Democratic candidates for president took part in their party’s sixth debate on Thursday night in Los Angeles and commentators weighed in. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are those of the authors.
Jen Psaki: Klobuchar capitalizes on Buttigieg-Warren skirmish
It took more than an hour for the candidates to take off their gloves at the final Democratic debate of 2019. And it was a continuation of the twitter battle between Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg over transparency at fundraisers and personal wealth. Warren called out the South Bend Mayor for hosting a closed-door fundraiser in a wine cave and courting rich donors, and Buttigieg called out Warren for being a millionaire herself.
It should come as no surprise that these two candidates were fighting. They are near the top of the polls. But the person who took greatest advantage was Amy Klobuchar.
After several back and forths, she jumped in and spoke for all of us: “I did not come here to listen to this argument.” And then she went on to talk about campaign finance reform. That was a good moment for her and may help her build on her momentum in Iowa.
Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator and spring fellow at the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration.
S.E. Cupp: Biden and Buttigieg’s bad bet, and redemption
Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, both said many Americans are not happy with the economy. “Well I don’t think they (the American people) really do like the economy,” Biden said. “This economy isn’t working for most of us,” Buttigieg followed.
Both candidates are dangerously gambling that running against a president with a good economy is as simple as telling people they are wrong about how they feel. Polling shows that many Americans – over 50 percent – feel as though the economy is strong. Telling them they shouldn’t feel good, when they do, is a really bad idea. Elizabeth Warren similarly made an argument in an earlier debate that she hasn’t met anyone who liked their insurance company, when plenty of people clearly do.
These sort of arguments aren’t only condescending – never a good strategy – but they’re also unnecessary. Democrats can and should talk about where the economy isn’t working and where it could be working even better, but without essentially calling voters either liars or too dumb to know they aren’t really as happy as they feel. That’s in part how Trump won the first time.
The cousin of condescending is pandering. And later in the debate, Biden improved. When I heard Barack Obama say that women were “indisputably” better at leading than men, I groaned. And I groaned yet again when it came up tonight.
That women are better than men at, well, everything, is a cringeworthy trope. For one, it’s just lazy. It’s impossible to prove that women are better at amorphous and nebulous things like “leading” or anything else. But for another, it’s just transparent and obvious pandering. I think it was brave and – at least for me – much appreciated that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, the oldest men on the stage, refused to do the easy thing and say they agree.
S.E. Cupp is a CNN political commentator and the host of “SE Cupp Unfiltered.”
Elliot Williams: Forget wine caves, the real issue is judges
The words of the night at Thursday’s debate seemed to be “wine cave.” They should have been “federal judiciary.”
While they bickered about which of the seven objectively comfortable people on the stage had the highest net worth, and whether President Obama was hinting about Joe Biden by saying that “old men” are in the way of progress, the candidates all took their eye off the biggest of balls: the federal courts.
President Trump’s greatest legacy will not be his impeachment (sorry, Speaker Pelosi). It will be the ruthless efficiency with which he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have rushed nominees onto the federal bench. Today, more than a quarter of federal appeals courts judges have been appointed by President Trump.
In under three years, he has named 50 judges to these courts; President Obama appointed only 55 during his eight years as president. Hours before Thursday’s debate, the Senate confirmed twelve more of the President’s nominees. They will serve for generations to come.
Let’s be clear: the intricate details of the candidates’ ambitious health plans will be irrelevant once they are dismantled by a historically far-right judiciary.
I know, I know. You’re thinking: “But elections have consequences! It’s wrong to play hardball over the nominations process.” In response, I say two words: “Merrick Garland.”
Think about how many times you have heard the terms “activist judge” and “legislate from the bench,” two largely fabricated notions most Americans probably can’t define, but conservative voters universally seem to know they don’t want on courts. Hats off to generations of Republican candidates for prioritizing the issue, and then taking no mind when it works in their party’s favor.
Simply put, Democrats do not rally around the courts as a unifying issue in the way Republicans do. It shouldn’t take a question about litmus tests for choosing federal judges for nominations to come up at a presidential debate; the word should have been the first one out of every candidate’s mouth.
Elliot Williams (@elliotcwilliams) is a CNN legal analyst. A principal at The Raben Group, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm, he was formerly a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department and an assistant director at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the Obama administration.
Frida Ghitis: Klobuchar was on fire
The debate on the night after impeachment was a refreshing reminder that the 2020 election could put the country back in good hands, not a moment too soon.
With just seven candidates on stage, the now more experienced debaters had a chance to shine. They were thoughtful, humorous, poignant, and appropriately combative. They sparred over major issues, with centrist candidates getting the best of the night. Vice President Joe Biden, who in previous debates started strong only to fizzle later, held his ground, looking comfortable enough throughout to make strong points along with several pretty funny self-deprecating jokes.
