What does a two-hour primary debate look like after a lengthy day of public impeachment hearings? Buckle up, friends, and let’s find out.
Some might say that the November Democratic presidential debate—hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta—began before the candidates even took the stage, when MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid noted during the pre-debate discussion, that “diversity is the story of the party right now.”
She also noted a key absence among the ten candidates who qualified for this fifth round of primetime debate exposure.
The debate’s all-woman moderation team featured Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC, Ashley Parker of WaPo, and NBC White House Correspondent Kristen Welker.
Maddow kicked things off with impeachment, of course, noting Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s bombshell revelations about the military aid-for-Biden investigation agreement Donald Trump sought from Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked if she would convict the president. Warren didn’t hesitate to agree, told people telling people to “Read the Mueller report.” Further she vowed to never take a big donation and give anyone an ambassadorship in exchange for it.
Minnesota Sen. Klobuchar called out Trump’s “impeachable conduct,” vowing to look at each count and make a decision. She asserted that the impeachment is about saving democracy, noting that “This is a pattern with this man.” Quoting Walter Mondale’s “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace,” she declared that the minimum standard that Donald Trump is failing to meet.
Next, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders almly called Trump “corrupt” before warning against becoming obsessed with him. He shifted to healthcare and wealth inequality, before demanding that legislators “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
South Bend Mayer Pete Buttigieg asserted that Trump’s conduct was appalling, before making a similar call for legislators to forward the impeachment inquiry while also legislating.
Former Vice President Joe Biden was asked about his ability to break the deadlock between the Democrat-majority House and the Republican-controlled Senate. Biden promised that he could win in places like South Carolina, noting that the impeachment testimony has taught him that both Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump “don’t want me to be president.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris was asked her thoughts “about that,” essentially receiving an open question. Harris noted that there’s a “criminal living in the White House,” insisting that the hearings must continue. She vowed to fight for all people, including the people working “two to three jobs to get by.”
Warren was then asked about wealth inequality and her proposed wealth tax. She explained it with simple vernacular, explaining that the proposal isn’t about “punishing” billionaires.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was next, with his first chance to speak. All smiles, he explained that he didn’t agree with Warren’s wealth tax, though he endorsed estate taxes. He then shifted to the importance of teaching people to grow wealth, citing the importance of equality of opportunity.
Warren replied by explaining the various programs that would be funded by her two-cent wealth tax, vowing it would allow the nation to “invest in a generation.”
Booker said Democrats agree on most of those programs, but called the wealth tax plan “cumbersome.” He shifted back to growing wealth, and supporting entrepreneurs, as well as fair taxation across the income spectrum.
Warren jumped in, noting that she was “tired of freeloading billionaires.” Booker and Warren talked over each other for a few moments before Buttigieg was asked how he would get policy past Republicans; he shifted to healthcare.
Warren was then asked what happens if Medicare for All costs her votes? Warren launched into the benefits of her program, far quicker than this recapped could possibly keep up.
Sanders was invited into the conversation and slipped in an “I wrote the damn bill,” before being asked if former President Barack Obama was wrong when he said, during a speech last week, that most Americans don’t want to “completely tear down the system and remake it.”
Sanders glided right past that question, instead listing the perils of the current American healthcare system, noting that people know that system doesn’t work.
Biden jumped in, fumbling through his version of a public option.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard entered the fray after she was asked about her Democratic “rot” statement about former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Gabbard didn’t hesitate to drop Clinton’s name into her signature rant against U.S. foreign policy and regime change wars.
Harris was asked if she had thoughts, and Harris threw all the way down. You just need to watch it.
Gabbard painted Harris as afraid of her policies, noting that this is “personal” to me because she served in the military. She vowed not to put party first before It was Harris’ turn.
Harris shifted away to talking about Gabbard and spoke to her record and the fight of her previous campaigns, vowing that she’s the right person to debate Trump in November.
Tom Steyer got his first opportunity to speak of the night, asked why people wouldn’t view him as a human special interest, considering how much of his own money he’s pumped into his campaign. Steyer listed his activism funding resume before vowing to take power away from D.C.
