A smaller, whiter, meaner Democratic debate

Yang made sense, Biden welcomed the hatred of billionaires, and Klobuchar made mincemeat of Buttigieg

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 19: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Seven candidates out of the crowded field qualified for the 6th and last Democratic presidential primary debate of 2019 hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 19: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Seven candidates out of the crowded field qualified for the 6th and last Democratic presidential primary debate of 2019 hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang got unprecedented air time in the sixth and final, seven-person Democratic debate in Los Angeles on Thursday night. Yang lamented the fact that he was the lone remaining person of color on stage (but predicted Cory Booker would be back), and made good use of his time by talking about inequality in general. 

Yang also warned the other candidates, “The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems, the more Americans lose trust” that the Democrats actually understand what is wrong in their lives — namely the decline of manufacturing and the collapse of the middle class.  

Steyer, from the other end of the stage, asserted that “I’m the person who started impeachment,” advocated dealing with China as a “frenemy” and suggested that he alone, as a wealthy entrepreneur, can take on Trump’s claim to represent prosperity and economic growth — arguments that resonate as much with voters as the social justice claims made by the other candidates, he said.

Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren mixed it up in the testiest exchange of the night. Warren mocked Buttigieg’s $900 a bottle wine fundraiser — “billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States” — and Buttigieg responded that he was the only non-millionaire on stage, with one 100th of Warren’s net worth. 

“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” he said, following up by explaining that Warren herself, before she made her pledge to eschew big donors, had raised big bucks, too.

Amy Klobuchar, who had the best night of all the candidates, did her best Kamala Harris, denouncing the bickering and declaring, “I did not come here to listen to this argument” (as if it a presidential debate stage were an inappropriate forum for arguing.)

Bernie, uncharacteristically, lightened the mood, challenging Buttigieg, whom he claimed has 39 billionaire donors, to take on Biden, who has 44 billionaires.

Biden, who defended the financial industry against overzealous consumer advocates for decades, told Sanders that billionaires simply “oppose everything I’ve ever done.” 

He did okay for the most part, surviving a question about former President Barack Obama’s embarrassing comments that old, white men should get out of the way, and generally tracking better than he has in most of the debates.

When he noted that the Republicans have attacked his son, however, it was a reminder that Trump is already putting together campaign ads targeting Hunter Biden’s sweet gig on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. That’s a problem not just for Trump voters, but also, as Sanders put it in the debate, with the voters Democrats need to inspire, who will only get excited about someone who is going to “take on the people who own America.” 

No matter what Biden says, the people who own America know that he is not a threat.

Not so Sanders and Warren, who parried questions about whether free college was a wasteful give-away to people who don’t need it, and whether confiscatory taxes on the wealthy will crush economic growth.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg staked out the middle, each making the case that they can win by bringing together a broad coalition that includes rural Midwesterners, Republicans and centrists.

But instead of piling on the progressives, or the front runner (still Biden), as they have in other debates, they went after each other — a sign that the race is still very much up in the air.

Klobuchar challenged Buttigieg’s dismissive comments about Washington politicians in “committee rooms,” saying she and the other candidates on stage have more experience and a track record of getting things done that outshines the small-town mayor.

“I think winning matters. I think a track record of getting things done matters,” she said.

“If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80% of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Buttigieg shot back.

“If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing. You tried and you lost by 20 points,” Klobuchar retorted (a reference to Buttigieg’s failed bid to become state treasurer).

Klobuchar had the strongest closer, contrasting her iron-mining grandfather who saved money in a coffee can so her dad could attend community college with the entitled rich kid Donald Trump.

It was a more specific and believable pitch to Midwestern voters than Buttigieg’s vague bid to “bring people together.”

Warren didn’t have her best night, failing to give direct answers to questions on why taxing the rich won’t hurt economic growth and why America should have free college. She left it to Sanders to give the expansive, idealistic pitch for an America with universal access to education — since even Trump’s kids should be able to go to public school.

Sanders had a couple of awkward moments, batting away a question on race to talk about climate change, which actually caused the audience to laugh. But he made another historic pronouncement that the United States should be not just pro-Israel but “pro-Palestinian,” and he seemed the most comfortable champion of the progressive point of view.

In her closer, Warren hit on a relatable populist note — her strong suit — saying the thing that unites her brothers is their hatred of Amazon, a massively wealthy corporation that pays no taxes.

Biden wrapped up by saying, “We’ve gotta level with the American people. Tell ’em the truth, and be authentic.” 

Good luck to us all. 

This article was simultaneously published in Wisconsin Examiner and the Progressive.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.