And then there were seven.
The December Democratic debate was the most exclusive affair to date, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala Harris out of the race and prior participants like Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and former US housing secretary Julián Castro knocked out for failing to meet polling and/or donor thresholds. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang was the only person of color on stage, a situation that prompted understandable concern before the event, and he and fellow longshots Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Tom Steyer were joined by the race’s Big Four: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
After a fairly ho-hum first hour, the field burst into open conflict, with some candidates ganging up on Iowa frontrunner Buttigieg. Klobuchar took on his lack of experience in high office, and Warren brought up his fundraiser in a “wine cave.” Amid the sparring, the candidates were able to have an unusually substantive, policy-focused discussion on everything from immigration to the Uighur crisis in China.
It’s rare that a debate features dramatic moments that shake up the whole race, and this time was no exception. But it was a lively debate, and we’ll see if it will change the state of play in some meaningful ways. Here’s who ended the night ahead, and who fell behind.
Winner: Joe Biden
So far in 2019, Joe Biden has not been what anyone would call a debate superstar. His answers have often come off as rambling and incoherent, giving rise to questions about his age.
This debate was different. To be sure, Biden is still the frontrunner, with a very healthy lead in the national polls. So Biden could have just come into the debate, done enough to not lose, and he probably would have still remained on top.
But Biden didn’t just coast; he genuinely did well. Asked about his claims that he’ll be able to work with Republicans if he defeats Trump, Biden gave one of the best answers of the night:
With Trump out of the way, it’s not going to change things in a fundamental way. What it will do is it will mean that we’re in a position where he’s not going to be able to intimidate, his base is not going to be able to intimidate those half a dozen Republicans we need in other things. I refuse to accept the notion, as some on this stage do, that we can never, never get to a place have we have cooperation again. 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 the Republicans and not want to cooperate it’s me — the way they’ve attacked me, my son, my family. I have no love. But the fact is we have to be able to get things done and when we can’t convince them, we have to go out and beat them as we did in the 2018 election in red states and in purple states.
I’m not sure I buy the logic; I don’t think the Republican Party, given what happened in the Obama years, will work much, if at all, with a President Biden. But it’s the kind of answer that at once condemns what Trump and his party are doing right now while not condemning the people who might have voted for them — a smart approach if Biden wants to win over some of those voters in the general election. At the same time, it made the point that Republicans perceive Biden as the enemy — a winning message in the Democratic primary election.
In the less substantial moments, Biden was also sharp. When Politico’s Tim Alberta looked confused at Biden’s joke that Winston Churchill was the oldest president in US history, Biden quickly ribbed him: “I was joking. Politico doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.” When Bernie Sanders kept his hand raised through one of Biden’s answers, Biden quipped, “Put your hand down, Bernie.” The moments landed well with the audience, earning Biden the kind of laughs he rarely saw in previous debates.
Biden also benefited from the other candidates spending much of the night attacking each other instead of him. In particular, Pete Buttigieg — who’s had some good polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote — came under fire from both Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. (More on him below.)
Biden by and large avoided similar attacks throughout the night, while making some dents in concerns about his age and gaffes. For the frontrunner, that adds up to a big win.
Winner: Amy Klobuchar
A very different Amy Klobuchar was standing on the debate stage Thursday.
Gone was the shaky candidate with the quivering hair that Rachel Dratch parodied on Saturday Night Live. In her place was a confident Klobuchar who was in a groove all night, with personal anecdotes, quippy one-liners about wine caves, a snappy moment telling Pete Buttigieg to respect the experience of his fellow candidates onstage, and clear, substantive responses to policy questions.
“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show they can gather the support that you talk about — moderate Republicans and independents as well as a fired up Democratic base and not just done it once,” Klobuchar told Buttigieg at one point, methodically dismantling his pitch for a fresh face in the White House. “I have done it three times. I think winning matters.”
There’s a clear strategy to Klobuchar going after Buttigieg — she wants to be the main moderate alternative to Joe Biden in the Democratic field. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who like Buttigieg often mention Klobuchar in the same breath. “Feisty” is often the word voters use to describe her, adding they think she could stand up to Trump — if she can only break through the Democratic pack.
Klobuchar has made it this far; despite relatively lackluster polling numbers thus far, she’s on the debate stage — something her fellow Senate colleagues Cory Booker and Michael Bennet cannot say.
