democratic debates

5 Takeaways From the Democratic Debate in Iowa

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday night, the newly thinned Democratic primary field took the stage for their final debate before the Iowa Caucuses. Here are five takeaways from the Rumble in Des Moines:

1) Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s friendship has seen better days.

The collapse of the nonaggression pact between the race’s two progressive candidates provided the bulk of the dramatic tension in CNN’s broadcast Tuesday night. Over the weekend, Politico reported on a Sanders campaign call script, which instructed phone-bankers to suggest that Warren had a relatively limited demographic appeal. Warren responded to this revelation by expressing her dismay “that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” a characterization that many in the Sanders camp found hyperbolic. Then, on Monday, CNN reported that, in 2018, Sanders had told Warren that he did not think a woman could beat Donald Trump in 2020. Sanders derided that story as absurd, and insisted that he had merely observed that Trump would be likely to weaponize sexism in the 2020 race. But Warren released a statement asserting that Sanders had, in fact, told her that he did not believe a woman could win the 2020 election.

All this took a toll on activist morale in both camps. And it was difficult to discern how either candidate stood to benefit from the fracas. Sure, painting Bernie as a dispenser of arguably sexist private punditry might move a few voters out of his corner and into Warren’s. But then, increasing the salience of “can a woman beat Trump?” concerns — in a manner that simultaneously invites the enmity of Sanders’s most engaged supporters — would still seem wildly counterproductive from Warren’s point-of-view. And, by Monday’s end, it ostensibly did seem that way to Warren’s campaign, which informed its supporters in a group chat that its aim was to deescalate its conflict with the Vermont senator, and shift focus to the two campaigns’ “shared goals.”

But CNN’s debate moderators had other aims.

At first, Sanders and Warren’s exchange on the inevitable he-said, she-said question appeared to go about as well as anyone could have hoped. The Vermont senator delivered a thorough case for why he could not possibly have said what Warren had alleged — noting that, in 2015, he had “deferred” to Warren, declining to launch his own progressive challenge to Clinton until the Massachusetts senator turned down that opportunity.

Warren did not need to contradict Sanders — because CNN’s Abby Phillip did so for her, asking, “What did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?” Warren then simply said that she disagreed, before describing Sanders as her friend and pivoting to a broader, affirmative argument for why women are every bit as electable as men. Given the circumstances, the awkward back-and-forth was mercifully brief and benign.

But then things “re-escalated” quickly. As part of her own electability spiel, Warren had claimed that “the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me,” referring to her 2012 victory over (first-term) Republican Senator Scott Brown in (deep blue) Massachusetts. Alas, Sanders had defeated a Republican incumbent to win election to the House in November 1990 — which was, technically, within the past 30 years. And Sanders felt compelled to register this somewhat pedantic objection, leading to several painfully awkward moments of the Vermont senator and Warren sparring over the precise meaning of the phrase “in the past 30 years.”

By all appearances, this exchange did not sit well with either candidate — both of whom failed to keep up appearances long enough after the debate’s conclusion to execute a performative handshake and avoid providing every news outlet with new fodder for coverage of the “Bernie–Warren feud” (or Tom Steyer, with a few cringe-inducing seconds of social awkwardness).

2) In hindsight, Joe Biden probably shouldn’t have voted for the Iraq War.

There are many reasons why it was probably a bad idea for Joe Biden to support the Iraq War. For example, the conflict got hundreds of thousands of people killed, was launched on the basis of phony intelligence, birthed ISIS, and last — but also definitely least — made it very difficult for Joe Biden to explain why his “experience” on foreign policy is a feature, not a bug. Asked to defend his judgement as commander-in-chief, in light of his position on Iraq, Biden argued that — while he had been wrong to support the war at the time — “the man who also argued against that war, Barack Obama, picked me to be his vice-president. And once we were elected president and vice-president, he turned to me and asked me to end that war.” To the extent that this answer has a discernible logic, it is that, if someone wise enough to oppose the Iraq War felt Biden had good judgement, then surely that must be the case. Which is not a very convincing argument for why Biden has better foreign-policy judgement than Bernie Sanders.

