The November Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta came at the end of a marathon day of political news, marked by US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland’s historic testimony before the House Intelligence Committee confirming that President Donald Trump tied military aid to Ukraine to investigations into the Biden family. Indeed, moderator Rachel Maddow opened the debate with a question about the Sondland testimony.
But the rest of the night barely touched on the impeachment process, swerving from agricultural policy to wealth taxes to climate to military intervention. It was a fairly solid night for the field as a whole, with even bottom-tier candidates like Tom Steyer having standout moments.
Some, though, won more than others. Here’s who ended the night up, and who ended up worse than they started.
Winner: Pete Buttigieg
The South Bend, Indiana, mayor is having a moment. He’s skyrocketed to the top of the RealClearPolitics average of the polls in Iowa, the first state to vote in the primaries. He’s also creeping up in New Hampshire. At Wednesday’s debate, Buttigieg had one goal: keep that momentum going.
He succeeded. Throughout the debate, Buttigieg avoided attacks from his high-polling opponents on the debate stage, while using his time to push his message as an outsider and a more moderate candidate who could unite the country.
When Buttigieg was asked about perhaps his biggest weakness — his lack of experience — he managed to spin the question positively, framing himself as an outsider: “I get it’s not traditional establishment Washington experience, but I would argue we need something very different right now. In order to defeat this president, we need somebody who can go toe-to-toe who actually comes from the kinds of communities that he’s been appealing to.”
In a campaign that has focused a lot on wealth inequality and the role of billionaires in the political system, Buttigieg also made the point that he’s as far removed from a billionaire as anyone on the debate stage: “I don’t talk a big game about helping the working class while helicoptering between golf courses with my name on them. I don’t even golf. As a matter of fact, I never thought I’d be on a Forbes magazine list, but they did one of all the candidates by wealth, and I am literally the least wealthy person on this stage.”
And yes, he also used his time to directly pander to the Iowa voters he’s hoping to help carry his campaign early on — dedicating an answer about farming subsidies to get into granular details about President Trump’s trade war and how soybean farmers are particularly struggling as a result of the current administration’s policies, which are issues that are hurting Trump in Iowa.
Just how big of a role these debates play in elections is a genuine question. But at the very least, Buttigieg didn’t seem to hurt himself.
Winner: Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren walked into Wednesday’s debate in a perhaps weaker position than she has been in previous showdowns — Pete Buttigieg’s star is rising in Iowa, and she’s been bogged down in the weeds of Medicare-for-all plans for weeks. But she demonstrated that, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, her framework still anchors much of the conversation on issues such as the economy and health care. And she got to remind voters of one of her most popular proposals: the wealth tax, or, as she’s branded it, two cents.
“When you make it big, when you make it really big, when you make it [to] the top one-tenth of one percent big, pitch in two cents, so everybody else gets a chance to make it,” the Massachusetts Democrat said on Wednesday.
Under her plan, Americans with fortunes of more than $50 million would pay a 2 percent annual tax (where she gets the “two cents” from); for those with more than $1 billion, that tax would rise to 3 percent. It’s a popular idea, and Warren knows it, even if it’s earned her some billionaire enemies. “Regardless of party affiliation, people understand across this country our government is working better and better for the billionaires, for the rich, for the well-connected, and worse and worse for everyone else,” she said.
Sen. Cory Booker tried to push Warren on the merits of the wealth tax proposal. He argued that while tax loopholes and cheating are a problem, Democrats also need to talk about growth. He said the wealth tax is “cumbersome” and hard to evaluate. “We can get the same amount of revenue through just taxation,” he said.
But Warren successfully parried, saying, “Just the idea of what is behind, what is fair: today, the 99 percent in America are on track to pay about 7.2 percent of their total wealth in taxes. The top one tenth of 1 percent that I want to say pay 2 cents more, they’ll pay 3.2 percent more in America. I’m tired of free-loading billionaires.”
The rest of the night was solid for Warren — she defended abortion rights, spoke about race, and highlighted her focus on rooting out corruption — and preserved her position in the 2020 race.
— Emily Stewart
Winner: Cory Booker
For about 1 hour and 40 minutes, Cory Booker had a fairly standard, uneventful debate. He got in a good line about being the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on the stage, a light jab at Pete Buttigieg that didn’t land with much force. He had a confusing and forgettable exchange with Elizabeth Warren critiquing her wealth tax plan on technical grounds — a fair hit, but one better reserved for a policy paper than the debate stage.
Then the topic came to the black vote, and Booker broke through.
One of the many challenges facing his campaign so far — and Sen. Kamala Harris’s — has been his failure to break through with black voters nationwide and in South Carolina (where black voters make up a big part of the Democratic primary electorate). Former Vice President Joe Biden’s name recognition and connection to the Obama presidency have apparently been sufficient to swamp any arguments Booker and Harris have tried to make for themselves as superior champions of black voters’ interests.
So Booker decided to fight the fight directly. He first brushed off Buttigieg’s attempts to cater to black voters by noting he’s “been one since I turned 18,” and didn’t “need a focus group” to tell him what black voters think and value — a nice move that subtly undermined the implicit premise behind the question that there’s a monolithic “black vote” to be won en masse.
But then he turned to Joe Biden, and turned an electability question about race into a concrete policy disagreement, noting Joe Biden’s opposition to nationwide marijuana legalization, underlining how devastating marijuana criminalization has been to black men and black communities, and pushing Biden into an embarrassing, fumbling answer in which he claimed the support of the “the only African American woman who’s been elected to the Senate” — to which Harris simply replied, “No, the other one is here.”
