On the eve of the final Democratic presidential debate of 2019, not a single cable news network was focused on the face-off. Instead, they were all airing the exact same shot: the floor of the House of Representatives, as the Democratic-controlled chamber voted to impeach President Donald Trump.
Six weeks from the Iowa caucuses, Democrats running for president no longer have to answer speculative questions about impeachment. The House has voted, and in roughly a month, the five senators running for president will be pulled off the campaign trail for the Senate trial.
Though the march toward impeachment has sucked up wall-to-wall coverage for months, the presidential candidates don’t voluntarily bring it up.
“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said during the November debate when asked about impeachment. “Because if we are, you know what? We are going to lose the election.”
Other leading candidates have said roughly the same thing.
“We are absolutely going to confront this president for his wrongdoing, but we are also each running to be the president to lead this country when the Trump presidency comes to an end one way or another,” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in November.
There are multiple reasons the candidates are avoiding the issue: For one, there’s not a lot of variation among Democrats on the matter of impeachment, said Andy Smith, who runs polling at the University of New Hampshire. And at this point in the race, the candidates are trying to draw contrasts with each other. Second, Democrats by and large list health care and climate change as their top priorities when deciding whom to vote for in the primary; Trump-related issues come in third or fourth, Smith said.
“It’s something that everyone agrees on — it’s not something that differentiates the candidates,” Smith said. “In the primary, [impeachment] is a forgone conclusion.”
Yet impeachment will no doubt be a topic at Thursday’s debate, just as it was at the last one.
Seven candidates will be on stage Thursday evening at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles: Sanders, Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), businessman Andrew Yang and billionaire Tom Steyer.
The fundamentals in the Democratic presidential primary have yet to change in national polls: Biden is still in the lead, followed most closely by Sanders and Warren. In early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg, who has spent the last several weeks running attack ads against Warren and Sanders, is also a frontrunner.
And in recent weeks the fights in the Democratic Party haven’t been over Trump, but over health care, education and transparency. The candidate who tried to brand her campaign contra Trump — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) ― dropped out in early December after failing to raise enough money to keep the campaign going.
Instead, sitting at the center of the Democratic party infighting is Buttigieg, whose elbows are out. His campaign ― and his supporters ― are expecting the mayor to bear significant incoming fire from the other candidates on Thursday night, a Buttigieg aide told HuffPost.
“It’s beginning to get nasty, but, look, it’s not as heated as its going to get,” said Lev Sviridov, a Hunter College professor and one of Buttigieg’s campaign bundlers. “There seems to be a clear schism between the far left and the moderates. I think he’s very much a moderate.”
In the November debate, Klobuchar, who, like Buttigieg, is billing herself as a get-things-done pragmatist, tried her hand at questioning Buttigieg’s experience and privilege as a young man running for president.
“Of the women on the stage, I think we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience he had? No, I don’t,” Klobuchar said of Buttigieg, emphasizing that “experience should matter.”
But Buttigieg has spent most of his resources hitting to his left. He doesn’t support universal tuition-free college and has backed a robust public option plan health care plan rather than Medicare For All, and has been running ads calling out Sanders and Warren by name for going too far left on health care.
For weeks, the mayor has tangled with Warren, calling on her to release her tax returns from her time as a legal consultant, which she did. Warren pushed Buttigieg to open his high-dollar fundraisers to the press, release the name of his biggest campaign fundraising bundlers, and reveal his clients at McKinsey, a private consulting firm he worked at for three years. He caved to the pressure. A recent report in Politico found the list of his campaign bundlers was not exhaustive, however, and left out at least 20 names, which the campaign said was a counting error.
Warren’s surrogates are already declaring victory.
“When you attack Elizabeth Warren she will be strong and attack you back,” said Adam Green, who founded Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which endorsed Warren early and works closely with her campaign. “The fact that there have been so many headlines in the last few weeks coming from his big money fundraisers is only stemming from the fact that he fought Elizabeth Warren and lost.”
So far the Democratic presidential debates have had little long term impact, Smith, the pollster, said. That could change if candidates decide to go after each other Thursday.
Notably, the candidate who has used the debate stage to ask Americans to choose “love” — Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — didn’t meet the requirements to participate in the December debate and won’t be there to stop the bickering.