Less than 24 hours after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump, seven Democratic candidates took the stage at the last debate of 2019 to hash out what they’d do differently if elected.
From California’s Loyola Marymount University, the candidates sparred over their campaign financing decisions, their past support of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how to best combat climate change. The debate stage was the smallest and least diverse yet, but the two women on stage — Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren— had some of the most memorable moments: rebuking Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigeig for his relative inexperience compared to the other contenders, and criticizing him for his fundraising methods, respectively.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also evoked a rare criticism of the Obama Administration, pushing back on the notion that he supported the 2009 decision to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. “I’m the guy from the beginning who argued it was a big, big mistake to surge forces to Afghanistan. Period,” he said. “We should not have done it, and I argued against it constantly.”
The final Democratic debate of 2019 took place in Los Angeles on Thursday, with less than two months to go before the Iowa caucuses.
What were the main takeaways?
Buttigieg vs. Warren was the big moment
There was only one moment of real heat in a largely civil debate.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tangled at length over the influence of big-money donors.
The row has been brewing for a while, with the two candidates aiming pointed comments at each other on the campaign trail. On Thursday night, it flared up face-to-face.
The core issue is Warren having sworn off high-dollar fundraisers and Buttigieg continuing to embrace them.
At the debate, Warren referred to her renowned willingness to take selfies with people who attend her rallies and said, “Those selfies cost nobody anything. People who can put down $5,000 to get a picture taken don’t have the same priorities.”
Buttigieg immediately fired back that he couldn’t “help but feel that might have been directed at me.”
The South Bend mayor defended his approach by noting that President Trump already has a vast campaign bank account and that Democrats should not “fight with one hand tied behind our back.”
The exchange only got more personal from there, with Buttigieg noting that Warren was much wealthier than him, and the Massachusetts senator excoriating Buttigieg for holding a lavish fundraiser in a Napa Valley “wine cave.”
There was no clear-cut winner from the fiery back-and-forth. Warren pressed her attacks and Buttigieg offered a stout defense, doing his best to turn the issue back on his rival by noting she had held big fundraisers during her Senate campaign last year.
The subtext here is that each candidate is desperate to best the other in Iowa.
Buttigieg has been on the rise recently and there is some polling evidence that he has taken supporters from a cohort — highly educated white people — that had previously been enthused by Warren.
Still, the friction between the two also offered others the chance of present themselves as above the fray.
Exchanges between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a lighter, bantering quality.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) presented herself as someone more interested in bringing the party together than in squabbling with her colleagues — a potent appeal to Democrats desperate to defeat Trump 11 months from now.
Biden brings a new sharpness
Biden had his best debate of this election cycle.
On other occasions, the former vice president has been meandering and gaffe-prone, raising questions about whether he is up to the rigors of a full-tilt presidential campaign at age 77.
There was none of that in Los Angeles.
Biden was sure-footed throughout, effectively making the basic rationale for his candidacy — that he is the best candidate to beat Trump, in part because of his instinctive understanding of middle-class concerns.
Trying to turn back criticism that he has an overly generous view of Republicans in Washington, Biden said that he had more right than most to be angry with the GOP given “the way they’ve attacked me, my family” — a reference to his son Hunter Biden who worked for a Ukrainian energy company.
Biden remains at the top of national polls. His performance on Thursday should maintain that resilience.
Klobuchar, who has been moving up in polls in Iowa, also had a strong showing Thursday.
She laid out her differences with Sanders on the United State-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) early on — she is for it, Sanders against.
She also delivered strong responses on climate change and voter protection.
In the debate’s later stages, Klobuchar made her case for more incremental health care reform than the “Medicare for All” approach favored by Warren and Sanders, arguing that it is possible to be “progressive and practical at the same time” — as good a summary of her campaign as she has articulated to date.
There are big questions about whether the Democratic electorate right now really wants the kind of steady centrism in which Klobuchar specializes. But she commanded plenty of airtime Thursday and made the case that she should be considered a major candidate.
Smaller stage makes for better debate
This was the smallest number of candidates at any Democratic debate this year — and it seemed to help everyone.
There were only seven candidates on the stage this time, whereas previous clashes have had 10 or more. That allowed more time for substantive answers across a host of issues including reparations, gender and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as staples such as health care and trade.
It also allowed candidates like Klobuchar and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang to get their views heard.
The four moderators — PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, Amna Nawaz and Judy Woodruff, along with Politico’s Tim Alberta — also played their part in keeping proceedings on the rails.
The only losers from the format were those candidates who did not make it to the stage, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).
A gaffe-free zone
The most memorable moments in debates often come when a candidate makes an egregious error.
There was none obvious during Thursday’s debate. Some candidates fared less well than others — Warren has been more effective on other occasions — but no one had a truly bad night nor created a moment of viral doom.
The candidates will settle for that as they ready themselves for the post-holiday sprint into Iowa and New Hampshire.