On foreign policy, Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke inspiringly about America’s role in the world, and on the subject of immigration, noted poignantly that he would make America a country of laws but also of values.
But Buttigieg emerged wounded after a verbal knife fight with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who accused him of selling access to wealthy fundraisers. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president,” she told him. The mayor decried Warren’s “purity tests,” before the fight was interrupted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. She tackled her midwestern rival with enormous force.
With polls showing that Americans want a moderate to lead the ticket, Klobuchar tackled the young South Bend mayor on his electability. He fired back, pointing to his re-election “as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
But Klobuchar wasn’t done, and referenced Buttigieg’s campaign for statewide office in 2010: “If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing. You tried and lost by 20 points.”
Klobuchar was on fire. By the time it was over, it was game, set, match for Klobuchar. And a sigh of relief for weary Americans.
Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis.
Scott Jennings: The Democrats’ take on the economy was laughable
Listening to the Democratic candidates describe the US like it’s in the throes of another Great Depression was laughable. When it comes to President Donald Trump’s handling of the economy, 57% of Americans approve, according to a Gallup poll in November.
Unemployment has fallen to 3.5%, the lowest rate in 50 years. The numbers look good among the major worker groups including adult men (3.2%), adult women (3.2%), teenagers (12.0%), Whites (3.2%), Blacks (5.5%), Asians (2.6%), and Hispanics (4.2%). How do Democrats expect to defeat President Trump when the vast majority of Americans are facing low unemployment rates?
Watching Mayor Pete Buttigieg tear Sen. Elizabeth Warren apart on her rejection of closed-door, high-dollar fundraisers – despite being a millionaire herself was just delicious. It was offensive to watch Warren, the phoniest candidate on the stage, force purity tests on everyone else. And Mayor Pete nailed her for it.
Amy Klobuchar had her weakest moment when she broke up the debate between Buttigieg and Warren by saying, “I did not come here to listen to this argument.” It’s a debate! What did you expect people to do?
Klobuchar, however, had her shining moment when she highlighted Buttigieg’s relative inexperience. She said, “If you had won in Indiana that would be one thing – you tried and lost by 20 points,” referring to Buttigieg’s 2010 run for Indiana state treasurer. And she’s right. Buttigieg is an enormous talent but is truly an unproven electoral commodity at this level (of course, so was Trump).
Watching Joe Biden say he would be willing to sacrifice oil and natural gas jobs to transition to a greener economy was eyebrow raising. As one person in my Twitter timeline said: “Looks like Joe Biden thinks the only person allowed to make money from natural gas is his son Hunter.”
My scorecard: Buttigieg is a talent, and seems at his best when fending off attacks. We hear the word counterpuncher a lot these days, and Pete is one. Warren seemed weaker to me tonight, maybe because she stumbled and took on water from Mayor Pete on big-money donors. Bernie is Bernie – steady as he goes, and his people aren’t going anywhere. Biden had a good night, and continues to benefit from the squabbles below him. Yang is hard not to like, but seems like a bridge too far. He frequently says things that would get head nods across the political spectrum (i.e. his excellent comments on special needs kids). And Amy Klobuchar is due for at least a momentary polling spike in Iowa. But Yang is clearly the most interesting candidate in this field.
Politico’s chief political correspondent Tim Alberta was just terrific as a moderator even though Democratic National Committee officials opposed his role, citing his work writing for a conservative magazine and experience chronicling the Republican Party as ill-suited for a debate to inform Democratic voters, NBC reported. Alberta turned in the best moderator performance of the season. He deserved to be there tonight, and should also get a debate slot in the general election. He asks pointed questions, gets to the heart of matters, and forces the candidates to give answers that matter.
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.
Raul Reyes: Yang’s great diversity answer
Andrew Yang has not had the easiest run at the Democratic presidential nomination. It is to his credit that he made Thursday’s debate stage at all, as the mainstream media has often treated his candidacy as a gimmick or as the quirky project of a successful entrepreneur. In the previous debate on MSNBC, he received the lowest amount of speaking time, and tonight even PBS moderator Judy Woodruff mistakenly addressed a question ostensibly for him to Tom Steyer.
But Yang rose to the occasion in Los Angeles, when he was asked about the lack of diversity on stage (candidates like Cory Booker and Julian Castro did not meet the DNC requirements to participate in the event). “It’s both an honor and a disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight,” he said, adding that he had “many racial epithets” used against him when he was a kid.
Yang went on to point out that the numbers are stacked against Black and Latinos, who have a significantly lower median net worth per household than white people do. This was an important reminder to a national audience that systemic racism has an economic component – with political consequences. It also tied into the broader concerns of all the Democratic candidates about income inequality.
