Seven Democratic candidates gathered in Los Angeles Thursday night for the final debate of 2019. With the first primary contest six weeks away, the presidential hopefuls attempted to push through the impeachment news and holiday season distractions to make their marks with voters. The night was marked by spirited attacks on one of the frontrunners, discussions of age and race and a deep dive into climate change that activists had been clamoring for since the debates began back in June.
Here are five takeaways from the night:
Buttigieg on the defensive
After a steady rise in the polls, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was expected to be a target of his rivals in the previous debate last month. He escaped unscathed then, but wasn’t as lucky this time.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders went after Buttigieg over his courting of wealthy donors, including at a swanky Sunday night fundraiser in Napa Valley.
“So the mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900 a bottle wine,” said Warren. “Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open door, but this one was closed door. We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
Buttigieg’s response was that he’d welcome the financial support of anyone who wanted to defeat President Trump. He said he was the least wealthy person on the stage, and that Warren, who has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers for her presidential campaign, raised money from large donors in her Senate race.
Later, Sen. Amy Klobuchar attacked Buttigieg over his failed race for Indiana state treasurer in 2010, when he was defeated by 25 points. Klobuchar has campaigned on her own electability in Midwestern swing states, based on winning in every congressional district in Minnesota, including those won by Trump.
Oldest candidates dismiss question of age
With the three leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination having a combined age of 225 — and another candidate in his 30s — the question of age, which had been skirted in previous debates, finally arrived front and center.
One of the debate’s moderators, Politico’s Tim Alberta, noted that former President Barack Obama recently said that, in politics, old white men are reluctant to make room for younger, more diverse candidates.
“Senator Sanders, you are the oldest candidate on the stage,” Alberta said.
“And I’m white as well,” Sanders joked, before pivoting to issues the Vermont senator thought were more important: wealth inequality, health care and climate change.
Biden, 77, ducked a question about whether he would run for a second term if he wins next year.
“No, I’m not willing to commit one way or the other,” Biden said. “Here’s the deal: I’m not even elected to one term yet. Let’s see where we are. Let’s see what happens.”
Warren, the youngest of the three at 70, would still be the oldest president ever inaugurated. President Trump is 73.
“I’d also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated,” Warren quipped, drawing perhaps the biggest applause of the evening.
A lack of diversity on stage
Thursday night’s debate was the first not to include an African-American candidate. Sen. Kamala Harris dropped out of the race earlier this month and Sen. Cory Booker failed to qualify. It also lacked a Hispanic candidate after former Housing secretary Julian Castro failed to qualify for the second straight month. As the only minority on stage, entrepreneur Andrew Yang was asked what message the lack of racial diversity sent to viewers and voters.
“It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage,” Yang said.
Yang said that he missed Harris and that he believed Booker would qualify for the next debate. Yang attributed the lack of racial representation on stage to income inequality and the influence of campaign contributions.
“Fewer than 5 percent of Americans donate to political campaigns. You know what you need to donate to political campaigns? Disposable income,” he said, garnering applause from the audience before pivoting to his pitch for universal basic income.
While there was a lack of diversity on stage, Brennan Center Fellow Theodore Johnson pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed that a majority of black, Hispanic and nonwhite voters support either Biden, Sanders or Warren.
“It’s the two oldest white men in the field, Biden and Sanders, who’ve assembled the multiracial coalitions that most resemble what Obama accomplished,” wrote Johnson. “Much of this is a result of those candidates’ high name recognition and the perception that their appeal to working-class white voters is key to success on Election Day. This may seem out of step with the general sense that the last three presidential election cycles signaled a changing of the guard in the Democratic Party (and a corresponding whitening of the Republican Party), but it’s these two candidates, along with Warren, who are leading with its voters across lines of age, sex, race, ethnicity, income and education.”
Climate change finally gets its day in the sun
During the first five sanctioned Democratic debates, the issue of climate change was largely overlooked — so much so that environmental groups demanded that the Democratic National Committee schedule a debate dedicated to it. (The DNC did not, though several cable news outlets organized environmentally focused town halls )
But it took up a substantial portion of the sixth Democratic debate, with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren leading the discussion.
Sanders raised the issue after being asked a question about race, connecting racial injustice to climate change, which he called an “existential” threat.
“People of color, in fact, are going to be suffering the most if we do not deal with climate change,” he said.
The Vermont independent senator also said he would not support the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement because, among other things, it does not address climate change.
Warren did not go as far, but she did lament the politics of climate change.
“We need to do what we do best, which is innovate our way out of this problem and be a world leader,” Warren said. “But understand, the biggest climate problem we face is the politicians in Washington who keep saying the right thing but continue to take money from the oil industry, continue to bow down to the lobbyists.”
Andrew Yang, for his part, floated a pragmatic plan: Move to higher ground.
“First we should obviously be focusing on relocating Americans away from places that are hit by climate change,” Yang said. “We’ve already done it when we relocated a town from Louisiana that became inhabitable because sea levels rose.”
Apologies from the female candidates
In a final question that provoked an awkward silence from Yang, candidates were offered the opportunity to either give a gift to one of their rivals, or ask for forgiveness. While some onstage plugged their books, the only two candidates to ask for forgiveness were also the only two women on the stage.
“I will ask for forgiveness,” said Warren. “I know that sometimes I get really worked up and sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to. What happens is when you do 100,000 selfies with people you hear enough stories about people who are really down to their last moments.”
Warren, who has faced criticism that she is “angry,” then told an anecdote about a Nevada family where three family members have to share a single insulin dose, saying she was running to help people in those situations.
Klobuchar took a similar line.
“I would ask forgiveness any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt, but I am doing this because I think it is so important to pick the right candidate here. I do,” said Klobuchar, adding, “We have to remember as Democrats, and if I get worked up about this it’s because I believe it so much in my heart, we have to bring people with us and not shut them out.”
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