As Democrats Look for Unity, Debate Displays Party’s Division

October 16, 2019

The fourth Democratic Party presidential candidate debate featured a whopping 12 candidates, leaving even less time for substance. Despite the limitations, the debate showed substantive differences on a few issues.

The fourth Democratic Party presidential candidate debate featured a whopping 12 candidates, leaving even less time for substance. Despite the limitations, the debate showed substantive differences on a few issues.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us as usual.

Well, if you had nothing better to do last night–for three hours, that is–I’m sure maybe you might’ve watched the Democratic debate held by CNN and New York Times. I did. And though it was interesting, and some of it was a yawn… But we’ll get to all of that. The debate took place as the impeachment is moving ahead and the resistance from Donald Trump is growing, and Warren is up in the polls and we all witness the deepening divide in our country here. All of that was at play last night in the questions and the candidates’ statements and responses. We saw a left and moderate divide in a very deep and serious way.

It was really interesting to watch. There were clear differences on issues around taxing wealth and what to do about wealth in this country, about Medicare for all and whether that was feasible or not. Starting with impeachment and going throughout the debate, you heard the focus on defeating Donald Trump. It was very interesting. Things were left out, but interesting as well. Climate change wasn’t mentioned very much, and neither was race. Those are two major issues facing our country that people don’t often want to talk about in depth for many reasons.

We’re joined now again by Dr. Kimberly Moffitt, who’s associate professor and chair of Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She is a media critic covering politics and pop culture, co-editor of The Obama Effect and the forthcoming volume, FLOTUS Effect. That will be coming out soon. And good to have you with us once again, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY MOFFITT: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And Sasha Abramsky is a regular contributor to The Nation. He writes numerous books; he’s had eight books out, the most recent being Jumping the Shadows, The Triumph of Fear and The End of the American Dream. Sasha, great to have you back as well.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Good to be on the show.

MARC STEINER: This really did show the divide that we see among Democrats and moderates and left. Let’s just take a look real quickly and watch this piece about whether we should be taxing wealth, which kind of was the cornerstone of that debate, I think.

ERIN BURNETT: Is the goal of your plan to tax billionaires out of existence?

BERNIE SANDERS: When you have a half a million Americans sleeping out on the street today, when you have 87 million people uninsured or under-insured, and you’ve got hundreds of thousands of kids who cannot afford to go to college and millions struggling with the oppressive burden of student debt, and then you also have three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society, that is a moral and economic outrage.

TOM STEYER: Senator Sanders is right. There have been 40 years where corporations have bought this government, and those 40 years have meant a 40 year attack on the rights of working people and specifically on organized labor. I would undo every Republican tax cut for rich people and major corporations.

JOE BIDEN: Demonizing wealthy people. What I talked about is how you get things done. The way to get things done is take a look at the tax code right now. The idea: we have to start rewarding work, not just wealth.

ELIZABETH WARREN: My question is not why do Bernie and I support a wealth tax, it’s why does everyone else on this stage think it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation of Americans?

ERIN BURNETT: Thank you Senator Warren.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth. Because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaires want to protect billionaires. We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.

MARC STEINER: So to me it was interesting just to watch some of this, to see that you had Steyer who is a billionaire the supporting the idea of taxes. You had Klobuchar and others who were pushing a very moderate agenda saying, “We want to get more money from the wealthy, but this is not the way to go about it.” So how does this play out politically? How deep was this for you in terms of what it portends in the battle against Donald Trump and for the Democrats in the next year? What is set up as a political battle between left and moderate inside that world? Sasha, let me start with you.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Watching the debate, it seemed to me that, as you said, there’s this very clear divide. You’ve got Warren and Sanders who are unapologetically saying, “We need to restructure the economy. We need to restructure the way we distribute resources, the way we tax people. We need to think big.” Then you have this other group and Buttigieg was the one who spearheaded this yesterday and Amy Klobuchar as well. Look, if you think too big, you risk alienating the middle and if you alienate the middle, you get nothing and then you end up with Donald Trump mark two for the next four years. What struck me was that all of the energy in that room was focused around Sanders and focused around Warren, that everybody else was playing catch up. They weren’t putting forward their own policies, they weren’t putting forward really vibrant dynamic alternatives.