3) Tom Steyer wants you to know that he will put his children’s future above “marginal improvements for working people.” 

In explaining why he opposes the United States–Mexico-Canada trade agreement, Steyer argued that the deal’s improvements to labor conditions did not compensate for its failure to address the climate crisis. But the specific way he chose to phrase this point was less than politically optimal. The hedge-fund billionaire explained that he had a moral duty to oppose the agreement “even if it’s marginally better for working people,” because “I’ve got four kids between the ages of 26 and 31. I cannot allow this country to go down the path of climate destruction.”

Arguing that climate must take precedence over improving working people’s lives is inadvisable for any environmentalist. But it seems especially impolitic when the environmentalist in question is a plutocrat whose great fortune was built, in part, on investments in fossil fuels.

4) Amy Klobuchar made one-half of a very good point. 

For most of the past three decades, centrist Democrats have posited higher education as a panacea for middle-class decline. In their account, inequality was not driven by policy decisions that weakened workers’ bargaining power, but rather, by the growing productivity gap between “high” and “low” skill workers in our modern “knowledge economy.” Thus, the key to achieving a more equitable distribution of income was to foster a more equitable distribution of college diplomas.

This was wrong for a wide variety of reasons. But one of the most fundamental was that it was premised on the notion that the U.S. economy had an inexhaustible demand for college-educated workers, and ever-shrinking use for non-college-educated ones. As Amy Klobuchar noted Tuesday night, this is quite far from the truth. “We are going to have over a million openings for home health-care workers that we don’t know how to fill in the next ten years,” Klobuchar said. “We are going to have open 100,000 jobs for nursing assistants. We — as my union friends know — we’re going to have over 70,000 openings for electricians. We’re not going to have a shortage of MBAs.”

This is dead on, and refreshing to hear from one of the race’s consummate centrists. Unfortunately, Klobuchar did not make this observation as part of an argument for the urgent necessity of increasing workers’ bargaining power — since nothing else can plausibly deliver middle-class wages to our nation’s growing legions of home health-care aides — but rather, as part of an argument against tuition-free public college.

5) Iowans’ fetishization of politeness (and/or, the Democratic field’s political cowardice) is a huge gift to Biden.

Over the past week, Joe Biden pulled into first place in Iowa, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average. He boasts a nearly double-digit lead in national surveys. Historically, the winner of the Iowa Caucuses tends to see an approximately seven-point polling bounce. Which is to say: If Biden wins Iowa (and history is any guide), this race could be more or less over by February 4. For Uncle Joe’s rivals, tonight was the last opportunity to hit the Democratic front-runner with their best punch before Iowans get caucusing.

And they barely laid a finger on him. Sure, Bernie got in a couple jabs on Iraq and trade. But these were mere reruns of past attacks, not anything resembling a major escalation. Meanwhile, Warren declined to bring up Biden’s support for bankruptcy reforms that put the interests of credit-card companies and other lenders above those of cash-strapped working people and student debtors. Buttigieg neglected to distinguish himself from Biden by haranguing the old man about his past support for Social Security cuts. Anita Hill’s name went unmentioned.

After the debate, Klobuchar attributed the relatively polite tone of the discussion to “the Iowa setting,” where “voters appreciate civility.” An alternative possibility is that most of the candidates feel that Biden is too popular with Democratic voters to be profitably attacked. But at a certain point, that strategy becomes self-fulfilling. The longer Biden maintains his lead, the more probable his nomination becomes — and thus, the more hostile Democratic voters may be to attacks that risk compromising their party’s likely standard-bearer. The longer Biden’s rivals bide their time, the more unrivaled his candidacy is likely to be.

5 Takeaways From the Democratic Debate in Iowa