The November 2019 Democratic debate, held on a very long day after some very important impeachment hearings, had its fair share of zingers.
This is not a post about those. It’s about the best and most substantive answers from the night — the high-level responses that make the stakes of the race clear.
These are the kinds of answers that define important elements of the candidates’ message and help us understand the reason they are running. They should illuminate big-deal issues. They may not have the most pizzazz, but they deal with the sort of questions that voters should be thinking about in both the primary and general election.
So here are a few moments from Wednesday’s debate worth paying attention to.
Warren on impeachment
Given the gravity of Wednesday’s impeachment hearings, in which US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland pointed the finger directly at President Trump, moderator Rachel Maddow opened the debate by asking about impeachment. She asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren how she’d approach getting Republican votes for impeachment in the Senate, and Warren responded with a thoughtful answer about the way the US does diplomacy:
MADDOW: Senator Warren, you have said already that you’ve seen enough to convict the president and remove him from office. You and four of your colleagues on this stage tonight who are also US senators may soon have to take that vote. Will you try to convince your Republican colleagues in the Senate to vote the same way? And if so, how?
WARREN: Of course I will. And the obvious answer is to say first read the Mueller report. All 442 pages of it that showed how the president tried to obstruct justice. And when congress failed to act at that that moment, and that the president felt free to break the law again and again and again. And that’s what’s happened with Ukraine. We have to establish the principle no one is above the law. We have a constitutional responsibility, and we need to meet it.
But I want to add one more part based on today’s testimony, and that is how did Ambassador Sondland get there. You know, this is not a man who had any qualifications except one. He wrote a check for a million dollars. And that tells us about what’s happening in Washington, the corruption. How money buys its way into Washington. You know, I raised this months ago about the whole notion that donors think they’re going to get ambassadorships on the other side.
And I’ve taken a pledge. Anyone who wants to give me a big donation, don’t ask to be an ambassador because I’m not going to have that happen. I asked everyone who’s running for president to join me in that. And not a single person has so far. I hope what we saw today during the testimony means lots of people will sign-on and say we are not going to give away the ambassador posts to the highest bidder.
What’s interesting here isn’t the direct answer to the question of how she’d approach the Senate. It’s the way that Warren links the Ukraine scandal to institutionalized corruption and the influence of big money, the central themes of her campaign.
Sondland was obviously knee-deep in the scandal. Warren’s point is that someone who was a career diplomat, and not a rich guy qualified primarily by virtue of his donations to the Trump inaugural committee, maybe wouldn’t have gone along with it for as long as he did.
Pay for play in the electoral system led to corruption once the candidate was in the Oval Office: a perfect example of Warren’s campaign message about the harm done to democracy by inequality.
Biden on prosecuting Trump
Former Vice President Joe Biden had some cringey moments during the debate. But his answer to a question from Maddow about whether Trump should be prosecuted hit on some really key points about the Trump presidency and the proper role of law enforcement in the American political system:
MADDOW: When President Ford pardoned President Nixon he said it was to heal the country. Would you support a potential criminal investigation into President Trump after he leaves office even if you thought it might further inflame the country’s divisions?
BIDEN: Look, I would not direct my Justice Department like this president does. I’d let them make their independent judgment. I would not dictate who should be prosecuted or who should be exonerated. That’s not the role of the president of the United States. It’s the attorney general of the United States, not the president’s attorney — private attorney.
So I would, whatever was determined by the attorney general I supported that I appointed, let them make an independent judgment. If that was the judgment that he violated the law and he should be, in fact, criminally prosecuted, then so be it. But I would not direct it.
One of the most worrying parts of the Trump presidency, for people like me concerned about the fundamental health of American democracy, has been the way in which he’s twisted the Justice Department toward his own political ends. Trump has systematically pressured his attorneys general and the FBI to back off any oversight of his own conduct and, at times, go after his enemy. Trump has found his perfect enabler in current Attorney General William Barr.
But one of the other major problems for our democracy is the lack of elite accountability: Powerful political and financial actors can get away with wrongdoing and even outright criminality without punishment. Richard Nixon was pardoned for Watergate, the architects of George W. Bush’s torture policy got off scot-free, and some of the financial executives responsible for the financial crisis left their firms with golden parachutes. What’s the incentive for the elites to do better if they aren’t punished?
Biden’s answer here deftly threads the needle between these two imperatives. He commits to maintaining the independence of the Justice Department, setting right one Trump-era ill, while also leaving the door open for prosecuting Trump for any actual misbehavior and thus real elite accountability. It’s a very smart answer to a very tricky question.
Sanders on Saudi Arabia
Sen. Bernie Sanders has led a bipartisan pushback against Saudi Arabia in the Senate, and on Wednesday night, he made the case, briefly but convincingly, that the United States should reexamine its relationship with the kingdom. And in doing so, he offered a strong critique of Trump’s zero-sum foreign policy.
The moderators asked Sanders to follow up on answers from Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar on whether, as president, either would push back on Saudi Arabia on issues like the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And then Sanders got his moment:
I think I may have been the first person up here to make it clear that Saudi Arabia not only murdered Khashoggi, but this is a brutal dictatorship which does everything it can to crush democracy, treats women as third-class citizens.
And when we rethink our American foreign policy, what we have got to know is that Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally. We have got to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room under American leadership and say we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts.
And by the way, the same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians. It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel. But we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve. What is going on in Gaza right now, where youth unemployment is 70 percent or 80 percent, is unsustainable. So we need to be rethinking who our allies are around the world, work with the United Nations, and not continue to support brutal dictatorships.
