveness, and increased funding to HBCUs. Booker reiterated that he shares the same goals, but just disagrees with the funding plan that Warren is wedded to. Throughout this repartee, Sanders raised his hand to chime in multiple times to no avail, presumably to talk about his far more extensive wealth tax.


Medicare for All: “I wrote the damn bill”

The question of how to heal a divided country was then directed towards Buttigieg. He saw it as an opportunity to expound the reasoning behind Medicare for All Who Want It, his reply to Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation. He argued that there is a majority of Americans who support universal healthcare, but that the party must make sure not to alienate that majority with a push to completely eliminate private insurance and “order” people to move to the government-run option. Sanders raised his hand again here and slammed it down on the podium in frustration when the moderators went to Warren again instead. She gave a rundown of the details of her newly released transition plan, which includes a public option with the hope that voters will be convinced by the efficiency of the government and will want to completely transition by her third year in office. It should be noted that this plan is strikingly similar to Buttigieg’s own proposal in content, while maintaining the energy of the Sanders counterpart in rhetoric. 

Sanders was then given a chance to chime in. He was reminded that President Obama has warned the party not to get too radical on healthcare and tear down the existing system. Bernie spun his message to agree with Obama, though. He reminded us that the US currently spends twice as much on healthcare per capita as every other country does, while still getting worse outcomes. He insisted that the system doesn’t need to be torn down, but rather just paid for differently. Biden reiterated that we need to worry about these bills passing the House, since even Speaker Pelosi has refused to support Medicare for All.


Foreign Policy: “We need to treat Palestinians with respect”

The debate became tense when the discussion shifted to foreign policy. Gabbard Tulsi Gabbard was asked what her criticism of the Democratic party is exactly, since she has been recently vocal about her disapproval. She argued that the party’s foreign policy is driven by the establishment, dubbing it the Bush-Clinton-Trump regime change doctrine. Harris was asked to chime in, presumably to give her a chance to push back at Gabbard after Gabbard’s canned takedown of Harris in the second debate. Harris came prepared, accusing Gabbard of disloyalty to Obama and the rest of the party, framing her as an outsider infiltrating its ranks. The crowd erupted in applause at Harris’ remarks, reaffirming the party elites’ increasingly antagonistic attitude towards Gabbard. Gabbard responded that Harris never actually engaged with the thrust of her argument, supposedly confirming that Harris is also a part of the foreign policy establishment.

Sanders was later asked about whether he would pull out of Iraq, even if it meant instability. He seemed to reject the premise of the question, assuring everyone that there was a path to peace if the international community negotiates a deal with the Taliban, under the assumption that the US military will pull out immediately. He reminded us that we spend more money on our military than the next ten countries combined and that the entire war on terror was misguided and needs to be questioned.

Andrew Yang stressed the need to commit to research on artificial intelligence and create a World Data Organization. Booker redirected the conversation to questioning why we continue to bankroll regimes like Saudi Arabia that are antithetical to American values. Biden affirmed that he would immediately stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and that we must speak out for the protesters in Hong Kong. Klobuchar agreed that Saudi Arabia must be dealt with in some way, although she was unclear as to how. Sanders asserted that he was the first to criticize Saudi Arabia out of all the candidates on stage, and that they should no longer be an ally to the United States. He then did something that no other US presidential candidate has done during a debate – he asserted that while being pro-Israel, we must not forget about the humanity and dignity of Palestinians as well.

Warren was then asked whether more Americans should serve in the military than do currently, to which she responded affirmatively. She stressed that there should also be other ways to serve the country through non-military initiatives, an idea that Buttigieg has suggested as well.


White Supremacy: “Yes, I would”

When asked about the issue of white supremacy, Gabbard argued that the first step to countering it would be to alleviate the racial disparities in the criminal justice system – ending cash bail and the war on drugs. Yang argued that we need to focus on finding at-risk males before they fall through the cracks and become terrorists.


#MeToo: “Unless in self-defense”

Biden was asked a question about the Me Too movement, to which he reminded voters that he wrote the Violence Against Women act. He ended his answer with rhetoric that the crowd found largely uncomfortable, seeming to remark that it would be okay for a man to hit a woman if it were in self-defense. It was also notable that the moderators did not ask Biden about the sexual misconduct allegations against him.


Minority Vote: “Well show up for me”

Harris was given an opportunity to attack Pete for the scandal surrounding his South Carolina campaign regarding endorsements from black leadership. She refused to attack him, and instead focused on what she believes is the larger issue: Democratic candidates taking black votes for granted, assuming that African Americans would never opt to vote for the Republican candidate. She was greeted with roaring applause, in what was a memorable moment in an overall strong performance for Harris. This was seen as a veiled attack on Pete nonetheless, to which he responded that his lack of support among black voters is simply because they don’t know about him yet. He then explained that he understands the plight of African Americans, since he’s seen his rights up for debate on the national stage as a gay man. Warren moved the conversation to her student loan debt forgiveness program, which she believes would disproportionately help African Americans.


Marijuana Legalization: “I thought you might have been high when you said it”

Booker shifted the conversation about race more specifically to one about marijuana legalization. In a diatribe constantly interrupted by applause, Booker had what was his biggest moment of the night when he railed on Biden for suggesting that marijuana should not yet be legalized. He argues that it’s already legal, only for the rich – there are thousands of disproportionately poor and minority individuals who are in jail, while people in Congress who admit to smoking live without any repercussions for the same crime. Biden clarified that he does think we should decriminalize, but just put the brakes on full legalization before research is complete on marijuana’s long term effects.


Abortion: “The people are with us”

Klobuchar suggested that Roe v. Wade must be codified into law. The moderators asked Warren whether there is room in the party for governors such as John Edwards, who is anti-abortion but recently held on the governorship in Louisiana. She refused to attack him directly, but reiterated that the party’s values lie firmly with a woman’s right to control her own body. Bernie added that in this fight, men must more than anywhere else stand firm in their support of women.


Overall, the debate saw strong performances from Booker and Harris, who had been fading in the polls coming into the night. The personal attacks were kept to a minimum, with none of the top four candidates – Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg – taking any big hits. Each of them delivered strong performances, and the effects on polling are unpredictable at this point. It is important to keep an eye on how polls in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire are affected in the coming weeks, as the rest of the country is only starting to tune in.