democratic debates

Key Moments From the December Democratic Debate

Photo: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Coming just days before the biggest holidays of the year and about 24 hours after President Trump became the third president to ever be impeached, the Democratic debate in Los Angeles seemed destined to be quickly forgotten. But the eighth debate picked up after the first hour, when several candidates went after the Iowa-ascendant Pete Buttigieg; front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders sparred over health care; and beer-drinking viewers learned about the tony storage solution of the wine cave. (We hate to propose such a loathsome idea, but maybe having debates drag on for over two hours … isn’t a bad thing?) Here’s a look at the moments you may have missed if you opted to sit the contest out.

Candidates face the unavoidable impeachment question

To open the debate, Democrats were asked why the impeachment of President Trump isn’t more popular among the public. The framing was a bit odd: Not only did the moderators press the candidates for an answer on why the Democratic Party was failing to win over Trump supporters in an era reeking of partisanship, the language suggested that a large majority of Americans disapproved of the constitutional process. (Recent polling averages show that around 46 percent of citizens are in favor of impeachment, and 49 percent are against it.)

The candidates took an opportunity to support the process and jab at the president: Biden described impeachment as a “constitutional necessity” and added that Trump is “dumbing down the presidency beyond what I even thought he would do.” Warren called him the “most corrupt president in American history,” while Tom Steyer took a moment to remind everyone that he’s been calling for impeachment on YouTube for years. Yang closed out with a dissenting view, saying that Americans must “stop being obsessed over impeachment,” though it’s unclear how much attention Americans have been paying in the first place.

The long-awaited Warren-Buttigieg showdown

Prior to the debate, observers expected the Massachusetts senator to engage with the South Bend mayor; she is the most common second choice of candidates among his supporters, and could gain a substantial boost if his path to the White House is made a little rockier. When the opportunity struck, she went for the obvious target in a primary focused on removing corporate interests from politics:

So, the mayor just recently had a fund-raiser that was held in a wine cave, full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fund-raiser he would do would be open-door, but this one was closed-door. 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.

Buttigieg countered with his lack of financial bonafides, noting that he’s “literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire.” He suggested Warren was subjecting him to a “purity test you cannot yourself pass.”

When Warren shot back, “I do not sell access to my time,” Buttigieg asked, “Since when, Senator?” Though Warren has not held big-ticket fund-raisers during her primary run, she did pursue moneyed donors in her last Senate race, and transferred $10.4 million from that fund to her 2020 war chest. There’s a debate over who came out on top, but the phrase “wine cave” trending on Twitter isn’t helping the mayor’s perception among the online left.

Amy Klobuchar wants a piece of Buttigieg, too

The Minnesota senator, who touts her record of winning statewide elections in the Midwest as essential to her presidential appeal, saw a natural target in Buttigieg as well: If the small-town mayor was dispatched from contention, she would be the natural moderate alternative to Joe Biden. Klobuchar brought up Buttigieg’s failed 2017 bid for DNC chair, saying, “We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show that they can gather the support that you talk about.”

Buttigieg offered a different definition of electability, while reminding viewers of his spat with Mike Pence in April, when he claimed the vice-president used his religious beliefs as “an excuse to harm other people.”

Biden and Bernie need punchier “over the hill” jokes

Sanders missed in his response to former President Obama’s Monday statement that, “If you look at the world and look at the problems, it’s usually old people, usually old men, not getting out of the way.”

Biden’s quip also fell flat: “I’m going to guess he wasn’t talking about me either.”

Warren shows the other septuagenarians how it’s done

The same question was addressed to Senator Warren, who, if elected, would also be the oldest president ever inaugurated. And where Biden and Sanders stumbled, she soared:

This probably only works if you’re Biden

When asked if he supports reparations for African-Americans, Biden got worked up — on a different subject. “We have 24 of every 100 children in our schools today is Hispanic,” Biden said, at a very high volume. “The idea that we are going to walk away and not provide every opportunity for them is not only stupid and immoral but is bad for America.” The moderators moved on, rather than point out that he did not respond to the question in the slightest. Interestingly, Biden’s infamous “record player” rant from September was also in response to a question about reparations.

Still, the former vice-president was generally sharper than he had been at prior debates, where he has been good for a contest-defining gaffe.

Warren has a message for her economist critics

Opting not to answer the question might not work well for Warren either, but she did have an effective retort for economists who assert that her proposed wealth tax would stifle growth: “Oh, they’re just wrong.”

The Biden-Bernie health-care fight

After moderator Tim Alberta stated that Biden “spent an awful lot of time” passing a health-care bill “far less ambitious” than that of the current Party mood, Biden claimed that Sanders’s Medicare for All plan is not realistic. As the vice-president described his “Biden initiative,” he asked Sanders to “put your hand down for a second.”

“Just waving to you, Joe,” Sanders replied. When he claimed that “Joe’s plan essentially [retains] the status quo,” Biden interrupted, saying, “That’s not true.” When Biden said that Sanders’s plan would “increase personal taxes,” Sanders said, “That’s right. We are going to increase personal taxes. But we’re eliminating premiums, we’re eliminating co-payments, we’re eliminating deductibles, we’re eliminating all out-of-pocket expenses, and no family in America will spend more than $200 a year on prescription drugs.”

Biden — kind of — stutters, Sarah Huckabee Sanders goes low

Toward the end of the debate, Biden described his practice of giving out his personal phone number on the campaign trail, including to a young supporter with a stutter:

Biden, who has been open about his struggle with stuttering — including a recent profile in the The Atlantic on overcoming his childhood speech impediment — was quickly made fun of on Twitter by former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In a tweet that has since been deleted, Sanders wrote: “I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I hhhave absolutely no idea what Biden is talking about.” The former vice-president’s team promptly responded:

She immediately took it back: “I actually didn’t know that about you and that is commendable. I apologize and should have made my point respectfully.” But considering that his struggle with a speech disorder is widely known in Washington, the apology seems a bit disingenuous.

Yang gets it

Andrew Yang read the audience’s thoughts in his closing statement, joking that, “I know what you’re thinking, America. How am I still on this stage with them?” But if a keen political observer said a year ago that the final debate of 2019 would include Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer — but not Cory Booker or Kamala Harris — that would probably sound like a joke, too.

Key Moments From the December Democratic Debate