To break into Biden’s base of black support, Booker needed to draw out clear policy differences with Biden and also to challenge Biden’s claims to respect and revere the black community. He didn’t even need to do the latter himself — he just put an obstacle in front of Biden and just watched as Biden tripped over it.
— Dylan Matthews
Winner: Stacey Abrams
Stacey Abrams was very narrowly ahead in polling averages in her 2018 race to become governor of Georgia, but when the votes were counted, she lost. Yet on the debate stage Wednesday night, she was a winner — robbed of her rightful victory.
“It was the voter suppression, particularly of African-American communities, that prevented us from having a governor Stacey Abrams right now,” Booker said early in the evening, in a debate held in Abrams’s home state. His Senate colleague Amy Klobuchar said that under a fair system, “Stacey Abrams would be governor of this state.” And Bernie Sanders referred to “voter suppression which cost the democratic party a governorship here in this state.”
This is a narrative that’s been building for a year in the Democratic Party, and the remarks on stage Wednesday merely echoed things that Sen. Kamala Harris and others have been saying for months.
There are fair questions to raise about election administration in Georgia and other states. But it is worth complicating this narrative somewhat. Turnout in Georgia in 2018 was far higher than usual for a midterm election, and according to the Democratic data firm Catalyst, the African American share of the electorate was unusually high rather than unusually low. But what happened is that while Abrams improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance with white voters, she actually lost ground relative to Clinton with African Americans — winning by “only” 90 percentage points rather than 94.
But on Wednesday night, that all didn’t matter. The candidates on stage played to the home crowd, and made Abrams a winner — at least for a night.
— Matthew Yglesias
Loser: Joe Biden
On paper, Joe Biden has a strong claim to the Democratic nomination. He was the vice president to a president who is still very popular among Democrats, and he has a record of connecting to the white working class voters that President Trump has peeled off from the Democratic Party.
But these debates have not shown Biden at his best. That was on display on Wednesday. Biden’s answers were long-winded, hard to follow, and at times ended abruptly with little explanation.
One awkward moment came when Cory Booker called Biden out for his opposition to marijuana legalization — a position that makes Biden more conservative than the median Republican on this issue, based on recent polls. In explaining his political appeal, Biden responded, “I’m part of that Obama coalition. I come out of a black community in terms of my support” — a weird claim for a white candidate. He then suggested that the “only” black woman elected to the US Senate endorsed him, ignoring that one of the black women elected to the Senate, Kamala Harris, was right there on stage literally debating him. The whole moment drew laughter from the crowd and candidates.
The awkwardness came through even when Biden should have had good moments. He was asked in the debate about what he will do about the Me Too movement, and started talking about domestic violence — an obvious pivot for someone who helped pass the original Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s. Biden at first gave a solid answer on his record. Then he went with an unfortunate metaphor: “So we have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it.” That was … not the best choice of words for this issue.
These problems are compounded by real questions about Biden’s age — he turned 77 on Wednesday — and if he’s still fit for the presidency. When Biden gives stumbling and at times incoherent answers, he does little to dispel those concerns.
— German Lopez
Loser: Asylum seekers
Despite the meaty discussion of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s proposal to decriminalize border crossings early in the Democratic primary race, immigration has received a cursory treatment in the debates ever since. Wednesday night’s debate was no different.
The only question touching upon immigration was about President Trump’s border wall — perhaps the least effective of his immigration policies, if the flashiest. There was no mention, meanwhile, of how Trump has systematically put asylum nearly out of reach for most migrants arriving at the southern border.
Just this week, the administration started sending migrants back to Guatemala under one of a series of agreements it has brokered in Central America in recent months. But there’s also the administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy — under which 57,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico while they await a decision on their US asylum applications — and its rule preventing migrants from being granted asylum if they passed through any country other than their own before arriving in the US.
Democratic candidates have spoken out against Trump policies that have already incited public outrage, denouncing the administration’s practice of separating families at the border and calling for protections for unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children known as DREAMers. “A great nation does not separate children from their families,” Elizabeth Warren said Wednesday.
But the candidates haven’t given the same attention to the demise of asylum under Trump. And the one candidate who keeps talking about it (Castro) didn’t make the cut for the debate stage.
It’s arguably the single biggest development in immigration policy under the Trump administration and an unprecedented departure from the US’s tradition of protecting vulnerable populations — and Democrats are overlooking it.
— Nicole Narea
Loser: Health care
Health care has been the most discussed topic at the Democratic debates up until now, but when it came up on Wednesday, nobody’s heart seemed to be in it.
It was featured in Bernie Sanders’s opening, as it always is. But after that, it was Pete Buttigieg — who had attacked Elizabeth Warren in particular over Medicare-for-all at the last debate — who made an intentional pivot to health care. He framed it as part of his answer about how he would try to bridge partisan divisions in Washington; he has attacked the single-payer plan supported by Sanders and Warren as potentially too politically divisive. He prefers a public option insurance plan that anybody could buy into.
”On health care, the reason I insist on Medicare-for-all-who-want-it as the strategy to deliver on that goal we share of universal health care is that that is something that as a governing strategy we can unify the American people around,” he said.
Warren, who put out a plan last week on how she would get to Medicare-for-all, was asked whether her position could cost her votes (she said it wouldn’t, she has a plan). Sanders also had his say (the US system is “dysfunctional”) as did Biden (Medicare-for-all “couldn’t pass the United States Senate right now with Democrats”).
But there wasn’t really any substantive back-and-forth, at least compared to past debates. The candidates and the moderators went through the motions for the health care segment and moved on. Fair enough. Health care had gotten twice as much discussion as foreign policy and other important issues like climate change and trade in previous debates.
Everybody hit their marks Wednesday, but it seemed everyone was happy to take a breather from health care.
— Dylan Scott