To cap a marathon high-stakes, high-drama day in politics starting with the bombshell testimony from US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in the House Impeachment Inquiry into President Donald Trump in front of the House Intelligence Committee and ending with hours of ensuing testimony on Capitol Hill, the ten qualifying Democratic Presidential candidates took the debate stage in Atlanta, Georgia for the Fifth Democratic 2020 Presidential Primary Debate hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.
The ten leading Democratic candidates qualified to the November 20 debate stage by meeting specific qualifying criteria set out by the Democratic National Committee, increased from the two previous fall debates in September and October, with a unique donor requirement and a polling requirement either in national or early-state polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina qualifying a candidate. The DNC has also increased both the donor and polling thresholds ahead of the December debate hosted by PBS and Politico in Los Angeles, California.
Kamala Harris: After a commanding, high-octane performance way back in the first debate in June where she successfully attacked then-front runner Joe Biden, Harris has backslid tremendously in the polls and turned in similarly poor debate performances to match. That ended in Atlanta. The freshman California Senator was consistently smart and tough in her answers, no longer simply convincing Democratic voters why President Trump must go but why she is the right person with the right vision to do just that. Harris delivered the best answer of the night on impeachment, focusing not only solely on Trump’s abuses of power but also connecting the dysfunction caused by it to the issues real people care strongly about.
Beyond squabbling with the low-polling Tulsi Gabbard over her attacks on the Democratic Party in a rematch of their tense faceoff in the July debate and coming out on top this time, Harris mostly avoided calling out her rivals by name, instead arguing how her unique background as a prosecutor and public servant, whose client has been the people, enables her to deliver the justice she argues is on the ballot in 2020.
The 55-year-old Harris subtly contrasted herself with new Iowa Caucus front runner Pete Buttigieg without naming him directly when appealing to African American communities and not taking their vote for granted, a weakness for Buttigieg in more diverse states such as South Carolina, and a strength Harris hopes to capitalize on for her candidacy. Staking her struggling campaign in Iowa, Harris hopes her contrast with Buttigieg down the road in the primary process and her strong performance Wednesday night will propel her into the top-tier of candidates in Iowa with a few months still go to before the February Caucuses.
Amy Klobuchar: The moderate Minnesota Senator has been a strong debater throughout this campaign so far with her similar prosecutorial background, but Klobuchar delivered one of her best performances yet Wednesday. Slowly rising in Iowa polls since another well-received performance last month, Klobuchar is staking out her candidacy in a more pragmatic vision for the country but also emphasized her experience getting things done. Directly contrasting her years of experience in the Senate to Buttigieg’s relative inexperience as the mayor of a small city in Indiana, Klobuchar rightfully pointed out the discrepancies between the way male and female candidates are treated, arguing women such as herself are held to a higher standard than far less experienced men such as the mayor.
“Pete is qualified to be up on this stage… but what I said is true. Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise, we could play a game called name your favorite woman president, which we can’t do because it has all been men.”
Cory Booker: Another consistently strong debater, Booker showed voters a different side of himself tonight, positioning himself as a moderate, but more progressive alternative to Vice President Joe Biden, emphasizing his experience as a black man in America. Booker denounced the more far-left economic policy of Senator Elizabeth Warren and her wealth tax, arguing instead for a tax code to build wealth in low-income and minority communities through investment and entrepreneurship.
Booker’s most memorable moment came after Biden stated his position against legalizing marijuana where Booker jokingly said, “I thought you might’ve been high when you said it… because marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people, and it’s why the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”
Booker joined Harris as the only two black people on-stage, implicitly questioning Buttigieg’s outreach to the African American community but doing it in a jovial manner, joking he’s had a lifetime of experience with black voters since he became one at 18. The New Jersey Senator delivered by far the best closing statement of the night, relating his experience and the American experience to Atlanta Congressman and Civil Rights hero John Lewis sitting in the crowd, a moving moment for all inside the debate hall.
Bernie Sanders: After countless debates in the 2016 Democratic Primary and again in 2020, Bernie Sanders’ voice has become quite familiar with Democratic voters but the socialist Vermont Senator showed a new side to his candidacy. Bringing increased energy and humor to his performance, Sanders replayed some of his same greatest hits but also engaged in a more personal dialogue with voters over issues, taking the edge off his big, bold policies of political revolution and a mass movement and coming across as more relatable.
Sanders also did something he rarely ever does: talk about his own experience. In his closing statement, Sanders relayed his experience as the child of an immigrant and young Civil Rights activist as shaping himself today, a more personable approach for someone often focused on the movement and disconnected from the people in it.
