Although impeachment has dominated the news in Washington, it took up surprisingly little time in the fifth Democratic debate Wednesday night, which, unlike the hearings in Washington, was fairly mild in tone. And as it happens, the two mild-mannered Midwesterners, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, had the standout performances of the evening.
Klobuchar, who also had a strong fourth debate but saw little sign of upward movement in the polls afterward, suggested Wednesday night that women have a more difficult road to the presidency, when asked about a statement she’d made about Buttigieg, in which she said a woman with his resume wouldn’t have made it to the debate stage.
“Women are held to a higher standard otherwise we could play a game called ‘Name your favorite woman president,’” she said, adding that any woman watching at home “knows exactly what I mean.” Women “have to work harder and that’s a fact,” she also said.
The sharpest exchange Buttigieg had was with Gabbard who mocked his apparent inexperience for saying he would send U.S. troops to Mexico.
Buttigieg responded, “I was talking about U.S.-Mexico cooperation. We’ve been doing security cooperation with Mexico for years. With law enforcement cooperation and a military relationship that could continue to be developed with training relationships for example. Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?”
He then went after her judgment. “If your question is about experience let’s also talk about judgment,” he said, addressing Gabbard. “One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting was Bashar al-Assad. I have in my experience, such as it is, whether you think it counts or not since it wasn’t accumulated in Washington, enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”
The Democratic hopefuls had relatively little to say about impeachment, an issue where they broadly agree. And the only candidate to what could be seen as a noticeably difficult night was former Vice President Joe Biden, who committed what appeared to be a string of unforced errors.
When asked about the #MeToo movement, Biden noted that he had spearheaded efforts to combat domestic violence, such as the “It’s On Us” campaign he led as vice president. But Biden elicited a nervous chuckle from the audience as he continued on the point.
“No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger, other than in self-defense and that rarely ever occurs,” he said. “So we have to just change the culture, period. And keep punching at it, and punching at it, and punching at it -“
Biden caught himself amid some laughter from the audience, insisting that “no, I really mean it.”
After a tense exchange with Senator Cory Booker over marijuana decriminalization, Biden had another hiccup as he expounded on his long relationship with the black community.
“I come out of the black community in terms of my support, if you notice, I have more people supporting me in the black community that have announced for me, because they know me. They know who I am, three former chairs of the black caucus. The only black, African American women that had ever been elected to the United States Senate… the whole range of people. My point is…”
All eyes then turned to Kamala Harris, an African American senator. “Nope, the other woman is here,” she quipped.
“I said the first, I said the first African American woman elected,” Biden responded, a nod to former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.
But the Minnesota senator rejected the notion that a woman cannot beat President Trump in 2020.
“I govern both with my head and my heart, and if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day,” Klobuchar said during the debate, which was hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.
Buttigieg, who has risen in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent days, was hardly the target that other front-runners like Biden and Warren have been. He did take some fire from Tulsi Gabbard and from Klobuchar, who took aim at him when he was talking about voter protection reforms. She noted that while he “said the right words” on reform, “I actually have the experience,” pointing out she’s passed 11 bills on this very issue.
The South Bend mayor offered a retort he’s used in the past: “Washington experience is not the only experience that matters,” he said. “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”
The debate also delivered a couple of solid one-liners. Andrew Yang, asked what he’d say to Vladimir Putin in his first phone call with him, responded, “I’m sorry I beat your guy.”
Elizabeth Warren, who’s been facing some questions about electability and a tendency she’s shown toward attacking the character of her opponents, rather than the quality of their ideas, seemed to have course-corrected a bit tonight. Asked whether the Democratic Party has room for those who oppose abortion, like Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who just won re-election, she said, “I’m not here to drive anyone out of this party,” and added that as president she would fight for what she believes is right.
She was also asked if, having called the president’s border wall a “monument to hate and division,” she’d have it taken down. “If there are parts of the wall that are not useful, then yes,” she responded, adding that we need to stop the manmade crisis at the border, that the government needs to stop taking children from their families.
She spoke of her visit to a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, and described an Amazon warehouse filled with cages, with men, women, children, and even nursing mothers.