Buttigieg asked if he could stick up for Steyer but Klobuchar jumped in, vowing to overturn Citizens United, without which, she noted in a nod to the venue, Stacey Abrams—who spoke to the crowd before the debate—would likely be the governor of Georgia today.
Buttigieg attempted to jump in again on Steyer’s behalf but it was Andrew Yang’s first hot mic of the night. He spent most of his time defending Steyer.
Buttigieg was asked how, with such little experience in government, he should be trusted as president. He noted how different he was from other candidates, and vowed to govern like someone from the Heartland.
Klobuchar was asked about her assessment of Buttigieg’s viability as a candidate if he was a woman. After a salute to Buttigieg, she noted several examples of sexism and gender-based inequality, lightly pointing out that there have been no woman presidents.
Biden stumbled again, noting that there’s no “on the job training” for the presidency, but noting that he will “keep his word.”
Booker was next, and asked if he believes Trump’s Twitter habit will become a presidential norm. After a takedown of Trump, Booker vowed to heal the nation by brining “creativity to the office.”
Maddow asked about the shift from chanting “Lock her up” to “Lock him up,” and asked Sanders If Democrats should take a stance against that behavior. Sanders dodged the invitation to chastise his own supporters, and noted that Trump should be prosecuted and people are waking up to that. He then rejected the outlook that we are a divided nation, going through several issues that poll majority opinions.
Biden stated that it’s not up to the president, it’s up to the Attorney General, to decide whether or not Trump is prosecuted for his crimes. He quickly circled back to previous questions, noting that the chants are no good and neither is presidential tweeting.
Sanders agreed that prosecution is a “function of the attorney general” before declaring that the American people writ large do believe that Trump violated the law.
Biden responded by explaining that there are two questions in play: Should Trump be impeached and removed from office, and then, should he be prosecuted?
Yang was asked his thoughts on the untenable costs of childcare, noting that in Georgia, daycare can cost as much as $8500 a year, which is more than a year of in-state college tuition. He noted that we’re on a “terrible” list with only two countries on it.
He struggled but succeeded in a pivot to his Freedom Dividend.
When asked about her call for just three months of paid family leave, Klobuchar then focused on the importance of knowing how to pay for everyone’s big plans. Excluding Harris by name, Klobuchar differentiated herself from other candidates, noting that she’s not going to “send rich kids to college.”
Harris was next, noting a host of struggles working moms face, and how six months’ leave better addresses it. She then explored pay inequality based on gender.
Steyer was then asked about the housing crisis, specifically in California. Steyer noted that “where you lay your head” sets the tone to everyone’s life. He then declared that he knows how to fix it. He vowed to “force” communities who resist new units to build new units, and make sure they’re affordable.
Warren asserted the issues on the supply side of the housing market, before delivering her own housing plan, pointing out that it’s the fastest path to building wealth. After a quick explainer on redlining’s impact on the black community, extending inequality.
Booker dismissed such plans and pitched his tax credit for households paying more than 1/3 of their income in rent.
Then, after 55 minutes, it was time for our first break, which brought us this astute observation.
Maddow kicked off the next segment by asking Buttigieg if he’d continue Trump’s farm subsidies to offset his trade war. The Mayor pointed out that we shouldn’t be in a trade war in the first place, and pointing out that those checks aren’t even “making farmers whole.” Buttigieg did not answer the question, instead focusing on the need to support farmers above all, and shifting to climate change. Maddow interrupted his expansive answer and asked him to answer the question. He did, noting that they won’t be needed because he’d end the trade war.
Gabbard was next with her plan for climate change.
Steyer then differentiated himself as the only candidate who names climate change as his first priority, calling Biden and Warren by name.
Steyer asserted over a decade of fighting climate change and vowed to keep it a top priority with regards to foreign policy and social justice. Finally he said that the climate change fight would unite the nation.
Biden took offense, saying he “didn’t need a lecture from my friend,” and listed several of his own accomplishments when it comes to the environment. He noted that he did believe climate change is “an existential threat.”
Steyer raged against the fossil fuel industry, saying that Congress has never passed a bill that addresses climate change. He promised “we can be the moral leaders of the world” again if climate change is prioritized.
Several candidates tried to jump in, but Sanders prevailed, noting that he’d introduced legislature addressing climate change. We don’t have decades, he said, and vowed to also go after fossil fuel companies, who he said might be criminally liable for their practices.
