3dfoto/iStock(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Six Democrats clashed on the smallest debate stage yet in Iowa, only 20 days before caucusgoers across the Hawkeye state are set to cast the first votes of the primary, bringing a heightened sense of urgency to the matchup Tuesday night.
Amid visible fissures within the Democratic ranks, particularly among the top-tier, the seventh debate of the cycle showcased a field united on some fronts, but still laboring over the direction of the party — reflecting the zeal of the state of a race.
The debate, seen as a final opportunity for the contenders to offer closing arguments on why they should be the nominee, featured an all-white lineup and a hyper-focus on the party’s frontrunners, who engaged in some of the night’s tensest exchanges — ranging from the role of the commander-in-chief to health care to how to effectively take on President Donald Trump.
Here are five key takeaways from the first Democratic primary debate of the election year:
Sanders, Warren defuse the tension
Despite the national platform and a panel of inquisitive moderators, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders both walked away from the debate Tuesday night without revealing any new information — or clarity — on the 2018 meeting they publicly clashed over on Monday.
What they did make clear, however, was a united intent to de-escalate.
“I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want,” Sanders said.
“Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie,” Warren followed.
But in a thoroughly-planned moment, she then pivoted to the broader issue about gender, sexism and whether America is ready for a woman to be president.
“Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women. Amy and me,” she said. “And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”
The fast-facts drew applause from the audience, agreement from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and perhaps put the rising progressive feud to rest — for now.
Democrats lean into commander-in-chief bonafides
In a direct response to Trump’s clash with Iran that brought the country to the brink of war, the debate began with a strong foreign policy focus that consumed the entire first quarter of the debate.
Though it was teased as Sanders’ main line of attack on former Vice President Joe Biden, the two candidates’ clashing over their records on the Iraq War largely came without fireworks as each candidate was asked what made them most qualified to be commander-in-chief.
“Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying. I didn’t believe them for a moment. I took to the floor, I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw it differently,” Sanders said, highlighting his dove credentials.
Biden, in response, flatly called his vote a mistake, but reminded voters of his other foreign policy credentials while serving as vice president to former President Barack Obama.
“I was asked to bring 156,000 troops home from that war, which I did. I led that effort. It was a mistake to trust that they weren’t going to go to war,” Biden said referring to the Bush administration.
The conversation then moved on to other candidates’ commander-in-chief pitches, and while Sanders and Biden would again tangle over their view of trade deals, their clashes ended more with a whimper than a bang.
Health care brings a moderate consensus
In the seventh primary matchup of the cycle, the issue of health care still cleaved the leading candidates between two ideological divisions, but unlike previous debates, the smaller stage of six put the progressives in the minority.
While Biden took a back seat to many of the other moderates on the stage in the fight over health care, progressive candidates Warren and Sanders, outnumbered, withstood some of the most crystallized criticisms of Medicare for All so far this cycle, largely from Klobuchar and former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg.
“What I don’t agree with is … his position on health care,” said Klobuchar of Sanders, who introduced the signature progressive proposal in Congress, before delivering a sharpened political blow. “This debate isn’t real … Over two-thirds of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate are not on the bill that you and Senator Warren are on. You have numerous governors that are Democratic that don’t support this. Numerous House numbers that put Nancy Pelosi in as speaker.”
Buttigieg also tangled with Warren and Sanders over reforming the health care system, saying, “We got to move past Washington mentality that suggests that the bigness of plans only consists of how many trillions of dollars they put through the treasury, that the boldness of a plan only consists of how many Americans it can alienate.”
“The numbers that the mayor is offering don’t add up,” Warren replied.
Impeachment still looms in the distance
With the threat of an impeachment trial keeping three of the six candidates on the stage Tuesday off the campaign trail over the next few weeks, the matchup brought a renewed emphasis on their ability to compete amid distractions.
Despite the possibility of being sidelined during the lead up to the Iowa caucuses, Warren asserted, “Some things are more important than politics.”
But like many of her opponents on stage, the Massachusetts senator used the opportunity to turn the focus to the general election, knocking Trump for his “corruption.”
“If we have an impeachment trial, I will be there because it is my responsibility. But understand this, what that impeachment trial is going to show once again to the American people, and something we should all be talking about, is the corruption of the administration,” she said.
“We are going to be the party that is willing to fight on the side of the people. That’s why we’re here,” she said.
In the meantime, the senators have plans for the next few weeks to counter their absence on the stump, with Klobuchar expected to run teleconferences, Sanders aiming to fly back and forth between Iowa and Washington, D.C, and Warren, seeking to do a combination of both, is set to hold livestreams after the hearing where she answers questions from supporters.
Democrats pitch their competitive edge three weeks before Iowa
The final debate before the Iowa caucuses previewed the contenders’ closing arguments, with the leading candidates leaning into their competitive edge over the rest of the field.
As their differences will ultimately define the contours of the race moving forward, Biden sought to cast himself as the candidate with the most experience and the “broadest coalition” of support.
Biden frequently invoked his experience, either by detailing his involvement in signature moments that define the Obama presidency — “I was part of that deal to get the nuclear agreement with Iran” — or by citing his decades of credentials — “My response is back in 1986, I introduced the first climate change bill.”
But he also pitched himself as the one candidate with most diverse support of any of his rivals, saying, “I have overwhelming support from the African American community, overwhelming, more than everybody else in this operation.”
Buttigieg, too, further leaned into his message of unity that he has pitched on the campaign trail, telling Iowans, “We cannot take the risk, with so much on the line, of trying to confront this president with the same Washington mind-set and political warfare that led us to this point.”
“If you are watching this at home and you are exhausted by the spectacle of division and dysfunction, I’m asking you to join me to help turn the page on our politics,” he continued.
With her pitch of pragmatism, Klobuchar directed her focus squarely on Trump, saying, “I am going to be able to stand across from him on that debate stage and say to my friends in Iowa, the midwest is not flyover country for me. I live here. I’m going to be able to look at him and say you’ve treated these workers and farmers like poker chips. For me, these are my friends and these are my neighbors.”
Regardless, up against the incumbent president, the candidates repeatedly made one point clear: despite the divisions over policy and philosophy, their goal is all the same.
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