Yang then tied this economic point into one about disenfranchisement from the political process. “Fewer than five percent of Americans donate to political campaigns,” Yang asserted. “You know what you need to donate political campaigns? Disposable income.” Although he may have been off by a few percentage points on the figure regarding donations – one analysis in July put the number at 8 percent in this election cycle – it was a valid, relevant point.
Finally, Yang smartly segued this into his signature policy of a “Freedom Dividend.” If all Americans had a guaranteed minimum income, he declared, “I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight.”
Yang’s answer to a potentially perilous question was thoughtful as well as strategic – and shows that he deserves to be taken seriously.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors.
Rachel Sklar: A perfect illustration of inequality
Did anyone notice that in the final question, the women asked for forgiveness while men used the opportunity to shill their books? (Not all men, yes yes, but, you know, three.)
Elizabeth Warren (who will perhaps become the youngest woman president ever inaugurated), and Amy Klobuchar (wine caves drool, wind caves rule) both opted to seek forgiveness, for the passion and urgency of their tone which might at times be perceived as angry, impatient or some other adjective typically applied to women when they fail to smile nicely and render expert legal services for free.
Warren said, “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.”
Klobuchar, on the other hand, said, “I would ask for 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.”
Wow, look at each of these women carefully considering how her behavior affects others and modulating it accordingly! Some might even say that in addition to perfectly illustrating the unrealistic, double standards applied to women and the impossible hoops they are asked to jump through relative to men, this episode also represented an unequal sharing of emotional labor on stage - what a shock, said no woman ever.
So to equalize that a bit – yay equality, said the Founders, sort of – here’s one big thing the rest of the Dems could ask forgiveness for: a debate system that left out Julián Castro and Cory Booker, and a primary system that led Kamala Harris to drop out. The debate stage would have been far more complete – and representative – with their contributions. If the system keeps elevating white men, then maybe there’s something wrong with the system. In 2020, we really should be far less forgiving about that.
Rachel Sklar is a New York-based writer and the co-founder of TheLi.st, a network for professional women.
Errol Louis: There’s much more to be said about China’s human rights violations
In a rare and welcome break from the usual flow of debate questions, the candidates were asked what they would do about human rights abuses in China. The spray of answers highlighted the difficulty of applying moral pressure to a country that is deeply linked to the American economy.
The candidates gave lip service to the horrific plight of China’s Uyghur Muslims, an estimated 1 million of whom are in concentration camps. But they mostly ducked the specific question of whether they would pull America out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics to protest human rights abuses in China. (China has denied the accusations of mass imprisonment and called them “completely untrue.”)
Pete Buttigieg decried the Chinese leadership’s “use of technology for the perfection of dictatorship” and vowed that if a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre should take place, the Chinese leaders “will be isolated from the free world, and we will lead that isolation diplomatically and economically.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden suggested a broad policy of confrontation. “We should be moving 60% of our seapower to that area of the world,” he said. “We’re not looking for a war, but we’ve got to make clear, we are a Pacific power, and we are not going to back away.”
Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer sounded a note of realism: “We actually can’t isolate ourselves from China. In fact, we have to work with them as a frenemy” – especially on issues like climate change, he said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar slammed President Trump for remaining silent on China’s human rights violations. “He has stood with tyrants over free leaders,” said Klobuchar. “He does it all the time.”
Andrew Yang pointed to the technology race between the US and China, noting that “they’re in the process of leapfrogging us in AI (artificial intelligence).” Yang called for the creation of an international coalition to set technology standards. “This is where we need to out-compete them and win,” he said.
But much more needed to be said about the breadth and depth of Chinese human rights violations. It should never be forgotten, for example, that Liu Xiaobo, the only Chinese citizen awarded a Nobel Peace Prize while still residing in China, died in 2017 while serving a 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Hopefully a future debate will allow more time for a fuller discussion about human rights in China and elsewhere – a matter that demands urgent action by the next president.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
Paul Begala: Biden’s Best Debate
This was Joe Biden’s best debate. The former Vice President, who has stumbled in prior debates, was strong, focused, and crisp. In the final 30 minutes, he was even fiery.
Biden’s best moment was when he pointedly refused to give up on his decades-long commitment to reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans. If anyone has the right to hate Republicans, Biden noted, it is him, give the vicious attacks Donald Trump and his allies have launched on his family. Then – and this was brilliant – he noted, if Republicans won’t work with us, we have to beat them at the polls. In one answer he spoke to women in the suburbs who want healing after Trump’s hate and the young activists who simply want to crush the GOP electorally.
Elizabeth Warren, as she usually does, gave the sharpest critique of the economic status quo, batting away the presumption that the economy is strong with her trademark line that “the economy is great for the wealthy and the well-connected.” She certainly didn’t look like a candidate who thinks she’s fading in the polls. She was confident and commanding.
