The final Democratic presidential debate of the year brought together seven 2020 candidates in California on Thursday, one day after the historic impeachment of Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction.
Facing off in Los Angeles in the smallest lineup yet were the former vice-president Joe Biden and senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg; Senator Amy Klobuchar, the entrepreneur Andrew Yang and the billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer.
The debate started with a focus on Wednesday’s impeachment of Donald Trump, as the PBS anchor Judy Woodruff asked the candidates how they’d make the case to the American people that impeachment was the right way forward.
“We need to restore the integrity of the office of the presidency,” Biden said in his first statement.
Warren and Sanders, who as senators will vote in Trump’s Senate trial, referred to the president’s 2016 promise to “drain the swamp”, arguing Trump instead had furthered the interests of the wealthy and well-connected. Trump was “the most corrupt president in living history”, Warren argued.
Klobuchar criticized the White House’s refusal to let administration officials like the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and the former national security adviser John Bolton testify. “He should be not scared to put forward his own witnesses,” Klobuchar said.
The debate moved to some of the largest and most complex issues facing the United States: economic inequality, racial injustice, the climate crisis and trade. Warren stressed a key argument in her campaign: that the success of the US economy is not being shared with everyday Americans. The economy was working for the “wealthy and well connected but no one else”, she said.
Asked how she would answer economists who say her plans would stifle growth and economic investment, Warren responded: “Oh, they’re just wrong!”
Sanders revealed he would not be voting for the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which the House of Representatives had passed earlier on Thursday.
Sanders, who has been generally skeptical of trade agreements in the past, acknowledged that the deal was a “modest improvement” over Nafta but argued it did not address key issues such as outsourcing.
The candidates agreed on the need for bold and urgent action to combat the climate crisis, reflecting Democrats’ overwhelming recognition of global heating as an imminent threat. “The issue is whether we save the planet for our children and grandchildren,” Sanders said.
Thursday’s debate was the first in California, which has grown in importance this election cycle. But it did not reflect the diversity of the state’s electorate. There were no black or Latino candidates among the nearly all-white lineup of frontrunners debating at Loyola Marymount University. Senator Cory Booker and the former housing secretary Julián Castro both failed to qualify and Senator Kamala Harris recently ended her campaign amid polling showing her struggling in her home state of California.
Andrew Yang, the only candidate of color on stage, said it was “both an honor and a disappointment to be the only candidate of color on the stage”.
The Democratic National Committee required candidates to hit at least 4% in four national polls or at least 6% in two early-state polls in the weeks leading up to the debate, hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. Also missing from the event was Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor who made a surprise entrance into the race last month and has poured an estimated $13.5m into TV ads in California.
California’s primary will take place in March 2020 and could play a critical role in selecting the nominee. Some recent polls have shown Sanders ahead of Warren in the state, and the two are expected to be competing for progressive voters in the region. Biden has also remained a frontrunner in California polls. Buttigieg has attracted significant support from Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
Outside of the debate venue, Christine Sanders, 35, and Beatina Theopold, 36, were both second guessing themselves as Los Angeles Democrats who have lived on both coasts. They know who they like, the women said, but worried about what candidate would be most electable in the midwest. Theopold, a field organizer for Obama in 2008, said she was still undecided.
Alayshia Barker-Vaughn, 18, said she was leaning towards Elizabeth Warren. Barker-Vaughn praised her outreach to voters of color, her focus on healthcare, the fact she’s a woman, and her “charisma”.
“Her charisma and how she engages with an audience is very unique,” she said.
California has led the opposition to Trump’s policies on immigration, the climate crisis, healthcare and other issues. Recently, the president has increasingly attacked the state’s Democratic leaders over the homelessness crisis, suggesting he might pursue some kind of law enforcement crackdown on people living outside.
A labor dispute had threatened to derail the LA debate earlier in the week when the candidates, led by Warren, announced they would boycott the event in support of a union planning to picket the Loyola campus. On Tuesday, the union, Unite Here Local 11, announced it had reached an agreement with the campus food services contractor.
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