5 Takeaways From The Fifth Democratic Presidential Debate

Biden goofs, Warren stays steady, Buttigieg avoids a pile-on.

Wednesday’s debate among 10 of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates was remarkably civil compared with last month’s debate. The candidates were reluctant to attack, and both a plateauing Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a rising South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg largely skating through the two hours. Instead, the candidates mostly focused their fire on President Donald Trump just hours after damning impeachment testimony.

The debate in Atlanta was not without its clashes ― Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii battled with both Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Buttigieg, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey attacked former Vice President Joe Biden over marijuana legalization ― but it seems unlikely to dramatically shake up the field.

Here are five things you should take away from the fifth Democratic presidential debate.

Biden’s brutal moment

Folks, let’s be clear: Biden’s gaffes, so far, have not had a significant effect on his front-runner status. But his exchange with Booker over marijuana legalization was another example of Biden slipping up late in a debate night, and any mistake that poses a threat to Biden’s massive lead among Black voters is a bad one.

Booker attacked Biden for reiterating his opposition to marijuana legislation and suggesting that weed could be a “gateway drug.” Booker joked that the former vice president was “high when he said it.” Biden responded by noting he supported the decriminalization of marijuana and then slipped up when he was explaining how he “came out of the Black community in terms of my support.”

Biden said he had the support of the “only African American woman elected to the United States Senate,” referring to former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. The problem? Harris, a black woman currently serving in the Senate, was standing feet away. Booker and Harris quickly corrected him, and Harris began laughing.

“The other one is here,” Harris said, before Biden corrected himself.

If the moment was bad for Biden, it was a plus for Booker, who should get increased attention by making news on a social issue the media loves to cover. After the debate, campaign aides said he raised more than $200,000 in just 30 minutes.

Buttigieg avoids a pile-on

The run-up to the debate made it appear as if Buttigieg could be the target of attacks from Warren, Booker, Harris, Klobuchar and other candidates. Instead, he largely escaped unscathed. Harris and Klobuchar declined to repeat earlier critiques of the lightly experienced candidate. The one direct attack came from Gabbard on foreign policy ― something that is unlikely to keep Buttigieg’s staffers up at night.

Still, Harris and Booker repeatedly emphasized a candidate needed to re-create the “Obama coalition,” which could be a subtle way of reminding voters and donors about Buttigieg’s lack of support from people of color, which is crucial to winning both the general election and the Democratic primary. (That lack of support also explains why Biden, who has aggressively attacked both Warren and Sanders in the past, might not view Buttigieg as a direct threat just yet.)

Warren steadies the ship

Warren received the first question of the debate about impeachment and immediately used it to pivot to her core message: corruption in Washington, D.C. She noted that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, whose testimony earlier in the day was devastating for the Trump administration, got his job after donating $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.

“And that tells us about what’s happening in Washington, the corruption, how money buys its way into Washington,” she said, before challenging the other candidates to promise not to give ambassadorships as favors to campaign donors.

The answer was the start of a solid but unspectacular night for Warren, whose poll numbers have deflated over the past month. Though she struggled to answer questions about the cost of “Medicare for All” in the last debate, she was able to clearly articulate her plan’s benefits during the early portion of Wednesday’s exchanges, noting she would push to lower the cost of prescription drugs and would quickly expand Medicare coverage to 135 million people. And she was able to repeatedly focus on her core campaign theme of fighting corruption.

Warren did have one missed opportunity. During a polite disagreement with Booker over her proposed wealth tax, he suggested that the senator from Massachusetts needed more of a focus on helping Americans create wealth and supporting entrepreneurship. Warren could have responded by noting that free child care coverage and the elimination of student loan debt would allow Americans to start more businesses and take more risks. Instead, she repeated her talking points.

Harris returns to relevance

Harris skyrocketed in the polls after she attacked Biden over race during the first round of presidential debates. But soon after, she began a slow and steady decline in the polls. Lately, she’s been in the news more for her campaign struggles ― she laid off staffers earlier this month ― than for big moments.

On Wednesday night, she played a fairly significant role in the debate. Early on, she clashed with Gabbard over foreign policy, effectively articulating the mainstream Democratic case against the Hawaiian. She later declined to repeat earlier criticism of Buttigieg on race but still used the answer to make the case for Democrats to nominate a Black woman against Trump.

“The question has to be: Where you been? And what are you going to do? And do you understand who the people are?” Harris said after ticking off statistics about how Black women are more likely to die in childbirth and to earn 61 cents for every dollar a man makes. “We’ve got to re-create the Obama coalition to win.”

And her laugh after Biden’s mistaken assertion was the moment most likely to become a meme, for what that’s worth. 

Everybody vs. Gabbard

Both Buttigieg and Harris eagerly took on Gabbard, the field’s resident anti-interventionist, internal party critic and general gadfly. Their showdowns with Gabbard were the second- and third-most tweeted moments of the night, according to Twitter, trailing Booker and Biden’s showdown over marijuana legalization.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage that is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States who, during the Obama administration, spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” Harris said, adding that Gabbard “palled around with Steve Bannon.”

Though the candidates were generally reluctant to attack each other for fear of alienating potential supporters in a crowded field, that rule likely doesn’t apply to Gabbard. Polling often shows Democrats are more likely to have a negative view of Gabbard than a positive one.