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DemDebate Roundtable Season 7: In Conversation with Affinity’s Politics Team

The January Democratic Debate was hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register. CNN sent moderators Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip, while the Des Moines Register sent Brianne Pfannenstiel. The six candidates on stage were former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, and Senator Amy Klobuchar. 

As the Democratic Debate drew to a close in Iowa and the six candidates started post-show streaming sessions, select members of the Affinity politics team gathered together to discuss the policies and answers candidates gave.  Here’s what happened during the discussion: 

Joanna: Right off the bat, let’s discuss one of the major issues with this debate. All six candidates were white Americans. In a political party that is increasingly composed of minorities, this came as a shock because the field started off with tons of minority candidates. Mirroring the candidates today, the debates lacked any major questions on race and discrimination. Is this okay and what does this say about the Democratic Party as a whole?

Kat: I don’t think it’s okay for the Democrats not to have any questions on race or discrimination. They want to beat Donald Trump, which means they will need the enthusiastic support of people of color. Given the repeated talk of unity during the debate, they should have had more questions that appealed to a variety of people, rather than just the same handful of issues that they have discussed in previous debates.

Helen: Black and minority voters cannot be seen exclusively as bases that are required to win, with a little bit of pandering. A lack of representation within the party can lead to isolation and will not only ignore the concerns of these voters, but also push them away from the party as a whole. Candidates were clearly aware of these racial concerns tonight, as well. Many candidates brought up minorities during various points of discussion – from climate justice to favorability. A prime example is Mayor Pete Buttigieg who polls at 0% with Black Democrats, according to Washington Post-Ipsos polling, as he was clearly trying to change that tonight. 

Cory Booker and Julián Castro were strong candidates who weren’t white, but an overcrowded field, oversaturated with unqualified and billionaire candidates forced them out. Yang was forced off of the debate stage, while Tom Steyer continues to use personal funds to make sure he gets up there. Take Deval Patrick as another example – he could have been an incredibly viable option if so many White male candidates didn’t get it in their heads they should be running. These candidates get washed away by White men who often utilize their personal wealth and privilege to ensure their places in the race. It marks a serious issue with the Democratic Party and the future of politics in general.

Joanna: Building on Kat’s point about standing up to President Trump, candidates spent a majority of the night tackling Trump and his policies from every which angle. However, in the wake of the Iranian mishaps from just last week, candidates were questioned extensively on their ability to handle the position of commander in chief. Who rose to the occasion and who fell short?

Kat: I think the only candidate who truly “fell short” was Tom Steyer, since his lack of political experience made it hard to argue that he would be a good commander in chief. Having traveled and worked around the world is not comparable with political experience. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren did not look the best, but they still defended themselves well. Biden voted for the war in Iraq (a fact that is frequently used against him by his Democratic critics) but he pointed out that he also took an active role in getting troops out of Afghanistan and forging the Iran nuclear deal. Elizabeth Warren argued, unlike some of the other candidates, that we should withdraw all troops from western Asia because we can’t expect to militarily “fix” that region of the world. While it was a solid argument, voters could interpret it negatively given the consequences of Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria.

Helen: Steyer clearly had the least experience on the topic. He sounded almost foolish when discussing his “travels,” whereas the other candidates had served on committees or in war. This left him far more vulnerable on the topic. Sanders clearly had a very passionate and consistent stance on war, and Biden was trying to do some damage control and talk about learning from his lessons. This is the area that Sanders and his campaign tend to attack Biden for, so it’s always a more tense point in each debate, which is not a great look for Joe Biden.

Joanna: While we’re on Sanders’s and Warrens’s impacts on today’s debate, there were some new high strung tensions between Warren and Sanders tonight, coming as a surprise because of how close the two have been before. Did we finally witness the major Sanders Warren standoff or are we still unsure of the differences between the two candidates?

Kat: We witnessed a polemic moment considering Sanders’s earlier comment to Warren that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. It wasn’t that much of a standoff, though. Either one of them could have initiated a catfight like the ones we saw on previous debates. Instead, Warren handled it quite well, by stating overtly that she still had good relations with Sanders, but that she disagreed with this. She backed up her point using the evidence that she, unlike the men on the stage, had actually managed to defeat a Republican incumbent within the past thirty years. I think it was a mistake for Sanders to deny he ever said such a thing, and then continually insist that nobody in their right mind could think a woman can’t be president—that sounded like he was trying to cover himself. It would have looked more professional for him to have just acknowledged that he said it (assuming he did) and that he was wrong. Overall, though, it went smoothly. There was another minor disagreement about the USMCA trade deal, but even then there was not much difference between Warren and Sanders. Sanders didn’t support the deal because he didn’t think it provided enough protection for workers and the environment, which Warren fully agreed with. She made it clear that she only supported the deal because it was, at least, a step in the right direction.