Tom Steyer: Still a new face to the debate stage in just his second appearance, Steyer, a billionaire California businessman turned activist, brought a unique outsider’s perspective to solving issues such as climate change, housing, homelessness, and voting rights. While having no actual government experience, Steyer was knowledgeable on the issues and the intersectionality of various policies from his experience in non-profits working on these issues, coming across as a strong alternative to another businessman with no prior government experience, President Trump.
Pete Buttigieg: Arguably the Democratic Primary front runner after a new Iowa Caucus poll came out this week showing him in first place by a commanding margin, Buttigieg surprisingly received relatively little hostility and didn’t direct many attacks towards others unlike the last debate when he challenged Warren repeatedly. The 37-year-old Mayor of South Bend, Indiana gave a strong response to questions regarding his ability to connect with black voters from Harris and Booker, likening his experience as an openly gay man and the discrimination he faced to the racism African Americans face.
Buttigieg also successfully brushed off Gabbard’s kamikaze attacks on his foreign policy positions, notably the only two veterans of the US Military on-stage, asserting he supported US troops invading Mexico while Buttigieg claimed he was merely discussing routine law enforcement cooperation between the US and Mexican governments to combat drug cartels.
Joe Biden: Once again, the supposed front runner in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden, stumbled out of the gates in this debate, stuttering over his words and struggling to maintain his points from one thought to the next, another reminder of possibly his biggest weakness: age. The 77-year-old Biden was once again strongest on foreign policy and his common-sense argument that having spent eight years in the White House and in Situation Room meetings makes him uniquely qualified to be Commander in Chief.
Biden’s had multiple poor debate performances and so far none have severely hurt his standings in the polls. His answer on the #MeToo movement was particularly confusing and hard to follow, focusing on domestic violence and his work on the Violence Against Women Act during his time in the Senate rather than the increased awareness around issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape coming out of the movement that he has had difficulty reckoning with in the past and present given his history as the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Anita Hill’s allegations against then-Judge Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination.
Biden also gave a nearly identical closing statement to his previous one at the last debate in October, an odd decision from the Biden campaign. One of the more embarrassing moments from Biden came when explaining his support in the black community, claiming the only African American woman elected to the Senate had endorsed him, when indeed the second black woman in the Senate, Kamala Harris, stood just down the debate stage, laughing and declaring “that’s not true, the other one is here!”
Elizabeth Warren: The progressive Massachusetts Senator came into last month’s debate the front runner and has since relinquished that position a bit, falling in polls despite releasing a more specific, unique version of Medicare for All following challenges from moderates over how she would pay for it. Surprisingly, there was very little discussion on health care and Warren’s new Medicare for All plan in this debate.
Warren didn’t have any particularly weak moments in the debate but struggled to show any new sides to her as a candidate and provide contrast with other candidates on-stage, something she had done remarkably well in previous debates positioning herself as the candidate of big, structural change while others were proposing small fixes. Warren’s best moment came when explaining the reason behind her wealth tax plan, leaving behind the often hostile and pejorative rhetoric she can get stuck using when discussing billionaires and instead explaining practically the public benefits that helped drive their wealth and the reason they should give a small bit back and the immense consequences of that for the rest of the country.
Warren’s answer on impeachment, criticizing Sondland as the personification of corruption in Washington DC given his role as an ambassador following a one-million-dollar donation to Trump, certainly fit her brand going against corruption but seemed unnecessary for Democrats given Sondland’s bombshell testimony against the President and her suggestion that more Americans should be joining the military and required to serve certainly left something to be desired.
Tulsi Gabbard: The controversial Hawaii Congresswoman made her first appearance on a debate stage since a very public spat with 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Gabbard of being a Russian asset and Gabbard made her anti-Democratic Party message central to her debate performance.
Gabbard spoke very little during the debate but got into a heated exchange with Kamala Harris over Gabbard’s constant criticism of the Democratic Party to which Harris effectively pointed out the many issues and hypocrisies in Gabbard’s record. As a veteran focusing on ending US regime-change wars, she discussed foreign policy and rather baselessly accused Buttigieg, another veteran, of suggesting the US should invade Mexico to combat the drug trade.
Andrew Yang: The tech entrepreneur and executive has delivered strong debate performances in the past but was largely absent from the debates on issues happening on-stage Wednesday night, speaking very little and failing to draw much contrast on the issues with some of his higher-polling rivals. Yang’s strength is his unique background and vision compared to the rest of the field but by barely engaging with the other candidates, he fails to make the argument for why he’s different and how a different candidate like him is what Democrats need to win in 2020 and defeat President Trump.
The Sixth Democratic 2020 Presidential Primary Debate will take place on Thursday, December 19th in Los Angeles, California with PBS and Politico serving as the hosts.
Stay tuned to The Roundup for more on the 2020 Election and US Politics!