Then came the fireworks. In the second hour of the debate she lacerated South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for attending a high-dollar fundraiser in a wine cave. She was in high dudgeon, but Mayor Pete was ready. He accused her of risking the opportunity to defeat Trump by imposing a purity test that she herself, as a millionaire, cannot meet. He noted that Sen. Warren raised big bucks from big donors as a senator, as did President Obama and others. It did not corrupt them, he said, and he was unwilling to relinquish any weapon in the war against Trumpism.
This is the fundamental debate facing the Democrats: pragmatism versus purity. Sen. Warren seemed almost astonished that Buttigieg had the temerity to hit back.
Amy Klobuchar, who I think is poised to surge in Iowa, was folksy and warm. She stressed her midwestern roots, her father the newspaperman, and her electability with folks in Trump territory. She veered into attacks on Pete Buttigieg toward the end, but she attacked him on experience, and sounded too much like a Beltway insider. Swing and a miss.
Businessman Tom Steyer came to life in the final half-hour, blistering Donald Trump on immigration in stark terms: “Donald Trump is not against immigration from white people. He is against immigrations from non-white people. … That’s a racial argument from a racist president and it has led him to break the laws of humanity.”
But when the dust had cleared, there stood Joe Biden, strong as ever.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House.
Alice Stewart: The issue that unified the candidates
With less than seven weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, the smallest debate stage held the biggest stakes and largest fireworks so far as each candidate made his or her case for the party’s nominee. We saw a clash of the moderates and carefully orchestrated attacks in an effort to curry favor with voters.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg is surging in the polls in Iowa and he came ready for incoming fire. I have always said he is a candidate to keep an eye on. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren attacked him for hosting a high dollar fundraiser in a wine cave, he shot back and called out her past fundraisers, saying, “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”
When Sen. Amy Klobuchar attacked Buttigieg for his lack of experience, the mayor of South Bend touted his ability to pull together a coalition “as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
Frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden had a strong night, making the case for a health care plan that builds on Obamacare in a dust up with Sen. Bernie Sanders who advocated for his “Medicare for All” plan.
As the dust settled just one day after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump, the Democratic candidates were unified in their call to end what they call corruption in the White House. With a strong economy and progress on trade, defeating Trump will be a heavy lift no matter how many selfies these candidates take.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, resident fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President.
Julian Zelizer: Democrats should look to Bernie if they want to beat Trump
What is clear from tonight’s debate is that Sen. Bernie Sanders brings something to the table that the other candidates struggle to convey: moral conviction. Sanders has a point of view, whether it’s how to help the middle and working class, or the government’s grave mistakes on foreign policy. That point of view has helped him build a grassroots movement.
While many Democrats might argue over the specifics of his agenda, question how realistic his policies may be, or criticize his demeanor, there is something about Bernie that all his fellow Democratic candidates should pay close attention to.
Sanders sees politics as a life-and-death struggle, where democracy feeds on candidates who will champion a bold vision, not simply a well-oiled political strategy. What he lacks in specificity he offers in vision, clarity, and consistency. This is the heart of his appeal and the reason he remains a frontrunner.
Even if Sanders does not end up as the eventual nominee, the Democrat who takes on President Trump in 2020 will need some of his essential political energy if he or she is going to withstand and defeat the vicious Republican campaign that will inevitably come. Democrats will need to build a vibrant coalition that can match the zealous base that the president will count on to turn out the vote in swing states.
Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer.
Carrie Sheffield: Dems caught flat footed on race
Democrats claim the high road on race issues, but the party’s presidential candidates were caught flat-footed when called out about their hypocrisy.
The candidates in Thursday’s debate lacked racial diversity, except for Andrew Yang. When asked about this fact, Senator Bernie Sanders awkwardly tried to pivot back to discussing climate change. When Senator Amy Klobuchar was asked about America’s future as a majority-minority country, she clumsily replied while standing on a nearly all-white stage: “I say this is America. You’re looking at it.”
The candidates also ignored strong economic gains achieved by Latinos and African-Americans under President Trump’s leadership. Tom Steyer accused President Trump of “vilifying non-white people,” ignoring how there have been 1.2 million new jobs created for black Americans since President Trump took office, and that Black household income has increased by 2.6 percent in 2018 to $41,361, the highest level in nearly twenty years. He also ignored that the unemployment rate for black Americans has fallen to just 5.5 percent, a 2.2 percentage point decline under President Trump.
Pete Buttigieg, who has accused Trump voters of “looking the other way on racism,” called for greater investments in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), neglecting to mention that President Trump approved $360 million in funding for HBCUs in 2018, more than any other president in history, or that the Trump administration has helped ensure that HBCUs with religious affiliations “will no longer be restricted from accessing federal funding.”
It’s no wonder Democrats don’t mention Trump’s actual record for minorities: he delivers results.
Carrie Sheffield is National Editor for Accuracy In Media, a citizens’ media watchdog whose mission is to promote accuracy, fairness and balance in news reporting.