Democratic candidates in fifth presidential debate agree on impeachment, little else

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden bends back to avoid the hand of Senator Bernie Sanders as Sanders points past Biden during the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, November 20, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden bends back to avoid the hand of Senator Bernie Sanders as Sanders points past Biden during the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, November 20, 2019. Brendan McDermid, Reuters

For the fifth round of US Democratic debates on Wednesday, ten 2020 presidential hopefuls sparred in Atlanta, Georgia over health care, climate change, taxes, and race. 


The ongoing impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump were a backdrop to the debate, at times emerging to the front and centre.

It’s unanimous: Trump should be impeached

The moderators' first question was about the Ukraine scandal and its fallout, which was revealed to be the only issue on which the candidates appeared to agree: That Trump should be ousted.

“The president broke the law again and again and again,” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in the event’s opening minutes.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called Trump “the most corrupt president in modern history” but added, “We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump” or the Democratic Party will lose the election. He said Democrats should also focus on other issues: “We can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.” 

Former US vice president Joe Biden—at the heart of the Ukraine scandal—added his own angle: “Trump doesn’t want me to be the [Democratic] nominee, and Vladimir Putin doesn’t want me to be president.”

Elizabeth Warren still stands alone on her 2% wealth tax

Warren answered a question about how she would unify a divided country by reintroducing her proposed 2% tax on wealth beyond $50 million, with an additional 4% tax on wealth beyond $1 billion.

"I'm tired of freeloading billionaires," said Warren, adding that the tax would pay for free public college and universal childcare, while also cancelling most student loan debt.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker was asked whether he agreed with Warren's proposal, leading to the first policy disagreement of the night.

Booker said he did not support Warren's wealth tax but if elected, he would pursue "fair and just taxation where millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share." 

Healthcare: still a thorn in the candidates’ side

Healthcare reform figured prominently in the four previous Democratic debates; the fifth debate was no exception. Biden continued to push for modifications to Obama-era health care reforms over the “Medicare for all” proposals from Warren and Sanders.

Biden argued that voters are hesitant to make the transformative, government-backed changes pushed by candidates including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden said he didn’t want to force anyone to give up private health insurance.

Warren reiterated her longstanding position that she wants to “bring as many people in and get as much help to the American people as fast as we can.”

When questioning came to Sanders, he responded: “Thank you, I wrote the damn bill.”

Climate change mounting in importance

Candidates in this round took a more assertive position on climate change than previous debates. Businessman Tom Steyer has framed his candidacy around the issue, saying during the debate that that neither the former vice president nor Elizabeth Warren would characterize climate change as the most critical issue.

Biden replied that he does see climate change as such, calling it “the No. 1 issue” facing the country” and “the existential threat to humanity,” eliciting a somewhat stunned look from the billionaire businessman.

Referencing Steyer, the former vice president went on to say, “I don’t need a lecture from my friend,” noting his own work on Senate climate change legislation.

Bernie Sanders repeated his suggestion that executives in the fossil fuel industry could be prosecuted for their actions. The industry has “lied and lied and lied,” he said.


Pressure on the neophytes

The moderators pressed entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has never held office, and Pete Buttigieg, whose only political experience is as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, on how their backgrounds have prepared them for the White House, prompting an extended conversation among several candidates about gender, experience and who has the most broad-based appeal.

Buttigieg noted he served in the Navy in Afghanistan, giving him an inside view of how the president's military decisions affect troops, and sought to turn his lack of time in Washington into an advantage.

"I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small," he said.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar was asked about her previous comment that a woman with Buttigieg's experience would not have made it to the debate stage. While she was careful to say she believed Buttigieg is qualified, she reiterated her argument that women are held to a higher standard.

"Otherwise, we could play a game called 'Name your favourite woman president,' which we can’t do,” she said to applause.

Biden touted his record of passing bipartisan legislation and his long experience in Washington.
"There’s no time for on-the-job training," he said. "I spent more time in the Situation Room, more time abroad, than anyone up here." 

The black vote

Perhaps more than in any debate so far, Democrats explicitly acknowledged the importance of black and other minority voters.

Biden incorrectly said that he has the support of the “only African American woman ever elected to the Senate.”

That drew a response from Harris, who interjected by saying that “the other one is here.” 

Biden quickly stated, “I said the first.”

Booker added: “I’ve had a lot of experience with black voters. ... I’ve been one since I was 18.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is struggling badly with black voters in Southern states. He acknowledged as much, saying he welcomes “the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me.”

The sixth round of US Democratic debates will take place on the 19th of December, with six more debates set to take place in the first four months of 2020. Super Tuesday, on which fifteen jurisdictions plus the Democrats Abroad hold their primary elections, falls on March 3. Typically, Super Tuesday narrows down the hopefuls to the final one or two top candidates.


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