All they were trying to do was pop the bubble around those two progressive candidates. For me, as I was watching it, and admittedly I thought the format was quite bizarre, and not particularly fruitful. As I was watching these soundbite snippets, it seemed to me that Warren in particular was extraordinarily successful at pushing a programmatic vision and that everybody else, the more they tried to attack a programmatic vision, they almost seemed smaller by default, that their ideas seem to be not nearly as monumental as the needs of the moment. It was really interesting to watch.

MARC STEINER: How you see that Kimberly?

KIMBERLY MOFFITT: Yes. I do believe that Elizabeth Warren in particular was the candidate in the hot seat last night where many of the other candidates felt like they needed to respond to her. What she did a good job of showing that separated her from the rest of the candidates, is that she did have plans that she was already thinking through how to tax the wealthy and what it would lead to if she was able to do so. The only concern that I had is even as other candidates were pushing back on her to show that she was a bit too extremist in the left, and that they were more moderate. What also came apparent is that she seemed to be more unwilling to collaborate, that this is just the way things will be instead of finding a way to create a coalition and work together with others in the government.

MARC STEINER: Sasha, how do you feel about the last thing that Kimberly said about the “take no prisoners” end of Warren?

SASHA ABRAMSKY: I think that was certainly the way that the people who were pushing back against Warren’s plans tried to posit it, that this is somebody who is very good at talking the talk, but when it comes to actually building coalitions, getting legislation passed, that she would be less effective. I think it’s a viable concern when you think as big as both of the progressive candidates. When you think about structural changes of the magnitude that they’re now proposing, there is a risk that you run up against congressional realities of gridlock, and there is a width that you end up coming into power with these great ambitions and these new deal restructuring ideas, and then you come up against the same problem that the last many, many presidents that come up against, which is that it’s extremely hard to craft congressional majorities around anything, let alone big picture reforms.

That said, I think the job of any politician in a debate is to try and explain to their audience what they stand for. That goes for whether you’re a left-wing politician or a conservative politician, that you have to have a viable, ideological and moral vision. One of the things that struck me in the debate yesterday, it seemed to me there was some candidates who clearly said, “Look, I have a vision about society.” There were other candidates–and I think Biden I’d count among the–who just seem to say, “Well, I’m an alternative to Donald Trump and I got a few good soundbites. I’ll beat Donald Trump like a drum,” was what Joe Biden said. When it came to actual policy specifics, what struck me is that here’s Joe Biden, who by all measures is the most experienced person in the room, and yet he’s avoiding policy specifics. I’m not sure that’s a winning solution going into the 2020 election.

MARC STEINER: That’s really interesting. So let me explain this in two ways here in the time that we have. We all saw many people, especially Cory Booker. Cory Booker had these statements where he was talking about how the Democrats have to stop fighting among themselves if they have any possibility of beating Trump. This is what Cory Booker had to say.

CORY BOOKER: We’ve got one shot to make Donald Trump a one term president and how we talk about each other in this debate actually really matters. I’ve had the privilege of working with or being friends with everybody on this stage and tearing each other down because we have a different plan, to me is unacceptable. I have seen this script before

MARC STEINER: When you look at that and then you look at this debate they had around healthcare, to me it gets to the point of what I’m trying to ask.

MARC LACEY: Senator Sanders acknowledges he’s going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for Medicare for all. You’ve endorsed his plan. Should you acknowledge it too?

ELIZABETH WARREN: So the way I see this, it is about what kinds of costs middle class families are going to face. So let me be clear on this. Costs will go up for the wealthy. They will go up for big corporations, and for middle class families, they will go down. I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle class families.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: This is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature senator is to have a plan for everything, except this, no plan has been laid out to explain how a multi trillion dollar hole in this Medicare for all plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in. I don’t think the American people are wrong when they say that what they want is a choice and the choice of Medicare for all who wanted, which is affordable for everyone because we make sure that the subsidies are in place, allows you to get that healthcare.

BERNIE SANDERS: Let’s be clear, under the Medicare For All bill that I wrote, premiums are gone, co-payments are gone, deductibles are gone, all out-of-pocket expenses are gone. But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They’re going to go up significantly for the wealthy.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I believe the best and boldest idea here is to not trash Obamacare, but to do exactly what Barack Obama wanted to do from the beginning, and that’s to have a public option that would bring down the cost of the premium and expand the number of people covered and take on the pharmaceutical companies. That is what we should be doing instead of kicking 149 million people off their insurance in four years.