Harris was asked if she’d grant concessions to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, and said “Donald Trump got punked.”
Harris then focused on the importance of building and earning a trustworthy reputation around the world. When she was told to answer the question, she said she would not grant the concessions, because there’s no reason to.
Biden was next, and asked what he would do different than Obama when it comes to the “inherited problem” of North Korea. Noting how Trump has burned bridges across Asia, Biden called Jong-Un before cheerfully embracing one of the dictator’s previous insults lobbed at him, with the help of Sanders.
Sanders was asked if he’d make a deal with the Taliban in order to end the war in Afghanistan, even if it meant the government would collapse. After pointing out that he’d been against every war in his career, Sanders agreed to negotiate with the Taliban if it was “necessary” to bring the troops home.
Yang was asked what he’d say on his first presidential phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin. His amusement fed into a smart response—“I’d tell him that I’m sorry that I beat his guy.” Pointing out the additional threat of China, Yang proposed a world organization focused on data.
Booker was then asked about the threat of China. Booker proposed a much stronger approach “led by American values” instead of Trump’s “transactional” style. He noted numerous human rights violations occurring on Trump’s watch and vowed to protect democratic values around the world.
Biden was asked if he would punish the senior leadership of Saudi Arabia responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. Biden noted that he would and has said so before. He listed several sanctions he would implement, and vehemently declared that the U.S, has to speak out and speak loudly against human rights.
Klobuchar was asked if she would go against the Saudis. She did not answer the question, instead noting that “we need a new foreign policy,” and using her turn to circle back to earlier questions in a trick from Biden’s playbook, touching on Russia and China.
Sanders said that he might have been the first person to call Saudi Arabia a dictatorship, noting that it’s time to admit that the nation is not a reliable ally. He vowed to put the Saudis in a room with Iran, and prescribed it as necessary in Gaza as well.
Warren was asked if more women should serve in the military. Warren agreed that she did, noting the impact of military service on individual families, including her own. She then pivoted to a 10,000 jobs plan that would bring more people into public service, focusing on work in the national forests.
Buttigieg became the latest candidate to dodge a direct answer when asked Trump’s skyrocketing Pentagon costs.
And just like that, it was time for the second break.
Time for part three!
Gabbard was asked about combating the fight against domestic terrorism. Instead, she vowed to overhaul the criminal justice system “in a bipartisan way,” citing an end to cash bail. She promised her signature “21st Century” White House, where people treat each other with respect.
Yang was also asked about combating the white supremacy scourge. He noted that it’s time to call their acts of violence “terrorism,” getting applause.
Biden was asked about the realities of the #MeToo era. After demanding the Violence Against Women Act be reauthorized, he noted that everyone—including men—must be involved. In an odd word choice in a discussion about combating domestic violence, Biden said “we just gotta keep punching at it.”
Harris was asked about her assessment of Buttigieg’s outreach to black voters. Harris noted that black women are the backbone of the party but people only show up for elections. She then noted that nobody shows up for black women, and the question has to be “Where ya been, and whatcha gonna do?” She noted that she intended to retreate the Obama Coalition of diverse communities.
Buttigieg responded by simply saying that he agreed with Harris, yet stopped just before sharing his plan—to share what’s “in his heart.” He then noted several of his own experiences, but did not share his plan.
Harris again cited the Obama Coalition being key to a 2020 victory, and reiterated the value of people who have worked with those communities.
Warren was up next, pleading for all candidates to embrace student loan forgiveness, which she cited as a huge factor in black-white wealth inequality.
Warren was next asked about the border wall, and after noting Trump’s responsibility for the border crisis, Warren excoriated the concentration camps at the border and vowed to treat people with dignity
Booker quickly agreed with Warren before circling back to the earlier question about black voters, noting that he wasn’t asked but had “been one since I was 18.” He pushed back on Biden’s recent marijuana legalization statements.
Biden held his hand up until he was called upon, and said he supports decriminalization, expunging records, but called for a study on the effects of marijuana. He then nudged at Booker and Harris’s low polling, noting that he’s got the largest percentage of black support.
Then this happened.
Biden paused, off-track, and then continued speaking. (By “the first,” he meant Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992.)