Helen: During the actual debate there was little open violation of the pair’s anti-aggression pact. Still, the post-debate handshake snub and discussion seem incredibly tense and could be alluding to the collapse of their alliance. Warren and Sanders are both seeking to pull a progressive base (though Warren definitely leans more Liberal than Leftist), and it would be detrimental to either base to start fighting the other, especially so close to Iowa. Until after the Iowa caucuses, when candidates start to get more fierce with each other, there likely won’t be any blatant confrontations.  Further to the point of a standoff hurting the cause, some Progressive activists are calling for them to maintain their friendly image, as not to destroy the cause’s perception as a whole. Their campaigns will likely listen to this advice, as remaining strongly rooted in their cause, is very important to the core values of both camps.

Joanna: Good points, the alliance likely could be broken. Sanders’s comments questioning whether women could become president, along with the childcare issue, came up as major topics for today’s debate. Although the candidates ultimately agreed that women could absolutely run and childcare was important, it grew a bit alarming as Sanders fully denied that he ever made the comment “women can’t run for president” and when more than one male candidate said that women had to stay home to help out most. In what is typically labeled the more progressive party on women’s rights, what do these comments reflect about a seemingly pro-women’s rights party?

Kat: They reflect that, even though the party philosophy is pro-women’s rights, there is still sexism within the party. Two of six candidates were women when ideally it should have been three or more. Many Democratic Party leaders are still white men who are contending (or have not yet contended) with their male privilege. I agree that it was alarming when Sanders denied that he ever made that comment. It made him look like he was unwilling to confront the sexism that he and other male candidates had perhaps accepted. The party still has systems of privilege operating within it, despite their philosophy of equality for the oppressed.

Helen: It is important to keep in mind that it is not confirmed that Bernie Sanders ever said those comments, as the only person in the room to make a direct comment on the situation is Sanders. Warren won’t elaborate, and the members of her staff who were actually in the room are refusing to comment. The sources in the piece that relayed this information have not been corroborated. Warren’s campaign has also been working with Sanders’ campaign, up until the latest release of information about his phone banks, leading some to feel uneasy about these accusations.

Still, a lack of support of women candidates has been clear throughout the party. The fact that Joe Biden is still running, despite the many initial accusations that plagued his campaign, demonstrates a lack of genuine progressive views, in one sect of the party in particular. Now, there are divides between Liberal, Moderate and Progressive voters – despite the way they are lumped together. The more rabid bases are going to have a harder time crossing into these other political alignments, and I think that we saw that with the “Bernie Bros” in 2016, when a lot of them turned to Trump, rather than vote for a woman (specifically the ones who would not vote for Jill Stein, not the ones who just disliked Clinton’s record). With the new divisions between Sanders and Warren, it is likely they will no longer share a ticket, and their bases may become more harshly divided. 

Joanna: Transitioning into another important issue within the party, voters from around the country are deeming climate change as their top priority. As such, candidates tried to bring this topic into discussion multiple times. However, during questioning, the climate debate focused more on talk of “saving the children” than it did on actual policy. Has climate change turned into an “all talk, no walk” issue?

Kat: Climate change has always been an “all talk, no walk” issue. It always sounds great to say that you are saving the world, the planet, the children, the future. Statements like that carry a lot of hope, which excites voters. It’s much harder to conceptualize what will actually have to be done to “save the world.” Science can’t say exactly what will happen: it can only give educated predictions. We still don’t know exactly how bad the impacts of climate change will be. As a result, politicians are uneasy about taking steps that are too drastic, for fear of being labeled alarmist or asking people to alter their own lifestyles too much. Politicians are also afraid of taking too little climate action, for fear of being accused of not doing enough or not caring about the people. So, candidates are naturally hesitant to announce specific climate change actions, because they want to please everyone in order to get votes. 

In addition, climate change action needs to happen on an international scale, since it is wrapped up in global capitalism, consumerism, and disparities between less developed and more developed countries. One person, even if that person is the President, still can’t save the world from the effects of climate change all by themselves. 

Helen: There was a moment that was very representative of this concern. Tom Steyer, someone who despite his many flaws, has promised to be very aggressive on climate change. While reiterating his beliefs on this, he turned to an uncomfortable Pete Buttigieg and said, “You’re their generation,” when talking about his kids’ future. Still, Buttigieg wasn’t budging on United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA). There appears to be this perception that climate change is always the next generation’s problem and not the current generation’s fault. 

Sanders has also secured the Sunrise Movement’s endorsement, which encouraged him to bring up climate change even more. Sanders getting this nomination meant other candidates were trying to discuss the topic more to try and promote themselves as climate candidates, now that they don’t have a green group backing them. After the backlash about a lack of discussion of climate change in the past debates, some candidates realized it’s politically savvy to discuss climate action. That’s another issue with climate action, as it is only conveniently mentioned.

Joanna: Along with climate change, a number of other issues didn’t even make the table. Elizabeth Warren’s closing statement addressed a number of significant issues that weren’t discussed at all. Among these issues included disability policies, gun violence, poverty, trans-women, and student loan debt. This isn’t the first time that the Democratic Party has ignored these issues either. Why are debates crammed with the same topics? Is it important to address issues like these? What does the failure of ever bringing up these issues say about this party?