The senator from Minnesota may well have set herself up well for a boomlet after Thursday’s debate performance.
Winner: foreign policy
In nearly all of the Democratic debates so far, foreign policy has been sort of an afterthought. That changed thanks to the moderators, who asked questions on the war in Afghanistan, Israeli settlements (more on that later on), and US-China relations. The questions produced one of the most substantive discussions of the night, and the most substantive foreign policy discussion of the entire debate season.
Take the China questions, for example. The moderators asked about Chinese repression — both the brutal crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority and the repression of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The candidates were forced to deal with the genuinely difficult question of how to respond to horrific human rights abuses by one of the world’s most powerful nations — and, to the candidates’ credit, they had genuinely interesting answers.
Pete Buttigieg argued China is too large and important to be allowed to get away with horrific abuses — and that the US needs to set some red lines. “The reality is there are a lot more to the relationship with China than who is selling more dishwashers,” he said. “The message I will say is if they perpetrate a repeat of anything like Tiananmen Square, they will be isolated from the free world.”
Tom Steyer took a different view: While supporting the Hong Kong protesters was important, the US couldn’t press too hard because it needed China on the vital issue of climate change. “We actually can’t isolate ourselves from China,” Steyer argued. “If we are going to treat climate as the threat that it is, we are going to have to partner with the Chinese.”
Joe Biden followed Steyer, arguing that the risks of outright war between the US and China are low — that the US can and should pressure China on egregious human rights issues and military adventurism in the region. “We have to make clear that we, in fact, are not going to abide by what they have done,” he said. “A million Uighurs, Muslims, are in concentration camps. They’re being abused.”
These are all reasonable, defensible views on one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges of the 21st century: how to deal with a key economic and political partner that’s also a ruthless, increasingly militarily assertive dictatorship? That kind of substantive exchange is what you’re hoping for in a debate like this; credit both to the moderators and the candidates for it.
Loser: Pete Buttigieg
Though he’s in fourth place according to national polls, Pete Buttigieg has loomed large in the nomination contest of late — he’s in first place in Iowa and about tied for first in New Hampshire.
So naturally, several of his rivals went into this debate hoping to take him down. And Buttigieg took serious heat on two main issues — his fundraising from wealthy donors, and his lack of experience at winning elected office beyond one city in Indiana.
Elizabeth Warren kicked things off by invoking a phrase that was soon repeated again and again: “wine cave.”
“The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine,” Warren said. Indeed, this is true, as Brian Slodysko of the Associated Press reported. (Recode’s Theodore Schleifer found photos of the fundraiser on a donor’s Instagram account. It indeed looked fancy.)
“Think about who comes to that,” Warren said. “We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States.”
Bernie Sanders soon ribbed Buttigieg (and Joe Biden) on a similar topic. “My good friend, Joe, and he is a good friend, he’s received contributions from 44 billionaires. Pete on the other hand, is trailing, Pete. You only got 39 billionaires contributing.” Even Andrew Yang joined in, while touting his proposal to give every voter “100 democracy dollars” they can donate — Yang said it would spur more women to run for office “because they don’t have to shake the money tree in the wine cave.”
Later, Amy Klobuchar took aim at Buttigieg’s thin electoral record. “We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show they can gather the support that you talk about — moderate Republicans and independents as well as a fired up Democratic base.” She added: “I have done it three times. I think winning matters.”
Buttigieg tried gamely to defend himself. He pointed out that Warren (and everyone else on the stage) is personally far wealthier than him. He said anyone who wants to beat Donald Trump needs to raise as much money as they can. And, to Klobuchar, he said that he is a winner — he won elections as “a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana” (though Klobuchar then pointed out that when he ran statewide in Indiana, for treasurer, he lost “by 20 points”).
Overall, Buttigieg seemed to have been attacked more than the national frontrunner Biden — and the attacks on him were particularly dangerous because they came on two fronts. The candidates running to the left on economic issues (Warren and Sanders) slammed him for purported coziness with big donors, while the more moderate Klobuchar focused on his lack of experience. Voters considering Buttigieg heard two separate prominent arguments that could spur them to reconsider.
