The January Democratic Debate

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January 14, 2020
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We’ll be liveblogging our way through the first Democratic debate of 2020. Follow along below, and refresh the page for updates.

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11:26 p.m.

Immediate takeaways: This was a little less substantive and a little more contentious than last month’s debate. But what do we expect — the first and most important vote of the season is mere days away, and candidates came locked and loaded, ready to draw distinctions among themselves and seeking to make a last impression with caucus-goers rather than build complex policy cases.

That said, it’s tough to forecast how this will affect the race going forward. I thought Warren did well. I thought Buttigieg did not. Biden remained, curiously, mostly untouched despite leading the pack. Sanders had momentum to defend, and it’s unclear if he succeeded in defending it. Luckily, the voters of Iowa will tell us how they did. I’m just some guy.

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11:09 p.m.

Missing from this debate: Anything on immigration or voting rights.

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11:04 p.m.

We’ve arrived at closing statements. The shorter runtime tonight was welcome; the pacing, as Matt previewed earlier, was far snappier.

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11:04 p.m.

A single exchange that captures a quality in Buttigieg that, anecdotally, turns some people off: Steyer dings him for his scant private sector experience — “Mayor Pete has three years as an analyst at McKinsey” — and Buttigieg simply cannot let the insult stand.

“You demoted me, I was actually an associate but that’s okay,” he says, spelling out a distinction indistinguishable to all but his former McKinsey colleagues.

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10:50 p.m.

CNN picks up on an interesting question from a previous debate — what Steyer correctly points out is “managed retreat” from climate change. Some areas of the U.S. will not be inhabitable by the end of the next presidency, some already aren’t. As with impeachment, the debate does not elucidate a ton of differences between the candidates on climate, though they exist. Even Amy Klobuchar, who supports fracking as a “transition fuel,” says she aims to get the U.S. to carbon neutral by 2050. Sanders and Steyer call for declaring a national emergency on climate change.

It almost goes without saying that all of this stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration, which dismisses the issue even in the face of disaster like the fires facing Australia.

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10:40 p.m.

Wolf Blitzer encourages Tom Steyer to mull over an existential question: “Mr. Steyer, you have spent millions and millions of dollars telling the American people that President Trump deserves to be impeached. Will it have been worth if it he’s impeached but not removed from office?”

“Standing up for what’s right is always worth it, Wolf, and I will never back down from that,” Steyer replies, to applause.

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10:40 p.m.

Biden has been calibrating his answers on Ukraine and his son, Hunter Biden, with each debate. This is the first time he’s referred to Hunter as “my surviving son,” a reminder of his eldest son Beau’s untimely death, and a way to make Hunter a more sympathetic figure.

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10:35 p.m.

Here it is, the long-awaited impeachment question.

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10:24 p.m.

Perhaps knowing he doesn’t have a lot of airtime to work with, Steyer’s taken to answering a different question than he’s asked. Most recently, it was on health care, which he instead took to discuss term limits. “This is cruelty for money,” he says of the health care system. “In order to break this, we’re going to have to break the corporate stranglehold and solve both the tax and the negotiating problem. That’s why I’m for term limits.”

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10:23 p.m.

Looking for standout moments in this debate is proving tricky: everyone is doing fine. The night feels a bit low energy and dominated by sound-bite, stump-speech excerpts more than realtime debates. Even the Warren-Sanders fight, the most hotly anticipated exchange, was pretty lukewarm.

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10:22 p.m.

An interesting conversation just now about the government essentially producing drugs. “The government lets contracts for all kind of things,” Warren says. “Put the contracts out so that we can put more generic drugs out there and drive down the prices. This is a way to make markets work… The whole idea behind it is get some competition out there. So the price of the drugs that are no longer under patent drops where it should.”

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10:16 p.m.

The resident billionaire apparently only owns one tie. At least it’s festive.

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10:12 p.m.

After asking Sanders about the cost of Medicare for All, Abby Phillip pitches Biden the softball of the night in an attempt to force a brawl over the matter: “Does Senator Sanders owe voters a price tag on his healthcare plan?”

The debate proceeds on the points for and against Medicare for All, but one has to ask — aren’t there more probing questions?

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10:07 p.m.

Warren points out that she’s the only one to beat an incumbent Republican “anytime in the past 30 years,” which Sanders, confusingly, disputes: I beat an incumbent Republican in 1990! he says.

“Wasn’t that 30 years ago?” Warren probes.

They speak past each other some more, then move on. Nicole Lafond pointed out today that the “beef” between Sanders and Warren was mostly driven by their campaigns, not the candidates themselves. The awkward non-confrontation on stage seems to confirm that.

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10:07 p.m.

Sanders flatly denied ever saying that a woman couldn’t be elected president. Moments later, Warren said that she “disagreed” with Sanders when he made the comment in 2018.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders said in response to moderators’ initial question. He then talked about how he only decided to run in 2016 because Warren opted out. The moderators used the comment as a premise to ask Warren about the episode, which was first reported by CNN.

After saying she disagreed with his comment at the time, she said that she didn’t want a fight with Sanders. Shockingly, the moderators didn’t push the issue, didn’t ask either candidate directly if the other was lying. The conversation moved on to the electoral success or failure of the candidates on the stage.