Woo hoo! It’s time for one last break!
Maddow kicked off the final segment of the debate by asking Klobuchar if she’d reinstate Roe vs. Wade if it’s somehow overturned by the current administration. Klobuchar declared that abortion access should be codified as law, and that the nation agrees. She vowed that Trump would “hear from the women of America, and that’s how we win this election.”
Warren was then asked about Louisiana’s Gov. John Bel Edwards, and if there is room in the Democratic Party for pro-life politicians who win as Democrats in deeply red states. Warren refused to answer the question insisting that she’s not there to kick people out of the party, but she is here to fight for women.
Sanders was next, insisting that this is the time for men to stand up in the fight for reproductive rights.
Booker insisted that the Bel Edwards question is a voting and voter suppression issue, with a nod to the Georgia Gov. Stacey Abrams that should have been.
It was then time for the first, and only, audience question: What would you do to protect voting rights?
Buttigieg was up, listing key but familiar voting rights protections, like a national Election Day holiday.
Klobuchar then went after Buttigieg’s lack of political experience, noting that she’s crafted legislation that included every proposal Buttigieg named, and pointing out that unlike the mayor, she ran for statewide office and won.
Buttigieg fired back that Washington experience is what got us here, and focused on his military service.
Gabbard noted the importance of protecting voter rights before telling Buttigieg that military service alone doesn’t make him qualified to be president, noting that he proposed to send troops to fight Mexican cartels.
Buttigieg said she took his comments out of context, and mocked Gabbard for implying he was talking about “invading Mexico.” He then questioned her judgment in meeting Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Gabbard defended her presentation of Buttigieg’s statement about fighting Mexican cartels. It quickly devolved into an insult fest between the two, each getting their own gasps and cheers from the crowd with their respective jabs.
Sanders brought it back to voting rights, calling for the overturn of Citizens United, easy access to voting for anyone over 18, and federal funding for elections.
Steyer was next, and quickly pivoted to the importance of high turnout, citing 2018’s midterms and the work that his NextGen America did. He entreated every candidate to help organize the nation.
Then it was closing statement time.
Booker was first, noting that he needs help to qualify for the December debate. He said he tossed his prepared statement after chatting with Rep. John Lewis, present in the audience, on a break.
He spoke of the housing rights attorney who helped his parents, who was inspired by watching Lewis cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Booker stuck to his typical upbeat promises before asking again for help to qualify for the sixth debate in December.
Steyer was next, insisting that anyone on the stage was better qualified to defeat Trump, but that his business acumen and wealth, as well as his focus on climate, made him “the person who could do it.”
Gabbard focused on respect and “aloha.”
Yang focused on the “darker” future that today’s young people are being left behind. He then noted that he didn’t want to run for president, but he attempted to speak to the nation’s leaders in Washington, D.C., and was not heard.
Klobuchar invoked Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s impeachment testimony the day before, noting that beyond policy, this election is also a “decency check.” She then gave a nod to the more diverse members of the Democratic Party before focusing on her ability to win in red states, purple states, and with independents.
Harris stressed the importance of taking on Trump, as well as unifying both party and country, and to “speak to all people”—and explaining why she’s the candidate who can do that, and help reclaim and build the America she believes in.
Buttigieg shared the story of Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson to focus on the impact potential of “local leaders,” vowing to launch “the era after Donald Trump,” saying “everyone is welcome” in the “new era.”
Sanders kicked off with the story of his immigrant father, and vowed to stand with undocumented immigrants before noting his first fight for civil rights back in college. He then vowed to end the divisiveness before touting his historic four million-plus small dollar donations.
Warren noted the topics discussed at the debate, noting that gun violence wasn’t one of them. She noted that corruption inhibits change on those issues which Americans agree on. She spoke of her anti-corruption proposals, and the fossil fuel industry’s hold on the nation, before dropping an emotional bit of gratitude for the opportunities afforded to her in life.
Biden followed Warren, with a weird jab about how he hoped she wasn’t “talking about Barack Obama” when speaking of “all that corruption.” Biden then repeated his refrain about Americans’ inability to fail, before ending with a shouty order to take the country back.
And then this wild day of president-adjacent politics was over at long last. Or so we thought…
It never ends.