Loser: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
In the surprisingly substantive foreign policy debate, there was one foreign leader who came in for special criticism from the two frontrunners, Biden and Sanders — and it wasn’t an enemy dictator like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un. It was the prime minister of one of America’s closest allies — Israel.
The topic first came up when moderator Yamiche Alcindor asked Sanders about how he’d handle the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements — and whether he’d consider holding up US military aid in protest of them.
Sanders refused to rule out conditioning aid, and insisted on the need for America to be “pro-Palestinian” as well as pro-Israel. He then described Netanyahu as a “racist” (seems pretty true, given what he’s done to Palestinians and said about Arab voters) who is “under indictment for bribery” (this one is absolutely, undeniably true).
While Sanders’s view may not have been surprising — he’s a lefty on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who’s made no secret of his dislike for Netanyahu — Biden’s was quite surprising given his relatively moderate reputation.
“Netanyahu and I know each other well. He knows I think what he’s doing is outrageous,” Biden said. “What we do is we have to put pressure constantly on the Israelis to move to a two-state solution, not withdraw physical aid.”
This type of critical language — where even moderates call for constant pressure on Israel from the United States — used to be almost unthinkable in the Democratic Party, and shows how far left the party has moved on this issue.
For that, Netanyahu personally deserves some of the credit. He has not only slandered Arab citizens of Israel and relentlessly expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank, making a two-state solution harder and harder, but he’s also openly aligned himself with the Republican Party — having lobbied against Obama’s Iran deal in the US Congress and tightly aligned himself with Trump.
Israeli politicians used to be deathly afraid of losing bipartisan support in America. The theory was that Israel’s national security depended on getting security and political support from the United States, and couldn’t afford to risk losing that every four years. Netanyahu’s strategy of turning Israel into a partisan issue may well have made that longstanding approach untenable.
Loser: that goddamn background
Viewers have lodged valid complaints about previous 2020 debates: Moderators were too obsessed with health care; the candidates were too shy about drawing out their differences; unserious candidates like self-help author Marianne Williamson took up too much space.
A criticism no one made to date was: “The background moved too much.”
That changed tonight. Throughout the three-hour debate, the words “POLITICO,” “PBS NEWSHOUR,” and the PBS logo crawled at a slow, nauseating pace behind the candidates. At times the letters of the word “POLITICO” even appeared to vibrate, nudging into each other like the strings on a guitar being played with vibrato. People tweeted complaints all night.
We tuned into this debate to hear from the candidates, not to be taunted by malevolent typography. Just put up a big blue background or something! I don’t care. This is the easiest possible thing to get right and instead viewers were subjected to the year’s most baffling graphic design.
Loser: the last question
The evening’s final question was, ostensibly, holiday-themed. “In the spirit of the season,” moderator Judy Woodruff asked candidates if there was “a candidate from whom you would ask forgiveness for something, maybe, that was said tonight or another time, or a candidate to whom you would like to give a gift.”
The results broke down along gender lines. Andrew Yang kicked things off by saying, “I would love to give each of you a copy of my book.”
“Come to think of it, I should probably send my book around more, too,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg responded, before adding that it would be a gift “for literally anybody up here to become president of the United States compared to what we’ve got.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders joked that “I can give out any one of four books that I wrote,” before saying that “the gift that all of us need to give to the American people is a very, very different vision” than the one provided by Trump.
Not every male candidate mentioned his books, but every one chose a gift. Meanwhile, both Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the only women on the stage, asked for forgiveness.
“I know that sometimes I get really worked up,” Warren said. “And sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to.” She went on to say that stories she hears about people unable to afford their medical care make her impassioned.
Klobuchar made a similar plea. “I would ask for forgiveness any time any of you get mad at me,” she said. “I can be blunt. But I am doing this because I think it is so important to pick the right candidate here.”
The contrast couldn’t have been starker: Men plugging their achievements, women saying they were sorry for being confrontational. In Warren’s case especially, the answer felt like a response to criticisms that she is “angry” or “unlikable” — criticisms male candidates haven’t faced in the same way. And in both cases, the women’s responses reflected an enduring social expectation that women should apologize for being assertive or confrontational.
The question itself was a throwaway, revealing little of substance about any of the candidates. What it revealed, instead, was that even when they’re running for the highest office in the country, women still feel like they have to say they’re sorry.