MARC STEINER: So when you look at these things and take them in total, this is the question that jumped out at me in this debate last night, which was there was this huge sense of, “We have to beat Donald Trump.” People talked about impeachment in the very beginning of the debate. These debates taking place on a healthcare, which really showed a divide on how to get to the place where everybody’s covered in this country, which was going on since Obama. What about that, that this idea that Democrats could eat themselves alive and let Trump win and coupled with what you were saying a little earlier, Sasha. If you don’t have a platform, you don’t have an idea that people can really put their hands on and go, “Yes, this is what we need to fight for,” they could actually lose. Sasha, I want you to start. Then we’ll go to Kimberly.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yeah. I’ve always thought not just in the current era, but I’ve always thought that if you are going to vie for high office, you also have a vision that is big enough to fill the space of the high office you’re going to occupy. That goes for whether you’re talking about the U S president or the United Kingdom’s prime minister or wherever it is. Whether you’re in a superpower or whether you’re in a smaller regional power, if you think you’re good enough to be in charge of that country, you have to have ideas that meet the moment because there are always problems. Whether it’s healthcare access, whether it’s foreign policy concerns, whether it’s trade policy, whether it’s coverage, educationally to make sure that every kid in the country gets access to quality education, you have to have a big vision.

I think one of the things that the Democrats have tried to do, and not very successfully in recent years, is triangulate that they’re a little bit afraid of having too big a vision because they’re a little bit afraid of marginalizing one part or another of their constituency. I think when you’re going into an election like 2020 we know the stakes. We know the moral stakes. We know the stakes for the survival of the constitution, for the survival of balances in government. We know the stakes. We know that temperamentally, Donald Trump is a dictator, that if he were given leeway, he would basically break down all of those systems that hold the American democratic experience together. We know that but that’s a starting point. If you want to actually convince tens of millions of Americans that there’s something better out there, you can’t just say, “Donald Trump’s bad.” We know he’s bad. We all know he’s a catastrophe.

The question is: what better vision are you going to offer? What hope are you going to offer to people who live in poverty? What security are you going to offer to people who are worried about getting sick and how they’re going to pay their medical bills? I think this idea that we’ve got to be incredibly cautious and not rock any boats, Hillary Clinton tried in 2016 and it didn’t work.

MARC STEINER: Very important quote.

KIMBERLY MOFFITT: I do think it requires the Democrats to be more big and bold in the decisions that they’re making. I also think they are stuck with some egos that are still at the table and unwilling to step back and say that, “Maybe not me this time,” and that we need to consider who is the candidate or at least the few candidates that can pull this off to not only beat Donald Trump, but also instill a different vision that takes us in a different direction than what he has for the last three years.

MARC STEINER: We all think also about the overall take on this. I was really taken with Pramila Jayapal and what she had to say after this debate. She tweeted this particular thing, she said, “How did we make it through a three hour democratic debate that included a question about who is your friend, but not how are you saving our planet,” which I thought was a great tweet. When you look at that tweet, first of all, that friend’s question was where did that come from? Is it a CNN question? Was it a New York Times question? I don’t know where that came from.

ANDERSON COOPER: Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized after she and former president George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship saying we’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that’s okay, that we’re all different. So in that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us, what impacts it’s had on you and your beliefs.

MARC STEINER: So when you look at that, there was a lot missing–it seems to me, Kimberly–in this debate; that they did not focus on in saying, “Who is your friend?”

KIMBERLY MOFFITT: Yeah. I don’t know whose question it is, but it was an idiotic… I hope most of us can agree. Because I don’t think it added or took away from much of what took place for that three hour period. I do feel that feeds into what many of us believe about American society already is this celebrity culture is more significant to us then what the reality is for the average American day-to-day. Let’s talk about a former president and a celebrity, and the fact that they have this interesting relationship with each other, instead of talking about what are the issues that we are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. It made no sense. I’m sure it felt like a nice way to wrap up a debate or recognizing that there were major issues on the table in addition to healthcare being talked about last night, but issues of housing, issues of immigration, issues of race, issues of climate change, to not deal with those was a missed opportunity for all 12 of those candidates.

MARC STEINER: Sasha?

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yeah, I agree entirely. To me, right from the get-go, the format was inane. Seriously.