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9:44 p.m.

Update on what I said below — Steyer is on Sanders’ page, saying he will not sign a trade deal that does not mention climate change.

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9:37 p.m.

Sanders remains the holdout on trade among the candidates who got a question on it. He argues that Trump’s revamped NAFTA trade agreement, the USMCA, is fatally flawed because it does not mention climate change.

Warren draws a contrast. “We have farmers here in Iowa who are hurting, and they are hurting because of Donald Trump’s initiated trade wars,” she says, adding: “This new trade deal is a modest improvement.”

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9:35 p.m.

The moderators are spending a lot of time on foreign policy in this first bit of the debate. There’s a lot going on to discuss, but it’s a surprising move to me considering that this is the Iowa debate. I expected more state-specific questions at the beginning, especially given that a Des Moines Register reporter is on the panel: like ethanol or…whatever else goes down in Iowa.

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9:22 p.m.

Klobuchar and Biden say they’ll leave troops in the region. Warren says she’ll get “combat troops” out. “There’s a difference between combat forces and leaving special forces in a position,” Biden responds. Buttigieg says “we can continue to remain engaged” but criticizes Trump for sending more troops.

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9:18 p.m.

Why did Wolf Blitzer think it was necessary to compare Bernie Sanders to Iran’s Ayatollah?? “In the wake of the Iran crisis, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei has again called for all U.S. troops to be pulled out of the Middle East, something you’ve called for as well…”

What a bizarre point to make — many Americans share that view.

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9:16 p.m.

I agree with John’s point about the super obvious fight baiting here, but it’s not the fight everyone’s been waiting for. The first couple questions set up a predictable relitigation of Biden and Sanders’ opposing Iraq votes. Blitzer then tried to tempt Klobuchar to go after Buttigieg’s lack of experience (she did not take the bait).

But we’re still waiting for someone to bring up the Warren-Sanders fracas.

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9:10 p.m.

CNN likes to set up fights between the candidates — which is fine, it’s a debate. But it’s a distinctive quality that makes a CNN debate more of a brawl than those hosted by the other networks.

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9:07 p.m.

Sanders distinguishes his vote for the war in Afghanistan and Biden’s vote for the war in Iraq. “On that particular vote, every single member of the House including myself voted for it. Only Barbara Lee voted against it,” he says. Meanwhile, Iraq was the country’s “worst foreign policy blunder” in modern history, he says.   

Sanders says that he knew the Bush administration was lying about Iraq, and that “Joe saw it differently.”

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9:07 p.m.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer opened the debate with a question on Iran, starting with foreign policy rather than the recent campaign drama. Sanders (as I predicted) wasted no time in bringing up his Iraq vote, though he left out Biden attacks he’d used before.

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8:58 p.m.

As Matt mentioned, Iran will certainly come up tonight, Sanders’ cue to bring up his no vote on the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — and Biden’s yes vote. Biden has struggled with this attack before, sometimes muddying what his position actually was. We’ll see if he has a better calibrated comeback tonight.

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8:51 p.m.

A spate of Iowa polling has published in recent days, and it tells a range of different stories. A Monmouth University poll this week showed Biden ahead; a CNN/Des Moines Register one from last week had Sanders out front. The fact of the matter seems to be that Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren are pretty closely clustered in the high teens, low twenties. The caucus is anyone’s game and that raises the stakes for tonight.

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8:49 p.m.

One thing I’m looking for tonight: candidates’ responses to the Trump administration’s shifting explanations about the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. I expect they’ll focus on the administration’s statements about the circumstances surrounding the drone strike that killed the top Iranian general, and its unsuccessful attempts to claim an attack was “imminent.” Hopefully, moderators will push for more and insist on broader answers that address the way forward in Iraq after its parliament called for the expulsion of U.S. forces.

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8:46 p.m.

The big story going into the night is the Warren-Sanders fracas, kicked off this weekend when Politico published a story about Sanders volunteers carrying anti-Warren talking points as part of their canvassing. Warren expressed her disappointment.

Two days later, CNN published a story about a 2018 meeting during which Sanders allegedly told Warren that a woman couldn’t be elected President. Sanders denied the reporting; Warren confirmed it. It’ll surely be an early question, and Sanders is in a tight spot. Proffering a blanket denial makes it look as if he’s calling Warren a liar. This topic is too politically toxic for a real mea culpa. I expect some squishiness on “different interpretations” of the conversation from Sanders followed by a strong pivot to expressing his unshakeable belief in the electability of women.

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8:42 p.m.

A word about the pace of tonight’s debate. There will be six candidates on stage, rather than the seven there were last month — Andrew Yang didn’t meet the DNC’s new cutoff — but the debate is also scheduled to be slightly shorter than December’s airtime. So, in terms of time per candidate, that could work out about even.

The rules are also similar to last month’s, according to NBC News: 75 seconds to answer a question, 45 seconds to rebut or respond. This time, candidates will reportedly have 15 seconds to clarify, as well. That said, candidates have found ways to massage those limits in other debates, and likely will tonight.

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8:11 p.m.

Hello! Thanks for joining us. We’ll be getting started in just under an hour. Your team for tonight is myself, Kate Riga and Matt Shuham.

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