Surging Buttigieg becomes top target in Democratic presidential debate as field of contenders thins

A thinning field of candidates at the final Democratic presidential debate of 2020.
A thinning field of candidates at the final Democratic presidential debate of 2020. France 24 screen grab

The seven remaining US Democratic presidential candidates took to the stage Thursday in their sixth and final debate of 2019 – a day after the impeachment of US President Donald Trump.


It was the first of the Democratic debates to feature fewer than 10 candidates onstage. Though the contenders revisited familiar topics such as climate change and the wealth tax, this debate addressed some new issues, such as Israel and, of course, the previous day’s House of Representatives' vote to impeach Trump.

The first query to the candidates was why, if Trump’s impeachment was so necessary, roughly half of all Americans do not support it. For the most part, candidates veered from directly answering the question, focusing instead on Trump’s alleged offences.

“The president is not king in America, the law is king,” said Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is preparing to serve as a juror in the impeachment case as the process shifts from the House to the Senate. She said Trump’s alleged wrongdoing is even more serious than that of disgraced former president Richard Nixon, calling Trump’s alleged misdeeds “a global Watergate”.

Former Vice President Joe Biden attacked Trump’s argument that less than half of Americans support his removal from office. “He’s dumbing down the presidency beyond what I even thought he would do,” Biden said. “We need to restore the integrity of the presidency.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, second in the standings, blasted Trump as "running the most corrupt administration in the modern history of this country". The president has "sold out" working families, he added.

But the self-described Socialist also appealed to conservatives, saying he believes they, too, understand that the nation “cannot have a president with that temperament who is dishonouring the presidency of the United States”.

'We have to stop being obsessed with impeachment'

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang had his own take on Trump: “We have to stop being obsessed with impeachment, which unfortunately strikes many Americans like a ball game where you know what the score is going to be, and actually start digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place."

A clash between Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg highlighted the differences between the party’s progressive and moderate wings.

Asked to comment on criticism that her plan to hike taxes an additional $8 trillion (€7.2tn) over the decade would stifle growth and investment, Warren replied sharply: “Oh, they’re just wrong.” She went on to explain that her proposed two-cent tax on fortunes above $50 million (€45m) would allow the United States to provide universal childcare, early childhood education, increased wages for childcare workers and preschool teachers and cancel out student-loan debt.

“You leave two cents with the billionaires, they're not eating more pizzas, they're not buying more cars,” Warren added.

Not just Pro-Israel

The Israel-Palestinian conflict had been unaddressed during the five prior debates, but on Thursday, the issue bubbled to the surface.

Bernie Sanders called for a US policy that is not just pro-Israel but pro-Palestinian as well. He characterised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “racist” and said, “What we need is a level playing field in terms of the Middle East, which addresses the terrible crisis in Gaza, where 60 percent or 70 percent of the young people are unemployed.”

Sanders, who, if elected, would be the first Jewish president, has called for the United States to consider conditioning aid to Israel as a means to nudge its government away from expanding settlements in the West Bank and from other moves that have impeded Israel-Palestinian relations.

Warren and Buttigieg have joined Sanders in leaving the door open to such conditions on US aid to Israel.


'Billionaires in wine caves'

As the most progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren have long taken shots at Buttigieg’s more moderate policies, including his resistance to adopting universal free college tuition. His critics have accused him of elitism and of pandering to wealthy supporters and have criticised him for taking campaign staffing advice from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

Warren launched a thinly veiled criticism of the mayor’s fundraising efforts. “Most of the people on this stage run a traditional campaign, and that means going back-and-forth, coast-to-coast to rich people and people who can put up $5,000 bucks or more in order to have a picture taken, in order to have a conversation, and in order maybe to be considered to be an ambassador,” she said.

Buttigieg, who has surged into the top tier of candidates in recent weeks, was quick to respond. “This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump,” he said. “And we shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our back.”


Warren dug in, slamming Buttigieg for a recent closed-door campaign event he held in Silicon Valley. “So the mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900 a bottle wine. Um, think about who comes to that,” she said. “We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”

'Our country is deeply misogynist'

Yang, who perhaps surprised many by making it to the final seven, shifted his focus from what has often been seen as his main policy aim – establishing a universal basic income – to debating more diverse issues.

During a discussion about climate change, Yang advocated the controversial stance that the US should explore thorium as a source of nuclear energy. 


On the topic of immigration and the general need for diversity, Yang made one of the most applauded comments of the evening: “Our country is deeply misogynist, and most all of us know that. Money and men are tied together ...  I’m on the record saying that you need both strong men and female leaders in government, because the fact is, if you get too many men alone and leave us alone for a while, we kind of become morons.”

The upcoming Iowa Democratic caucuses, due to take place on February 3, 2020, will weed out some of the candidates. The Iowa caucus is the first major primary contest and can augur candidates’ future primary performance. According to the news site Fivethirtyeight, during the period from December 12 to 16, Buttigieg was the frontrunner in Iowa polls, with 24 percent of those surveyed saying he was their first choice, followed by Sanders with 21 percent, Warren with 18 percent and Biden with 15 percent.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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