Overshadowed by impeachment, debating Democrats mostly pull punches

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Twenty-four hours after President Trump was impeached, the Democratic candidates held a debate that almost didn’t happen and that even some insiders were hoping would not happen.

To say that the debate, having overcome a labor dispute at Loyola Marymount University, was overshadowed by the impeachment furor would be the understatement of the year.

For the last several debates, the pundits have forecast that the candidates would beat up on the perceived front-runner. But once again, few punches were thrown, perhaps because the four leading candidates all believe they could win Iowa or New Hampshire and don’t want to take any risks.

The stripped-down field—seven candidates, none of them black, which has sparked a racially charged debate—began by embracing impeachment at the Los Angeles faceoff sponsored by Politico and PBS’s “NewsHour.” And what followed was a policy seminar that spotlighted their stark stylistic differences.

Democratic presidential candidates from left, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer stand on stage during a Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Judy Woodruff’s question about how Democrats can run in such a strong economy drew an odd rejoinder from Joe Biden, who came out rather flat. “I don’t think they really do like the economy,” he said. He went on to say the middle class is getting killed, but to deny economic growth with record-low unemployment and a record-shattering stock market was a misstep.

Pete Buttigieg spoke of people struggling with bills at the kitchen table, and also said—this is rarely heard these days, even at Democratic debates—that we need to talk about poverty.

The top progressives on the stage were far more feisty.

Bernie Sanders thundered that real wages after inflation rose just 1.1 percent: “That ain’t great!”

Elizabeth Warren, pressed by Woodruff on economists saying her $8-trillion tax hike would hurt growth, was confidently dismissive: “Oh, they’re just wrong.”

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Politico questions on climate change had the contenders demanding sweeping solutions to a crisis, but they were mainly plowing old ground.

The racial makeup of the field surfaced when PBS’s Amna Nawaz asked Andrew Yang how he felt being the only minority on the California stage.

“It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the only minority candidate on the stage tonight,” the Asian-American said. “I miss Kamala, I miss Cory,” referring to Harris and Booker.

But when Nawaz tried to ask Sanders the same question, he immediately pivoted back to climate change. When Nawaz insisted he answer the question, the senator lamely offered that people of color would be most affected by global warming. That sounded tone-deaf.

One exception to the general cease-fire came during a dustup between Warren and Buttigieg.

The Massachusetts senator, who has prodded the South Bend mayor into opening his fundraisers, said he recently raised money in a “wine cave” with $900-a-bottle wine. Warren said she’d had enough of rich people making decisions in “smoke-filled rooms.”

Buttigieg shot back that he was the only person on stage who wasn’t a millionaire or billionaire. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you yourself could not pass…Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine,” he said.

He clearly won that exchange, in part because most voters understand you need to raise big bucks to win campaigns. Buttigieg also briefly clashed with Amy Klobuchar over their levels of experience, with Pete reeling off a line about winning “as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”

Biden, unlike in other debates, was steady and did not trip over his words. He gained strength later in the evening, especially when he called Sanders’ Medicare for All “preposterous.” He also showed a flash of emotion when talking about working with Republicans: “I refuse to accept the notion, that we can never, never get to a place where there is cooperation.” But that is unlikely to excite Democratic primary voters.

The former vice president had a chance to make news when asked if he’d pledge not to seek a second term because of his age, but he deflected by saying he hasn’t won a first term yet.

In the end, the candidates worked their way through a left-wing checklist on combating climate change, providing free college tuition, protecting transgender people, and helping migrant children separated from their parents. This was largely a decorous debate that will be forgotten in a news cycle or two.

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