Democratic presidential candidates have tried to avoid dwelling on President Donald Trump and the impeachment process on the campaign trail ― and voters in the early primary and caucus states have largely obliged them.
But on Wednesday night, the president, the scandal rapidly engulfing his administration and the effect he has had on the country’s political culture exerted influence on the fifth Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta.
More than in previous debates, the moderators ― from MSNBC and The Washington Post ― pushed the candidates back, time and again, to the matter of how to handle Trump and the aftermath of his presidency. And the candidates, prepared as they were to stress their preferred policy issues, found creative ways to bring the conversation back to their core message.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s response to the first debate question about how she would cajole her Republican colleagues into throwing Trump out of office in an impeachment trial in the Senate was a case in point. After dispensing with the question quickly ― she would recommend that they read special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Trump’s conduct ― Warren pivoted to her anti-corruption message.
The senator from Massachusetts noted that the Trump administration’s European Union ambassador, Gordon Sondland, whose explosive testimony in the House on Wednesday prompted discussion of impeachment, had received his post because he donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
Warren reminded the audience that she has promised not to grant diplomatic posts to campaign donors and invited her fellow candidates to make that promise as well.
“I asked everyone who’s running for president to join me in that, and not a single person has so far,” she declared. “I hope what we saw today during the testimony means lots of people will sign on and say we are not going to give away these ambassador posts to the highest bidder.”
Other candidates, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, relished the opportunity to wax lyrical about the grand stakes of holding Trump accountable.
“What this impeachment proceeding about is really our democracy at stake,” Klobuchar said. “This is a president that not only with regard to his conduct with Ukraine but every step of the way puts his own private interests, his own partisan interests, his own political interests in front of our country’s interest, and this is wrong.”
After the exchange on impeachment, Trump reappeared in the debate several minutes later in the form of a discussion about polarization.
Asked whether it was appropriate for supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to chant “Lock him up” about Trump at his rallies, Sanders declined to condemn such conduct.
“The people of this country are catching on to the degree that this president thinks he is above the law,” Sanders said. “And what the American people are saying, ‘Nobody is above the law.’”
Former Vice President Joe Biden would not say if, once Trump is out of office, he would prosecute the former president or decline to do so to avoid reigniting the country’s partisan tensions. He insisted that it would be up to his Department of Justice, which would function independently.
But, in keeping with his self-styled image as a healer and unifier, Biden condemned, unprompted, the chants of “Lock him up” heard at Sanders rallies.
“Look, we have to bring this country together. Let’s start talking civilly to people,” Biden said.
Thanks in part to the moderators’ crisp, personalized questions and balanced form of skepticism, the debate featured far fewer fireworks among the four poll leaders ― Warren, Sanders, Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ― than previous rumbles.
Warren, who has struggled for weeks to shake off questions about the evolving details of her “Medicare for All” plan, got a chance to refocus the discussion on what she sees as the benefits of it. And both Biden and Buttigieg made their case that her plan would be too coercive and unrealistic. But, unlike in previous debates, the exchange did not last more than a few minutes and did not devolve into an extended back and forth.
Instead, candidates got the chance to discuss a number of other kitchen-table economic issues that had received shorter shrift in previous forums, including paid family leave, child care and housing.
Warren, whose sweet spot is precisely in these areas, got the chance to discuss her wealth tax at length and how it would generate revenue for universal child care and preschool.
“I’m tired of freeloading billionaires. I think it’s time that we ask those at the very top to pay more so that every single one of our children gets more,” she declared.
The fast-moving yet substance-heavy format was particularly forgiving for candidates whose low standing in the polls gave them something extra to prove on Wednesday night.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California got the chance to discuss her paid family leave plan, which she said was tailored to accommodate parents who have children later in life. The six-month duration of her new benefit, she said, is deliberately generous to account for the fact that parents of young children in their 30s and 40s may also be caring for their aging parents, and that this dual obligation falls disproportionately on women.
“Many women are having to make a very difficult choice: whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they are going to give up a paycheck that is part of what that family relies on,” she said.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of four candidates onstage Wednesday who has yet to qualify for the next debate in December, came in determined to make a splash. Although in previous showdowns he has stuck to a kind of Goldilocks liberalism somewhere to the left of Biden and to the right of Warren and Sanders, Booker leaned into the business-friendly inclinations that defined the earlier stages of his career.
He cut Warren off during a discussion of her wealth tax, calling it “cumbersome” and insisting the country could raise revenue from the wealthy through other means. He also faulted Democrats for failing to adequately encourage entrepreneurship in favor of seeking to cut the superrich down to size.
“We as Democrats have got to start talking not just about how we tax from a stage but how we grow wealth in this country amongst those disadvantaged communities that are not seeing it,” he said.
His most memorable moment, though, was a progressive one: when he pressed Biden to account for his opposition to marijuana legalization, which Booker said disproportionately harms African Americans. Biden said on Saturday that he would allow states to proceed with legalization experiments but would refrain from legalizing it federally because of his concern that it is a “gateway drug” to the use of more serious substances.
“I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Booker joked. “Marijuana, in our country, is already legal for privileged people.”
But it was Biden’s meandering response, defending his credibility on racial justice by pointing to the depth of his support among Black voters, that proved the most startling element of the exchange. Biden noted that former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois has endorsed him but incorrectly called her the “only” Black woman to serve in the Senate. (She was the first, but not the only one.)
Booker and Harris interjected. “The other one is here,” Harris said with a chuckle, referring to herself.
In the end, though, the conversation invariably turned back to Trump, who has become something of a lens through which Democratic presidential hopefuls articulate their theories for effecting positive change.
Warren and Sanders diagnose Trump as a symptom of underlying public disenchantment with a corrupt, rigged political system and economy, and promise to bring a fighting spirit and grassroots movement to bear on the ossified levers of power so government can work again for ordinary people. They see unity as the byproduct of this progress, which is likely to be more painful still, rather than a precursor.
“If you want to be part of a movement that is not only going to beat Trump but transform America, that doesn’t have a super PAC, doesn’t do fundraisers at wealthy people’s homes, please join us at BernieSanders.com,” Sanders said in his concluding remarks.
Biden, Buttigieg and Booker, by contrast, see their roles as calming agents whose first order of business would be easing the national acrimony that has escalated under Trump.
Buttigieg, who spoke about the need for a president capable of unifying the country when the “sun comes up” and Trump is not president anymore, has been vague about how exactly he plans to overcome the combined forces of entrenched Republican opposition ― even if then the Senate is narrowly controlled by Democrats ― and the deep-pocketed resistance of corporate special interests to top Democratic priorities.
He did not get any more specific on Wednesday night, falling back instead on his claim that “we are now in a different reality than we were even 12 years ago,” shortly before former President Barack Obama took office.
“There is an American majority that stands ready to tackle big issues that didn’t exist in the same way, even a few years ago,” he said, while neglecting to note that bills that poll well routinely die in today’s hyper-partisan, special interest-infested Congress.
But for perhaps the first time in any of the debates, the moderators pressed Biden to explain why exactly he expects Republican lawmakers, who continue to resist holding Trump accountable, to treat him any differently than they treated Obama.
Biden responded by suggesting that he is the candidate best poised to create coattails for maintaining the Democratic majority in the House and regaining one in the Senate. “You have to ask yourself up here: Who is most likely to be able to win the nomination in the first place, to win the presidency in the first place?” he said. “And, secondly, who is most likely to increase the number of people who are Democrats in the House and in the Senate?”
This article has been updated throughout with more comments during the debate.