Sanders states unequivocally that “Saudi Arabia is not an ally,” which is not just a break with the Trump administration, but also with its predecessors. It might be a little naive to say the US has to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together; those two countries have been regional rivals for decades. But the larger point he’s making is relevant: The US may not continue to reflexively side with Saudi Arabia against Iran. It’s a not-so-subtle critique of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
Sanders’s pivot to the Israel-Palestinian conflict made a similar point: US foreign policy doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Sanders himself has recently condemned attacks on Israel launched from Gaza, but he’s also been openly critical of Israel’s blockade.
The biggest takeaway from Sanders’s speech is how much his own foreign policy chops have improved. In 2016, Sanders’s lack of foreign policy credentials was seen as a weakness in his candidacy. His progressive foreign policy vision will certainly have its critics. But he’s offering some of the clearest and best-defined positions on dealing with America’s challenges overseas.
Harris on child care
Wednesday’s debate was the first with a crew of all-women moderators, and they asked several questions about family issues that had been neglected in previous debates, including paid family leave.
Harris’s explanation of her paid leave plan made an economic case, tying it into the broader issue of equal pay. Here’s the key exchange:
PARKER: No parent in the United States is federally guaranteed a single day of paid leave when they have a new baby. A number of you on stage tonight have plans to address this. Senator Harris, you’re one of the candidates proposing legislation to guarantee up to six months of paid family leave. … Why six months and also how would you pay for that?
HARRIS: Sure. ... So part of how I believe we’re going to win this election is it is going to be because we are focused on the future. We are focused on the challenges that are presented today and not trying to bring back yesterday to solve tomorrow.
So on paid family leave, it is no longer the case in America that people are having children in their 20s. People are having children in their 30s, often in their 40s, which means that these families and parents are often raising young children and taking care of their parents, which requires a lot of work. ...
And what we are seeing in America today is the burden principally falls on women to do that work. And many women are having to make a very difficult choice, whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they’re going to give up a paycheck that is part of what that family relies on.
So six months paid family leave is meant to, and is designed to, adjust to the reality of women’s lives today. The reality also is that women are not paid equal for equal work in America. We passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, but fast forward to the year of our Lord 2019, and women are paid 80 cents on the dollar, black women 61 cents, Native American women 58 cents, Latinas 53 cents. So my policy is about, there’s a whole collection of work that I’m doing that is focused on women and working women in America.
Paid leave would ensure that caregivers have financial support for at least a fraction of the time they spend on this work. According to the National Center on Caregiving, the monetary value of “informal” long-term care provided by women for sick or older family members amounts to at least $148 billion on an annual basis. A 2012 study from the National Partnership for Women & Families found that women who’ve been able to take paid leave following childbirth are more likely to return to the workforce nine to 12 months afterward, compared to those who do not.
But despite being a really important policy issue, it’s one that’s gotten little focus in the 2020 race thus far. Harris didn’t just shine a spotlight on it, but made the case for why it’s a key part of addressing larger systemic disparities.
Booker on criminal justice and marijuana
Sen. Cory Booker has spent much of the debates acting as a uniter who tries to get everyone on stage to get along. But on Wednesday, Booker broke away from his typical message with a sharp attack on Biden about his stance on marijuana legalization:
I have a lot of respect for the vice president. He has sworn me into my office and he’s a hero. This week I hear him literally say that I don’t think we should legalize marijuana. I thought you might have been high when you said it. And let me tell you because marijuana — marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people. And the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.
So let me just say this, with more African Americans under criminal supervision in America than all the slaves since 1850, do not roll up into communities and not talk directly to issues that are going to relate to the liberation of children. Because there are people in Congress right now that admit to smoking marijuana, while there are people — our kids are in jail right now for those drug crimes.
The crux of Booker’s argument is that America faces a real crisis of mass incarceration and the war on drugs. This crisis disproportionately affects black Americans — who, for example, are more likely to be locked up for drugs, even though they’re not more likely to use or sell them. That’s what Booker was speaking to: While it seems unlikely that you’ll get arrested for marijuana as a white, privileged kid, it’s a bigger fear for people of color in the US.
Booker has long been an advocate in this area, pushing not just to lower prison sentences for drug offenses but going even further than the typical candidate by acknowledging that violent crime is also disproportionately punished. He was one of the first candidates on the stage to come out for legalizing marijuana, proposing a bill in the Senate that would even encourage states to legalize.
Based on recent polls, Biden’s opposition to legalization also puts him at odds with the great majority of Democrats, 75-plus percent of whom back legalization. Biden’s opposition even puts him at odds with the median Republican, with polls showing that even a majority of Republicans support legalization.
Politically, then, legalization should be low-hanging fruit — the kind of thing that one could expect a Democratic president to take action on to begin reeling back the war on drugs. Yet Biden is not quite there.
Biden has defended himself by arguing that, while he opposes national legalization, he will still let states legalize, and he’ll decriminalize at the federal level, letting out anyone who’s locked up for marijuana possession and expunging their records. But this still leaves a civil fine in place for marijuana, leaving some parts of government in charge of punishing people for using a drug that two-thirds of Americans say should be legal.
It’s an especially bad look for Biden. He has a long record of pushing for punitive criminal justice and drug policies — not just supporting but actually writing many of the laws in the 1980s and ’90s that helped shape America’s modern war on drugs. For Biden to hang on to marijuana prohibition, then, just reinforces one of the major concerns that criminal justice reformers like Booker have about him.