Notes on the November Democratic Debate Dud

From left: South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Kamala Harris at the Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta, Ga., November 20. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Last night did little to clarify, much less change, the race.

One thing lacking from the November Democratic presidential-primary debate was much debate. There were no fireworks — no truly memorable clashes between the candidates — and what didn’t happen was more notable than what did.

On impeachment, the Democratic candidates didn’t strongly prosecute the case against Trump last night. The very first question went to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who was asked whether she would work to persuade her Republican Senate colleagues to vote to convict Trump and, if so, how. “Of course I will,” Warren said. “And the obvious answer is to say, first, read the Mueller Report, all 442 pages of it, that showed how the president tried to obstruct justice, and when Congress failed to act at that moment, and that the president felt free to break the law again and again and again. And that’s what’s happened with Ukraine.”

So, after four days of public televised hearings about the Ukraine scandal, Warren provided no actual explanation of what happened and what the hearings revealed. For the rest of her answer, she railed against giving ambassadorships to wealthy donors, a longstanding, bipartisan problem that she herself has enabled through Senate confirmation votes.

Nevertheless, Warren probably did what she needed to do at Wednesday’s debate: She didn’t let her equivocations about Medicare for All destroy her campaign the way Kamala Harris’s equivocations destroyed hers. Warren’s campaign has stalled since the October Democratic debate, when South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg attacked her for wanting to force 160 million Americans off of private insurance and for having no realistic plan to pay for a single-payer health-insurance system. Warren responded by releasing a widely panned plan to raise $20 trillion in taxes for the $30 trillion program. She then announced that she would likely push for Medicare for All only after a threeyear transitional phase, suggesting she wasn’t that committed to the plan.

Warren survived last night not so much by the strength of her arguments, but because Buttigieg declined to press his advantage against her — he glancingly hit her plan early on but didn’t follow through — and Bernie Sanders declined to attack her from the left.

Former vice president Joe Biden ended up making the strongest case against Medicare for All: He pointed out that it couldn’t pass even the Democratic House, much less a Democratic Senate. “Nancy Pelosi is one of those people who doesn’t think it makes sense,” he said, before making the pitch for a public option. “I trust the American people to make a judgment what they believe is in their interest.” Compared to earlier debates, Biden put in a relatively lucid performance. He still committed at least one cringe-worthy gaffe: When he was touting the support of African-American leaders, he claimed that he was endorsed by the “only” female African-American senator in history, Carol Moseley Braun, with Harris, a female African-American senator, standing a few feet away. (He later claimed that he said “first.”)

Finally, perhaps the most noteworthy non-event of the evening was the fact that Pete Buttigieg, who is surging in Iowa, escaped unscathed. No one hammered him for being a McKinsey consultant. It wasn’t until late in the debate that Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard went after his willingness “to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels.”

“We’ve been doing security cooperation with Mexico for years, with law-enforcement cooperation and a military relationship that could continue to be developed with training relationships, for example,” Buttigieg replied. “Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?” Gabbard’s attack likely did more to endear her to isolationists on the right than to Democratic primary voters.

All in all, it was a dull debate, and it did little to clarify the Democratic presidential primary, which is going to be eclipsed in the news for the next couple months by an impeachment vote in the House and a trial in the Senate that Democratic presidential candidates — including the senators whom it will take off the campaign trail — don’t want to talk about.

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