Kat: It should be kept in mind that this is a televised debate on a cable news channel. CNN wants to hold the audience’s attention in order to get good ratings and more money. I think they bring up the same issues every time because they have determined that these issues are the ones that will hold the audience’s attention the longest. For example, healthcare is always brought up because there will be disagreement between those advocating for Medicare For All and those advocating for a public option. This disagreement may provide something exciting for voters to watch. National security also keeps appearing in the wake of various foreign policy crises that our President initiates, and that tend to cause a lot of fear and uncertainty in the American public. CNN probably hopes that the audience will connect tonight’s question on the Iran deal to the uncertainty and tension surrounding the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. 

As to the issues that were not discussed, the moderators probably figured that either (a) everyone would rush to agree and there would be no excitement at all (for instance, it looks very bad on a Democratic debate stage to say that you’re against lifting people out of poverty), or (b) the issue wasn’t “broad enough” to be included. 

Joanna: Yeah I think that’s a really good point– but issues such as gun control are also in high demand, yet it’s not being discussed at all.

Helen: Debates are packed with topics that are not only the most appealing to a broad audience but to a local audience. This debate was in Iowa, shortly before the state’s caucuses. So, the topic is going to focus on things like trade and healthcare. As the race becomes more national, post-Iowa caucuses, it is likely that the topics of discussion will shift and begin to focus on concerning areas to more voters, as opposed to primarily rural. It can be very frustrating to hear so little discussion of these incredibly important topics, as it really is time Amy Klobuchar be pressed on her stance on gun control (stronger than the way she was confronted about fracking tonight).

It is peculiar that the same topics, that so many people keep saying they’re tired of hearing about, keep working their way back into the debates. This debate was also organized differently, in a way that optimized one on one discussion, minimized crosstalk and avoided open scuffles. That stifled some of the debate, as it was clear that some candidates like Klobuchar who come in with talking points and quips ready to go, did not have as easy a time getting them out. Similarly, Sanders has a habit of trying to shift the conversation to corruption and climate change while discussing separate topics, and that was really shut down tonight. It was really positive to see foreign policy finally be discussed, even if the economics of the discussions were very Right of center. 

Joanna: Yup I would agree. The last questions I have for this roundtable are the following: who was the biggest winner tonight and who was the biggest loser? And along those lines, what was the biggest highlight and the worst moment of tonight’s debate? Why?

Kat: I think Elizabeth Warren was the biggest winner. She was prepared, she didn’t make a habit of cycling back to the same talking points over and over again, she wasn’t often talking overtime, and she handled the situation with Sanders very well. The biggest loser would most likely be Tom Steyer: his lack of political experience definitely showed. His answers were often generic, as if he was just going along with what everyone else was saying. The biggest highlight (though not necessarily the best moment) was the Warren-Sanders confrontation. Warren made it into a bold statement about her ability to defeat Trump. The worst moment was the healthcare debate, because it’s so routine at this point, and because the candidates still can’t agree on how much their plans will actually cost. We as an audience don’t learn from the debate the true costs, either.

Helen: Bernie and Warren both had strong nights, and it would be hard to pick between the two. Warren was really weaving in jabs at Sanders that were very pointed and it was skillfully done. Sanders was sharp tonight and really remained on-message, especially as most candidates who were in first place in Iowa polling, immediately took a big hit during the last debates. The way they were keeping each other on their toes makes it difficult to firmly establish which ones fully succeeded.

Buttigieg really struggled tonight. His arguments felt stale, and his shift in platform was very obvious – even his closing statements felt like a grab for the moderate base. His lack of experience is becoming somewhat blatant as well. While he may be a veteran and very knowledgeable in terms of international policy, he really hasn’t served on committees, been voted on a war, argued defense budgets, or anything else of the sort. While a lot of the country is concerned with going to war, his electability argument as a mayor of a midwestern town is flimsy. He has really tumbled in the polls, falling from first place to third. This debate was a chance for him to really regain his footing and claim a new part of the moderate base he’s seeking, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to overcome the past debate. The lack of progression in his campaign tonight really stuck out as a loss.

One of the biggest highlights of the night was when Biden and Bernie got a laugh from the crowd over North Korea. Biden said, “Other than that, I will not meet with the ‘Supreme Leader’ who has said Joe Biden is a ‘rabid dog’ who should be ‘beaten to death with a stick-’” and Bernie added, “Other than that you like him!” Biden smiled and said, “Other than that, I like him, and he got a love letter from Trump right after that.” The crowd was laughing, and not only did it provide some much needed comedic relief in Andrew Yang’s absence, but it also demonstrated the unexpectedly enduring friendship of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

One of the worst moments of the night was Steyer’s conclusion. The teammate/sports analogy did not connect with the audience in the crowd or at home. It was convoluted and was really him falling apart at that moment. Klobuchar’s gambling analogy was weak, but the “America’s teammate analogy” was far too drawn out.

Joanna: Before I wrap this debate up, our staff survey handed the win to Sanders and the loss to Warren.

Joanna Hou is a senior politics writer at Affinity Magazine. She served as the facilitator and moderator of this debate. 

Participants: 

Helen Erlich is a Senior Social Media Manager at the magazine. 

Kat Falacienski is a politics writer at the magazine.

Featured Image via CNN 

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