Seven of the Democratic Party’s remaining presidential candidates squared off Friday night, and while topics included healthcare, the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Iran, race, and opioids, the prevailing theme of the night was the collective piling on Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, Former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Former Vice-President Joe Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer all took part in the event, allowing them to make their final case to voters before the New Hampshire primary.
The Tuesday Iowa caucus and Trump’s acquittal clouded the debate stage. Moderators highlighted Trump’s bombast at his Thursday impeachment victory celebration. Democrats also failed to release official results for more than two days after the vote. Blame fell on the failure of a vote-tallying app that former Obama and Clinton staffers had intended to expedite the process. Veteran Democrat strategist James Carville moaned that “the party can’t even count votes” heading into the 2020 general election.
Buttigieg faced some criticism for appearing to announce victory before virtually any results had been published. When the smoke cleared, however, he had taken an upset victory, followed closely by Sanders, then Warren. Biden finished at a distant fourth.
ABC News selected as moderators Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton aide; Anchor and co-host David Muir, and political correspondent Linsey Davis. Local TV station WMUR contributed Monica Hernandez, an anchor, and Adam Sexton, the station’s political director.
The World Vs. Bernie Sanders
Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden all took aim at Sanders’ healthcare plan in the opening minutes of the debate, calling his policies divisive and impossible to implement.
When Stephanopoulos opened the debate by asking Sanders whether Trump’s label of socialist could tank his campaign, Sanders denied it.
“Donald Trump lies all the time,” Sanders responded. “At the end of the day, the way we’re gonna win this damn thing is to stand together to defeat him. The way we beat Trump is by having the largest voter turnout in the history of this country.”
Klobuchar made the opening blow of what turned out to be a pile-on of Sanders on healthcare and was the only the candidate to say she had a problem with a Democratic Socialist being at the top of the Democratic Party ticket.
“We can’t out-divide the divider-in-chief,” she said. referring to Trump. “We need someone who will bring in votes from the middle of the country.”
Buttigieg then joined in, arguing at length that a successful candidate cannot take a “my way or the highway” approach in a general election and require voters to endorse far-left ideas.
“Are you talking about Bernie sanders?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Yes,” Buttigieg replied, to scattered laughter in the audience.
Biden joined in later on, riffing on Sanders’ much-repeated response to criticism of his medicare-for-all bill. (RELATED: Biden Predicts His Own Failure Seconds Into Democratic Debate)
“Bernie Sanders keeps saying he wrote the damn thing,” Biden said. “But he wont say how much the damn thing is gonna cost,” he said. “It would cost more than the entire budget of what we spend now.”
Yang, who made his first appearance since failing to qualify for the seventh debate, didn’t get the anti-Biden memo, however, instead arguing that “the capitalism-socialism dichotomy in this country is out of date.”
Davis then shifted the conversation to Trump’s acquittal, asking Warren whether she still would open investigations into Trump on the day she took office. Warren said there needs to be more resources devoted to investigating government wrongdoing, but then shifted to her anti-corruption message.
Steyer raised eyebrows when the impeachment question came to him. He touted his opening of an impeachment-advocacy group in October 2017, and then compared that to his father taking part in prosecuting Nazi war criminals after World War II.
Biden received raucous applause for recognizing Lt. Col Alexander Vindman’s testimony against Trump during House impeachment proceedings. Vindman had been fired and escorted out of the White House earlier Friday, leading Biden to request a standing ovation for the man.
“Trump should have pinned the medal on Vindman, not Rush Limbaugh,” Biden said, referring to the award Trump gave Limbaugh during his State of the Union speech Tuesday.
Candidates also praised Utah Sen. Mitt Romney for being the only Republican to vote to convict Trump on an impeachment charge.
Muir then turned the conversation toward whether the Trump administration’s lethal strike against Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was justified. Candidates largely agreed the strike was unnecessary, but Sanders took the hardest stance.
Buttigieg acknowledged the general was a murderer, but he argued there was “no evidence” the strike made America safer.
Biden similarly argued that there was no evidence of an “imminent threat” to the U.S. that made the strike necessary. He also highlighted the cost of the several U.S. soldiers who suffered brain injuries following an Iranian rocket attack on a base in Iraqat a base in Iraq struck by Iranian rockets shortly after Soleimani’s death.
Sanders stood by his description of the strike as an “assassination of a government official,” arguing the U.S. “cannot go around saying you’re a bad guy, we’re going to assassinate you.”
Sanders then shunted the conversation toward climate change, saying that the U.S. must bolster its diplomatic ties with foreign nations and convince them to use their military budgets to instead fight climate change.
Notably, Yang wasn’t allowed to give a single response during the conversation about conflict with Iran.
Local moderators then took the stage and shifted the conversation toward the opioid epidemic, a crisis that has taken roughly 70,000 lives annually since 2017.
Buttigieg, Yang, and Klobuchar were the only candidates questioned about the crisis, and all emphasized the need for treatment over incarceration for low-lever crimes. Yang went further, however, calling for total decriminalization of drug possession, while Buttigieg argued no one should be incarcerated.
Hernandez pressed Buttigieg, however, saying his campaign website said he supported full decriminalization.
Klobuchar said drug dealers should be prosecuted, but dodged on decriminalization.
Klobuchar: Says she lead successful drug court in country. Emphasis on treatment. Prosecuted drug dealers. Major federal settlement against opioid producers. $40 billion conservative estimate. Did not say she would decriminalize possession.
Moderators asked whether the candidates would apply a litmus test to any potential Supreme Court nominations they made during their presidency.
All candidates voiced support for abortion on demand, but they varied as to how far they would go to ensure ideological purity in their nominations.
Warren, Klobuchar, and Sanders all called for Congress to take action to protect Roe V. Wade, but Buttigieg and Sanders went further, saying they would expand the Supreme Court to undue Trump’s two supreme court nominations.
“I would only appoint someone who agreed to uphold precedent, and that means Roe V. Wade,” Klobuchar said.
Moderators pressed Buttigieg on expanding the court, however, citing Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg’s opinion that doing so would make the court appear partisan.
Buttigieg responded that he would also work to change the nomination process to be less partisan even as he expanded the court, going on to say he would pursue a constitutional amendment to revoke Citizens United, the SCOTUS case that allows corporations to donate to political campaigns.
Biden was the only candidate to explicitly reject the idea of expanding the courts.
Candidates focused on systemic racism in policing, prosecution, healthcare, and voter registration.
Each candidate echoed his words about systemic racism, but Steyer was alone in explicitly referencing reparations for black Americans. Yang did argue for putting money “directly into the hands” of black Americans, and Warren also called for welfare programs to uplift the black community, but neither connected the programs to an apology for slavery.
Warren has endorsed reparations in the past, however, and she accused her opponents of only emphasizing racial issues during election years.
Elizabeth Warren says Democrats have consistently only paid attention to black voters during elections while failing to actually follow through on their promises
— Peter J. Hasson (@peterjhasson) February 8, 2020
Steyer then attempted to press Biden on a recent incident involving racist statements from a South Carolina campaign surrogate, calling on Bident to disavow the man, Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian. Biden took the opportunity to highlight his unrivaled support among black voters in the state, and said he’d already spoken with Harpootlian.
The debate ended with closing statements from the candidates, each of whom called for unity in the face of Trump’s presidency. Notably, there was no mention of the Warren’s accusations of sexism against Sanders that took center stage at the January debate.
Christian Datoc contributed to this report.