MARC STEINER: It was, yes. Your subtle British humor always gets me. I like it. Go ahead. I’m sorry.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: The serious answer is you put 12 candidates on the stage standing next to each other, right from the get-go, you’re not going to get detailed answers. You’ve got too many people on that one stage. You can say, we’re not going to have any opening statements. Well, opening statements are where people give their policy priorities. You then ask a series of entirely random disconnected questions and give them 75 seconds to answer or 40 seconds to respond, or 15 seconds for a second rebuttal or whatever these time constraints were. All you’re doing is you’re reducing these complex policies to a set of sound soundbites. The longer the debate went on, the more frustrated I got because as you’ve just mentioned, these incredibly important issues–abortion access, climate change–these huge issues were either not touched on at all or they were touched on by one candidate for a few seconds.

Then the moderators moved to a completely different topic. I felt like I was in a pinball machine just bouncing around and argue randomly. I think it comes back a little bit to what Dr. Moffitt was saying a few minutes ago about egos who need to get out of the way. We’re two months out from the first primaries and caucuses, two and a half months out. There should not still be 12 candidates in the ring. There were an awful lot of people in this debate last night who have no chance of being the nominee and they serve as a distraction. Until we work out a format which says, “All right, we’ve got a few candidates with a viable chance, let them have a detailed policy discussion.” Until we get to that, we’re going to have this inanity that we saw last night, which ends with this question, “Who’s your strangest friend,” which added absolutely nothing.

MARC STEINER: I think that you saw people like both Booker and Castro, from my perspective, watching how they did not jump on Warren, were vying for, “Can I be your Vice-President?” I felt that was going on as well. We have to wrap this up, I know. They attacked a subject here last night though that it is in the headlines and on some people’s minds, many people’s minds, which is Syria.

ANDERSON COOPER: Would you send American troops back into Northern Syria to prevent an ISIS resurgence and protect our Kurdish allies?

JOE BIDEN: I would not have withdrawn the troops and I would not have withdrawn the additional thousand troops in Iraq, which are in retreat now being, fired on by Assad’s people, and the President of the United States saying “If those ISIS folks escaped from the prisons they’re in, they’ll only go to Europe. It won’t affect us.” It has been the most shameful thing that any president has done in modern history. Turkey is the real problem here and I would be having a real lockdown conversation with Erdogan and letting him know that he’s going to pay a heavy price for what he has done.

TULSI GABBARD: The slaughter of the Kurds being done by Turkey is yet another negative consequence of the regime change war that we’ve been waging in Syria. Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hand, but so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media who have been championing and cheerleading this regime change war.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: When we abandon the international stage, when we think our only choices are between endless war or total isolation, the consequence is the disappearance of US leadership from the world stage, and that makes this entire world more dangerous.

MARC STEINER: I think that it’s a real… This is a conundrum for progressives and who oppose the Iraq war, opposed to what happened to Libya. When I talk to people on the left in both Iraq and Afghanistan especially, they all say the same thing, “You destroyed our country. You can’t just walk away from this.” People are caught in a real dilemma with this. How do you think they handled that? Sasha then Dr. Kimberly Moffitt.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Now, honestly, I thought the question itself was unfair because basically the question was, would you have done what Donald Trump did, withdrawn the troops or would you reinstate the troops if you were president? Well, if the election were tomorrow, that question makes sense, but the election’s 13 months away still. The idea that anybody can respond to the catastrophic mess that Trump is creating now by saying, “Here’s what I’d do in 13 months,” we don’t know what on earth is going to be going on in that part of the world in 13 months or how quickly the instability is going to spiral into complete and utter chaos. To me, this is Trump’s mess. I think it’s absolutely unfair to force any other candidate to respond how they would deal with this 13 months down the road. This is Trump’s mass and it’s his administration that needs to work out what to do, not in 13 months, but this week. It should be on him, not on any other candidate. It should be on him to clean up the disaster that he’s now in the middle of creating.

MARC STEINER: Dr. Kimberly Moffitt? Your thoughts.

KIMBERLY MOFFITT: I actually agree with that stance and I also feel in some respects, and maybe it’s because of how diabolical our president can be sometimes, is that he’s created a mess that he does plan to clean up to be able to demonstrate his greatness and his ability to repair anything that is in disrepair. The idea of expecting the candidates to respond to that and take ownership, I found problematic and it wasn’t something that they needed to have to deal with. There are more pressing issues that are happening in our country, and that’s not to minimize the Syria situation, that’s simply to say that our current administration has to own that. There are other issues that are occurring right now that do have some impact on these candidates, and will impact these candidates moving forward, that I felt they needed to deal with last night.

MARC STEINER: So let me close interview that we walk away with from this debate. To me, there was a clear divide here between moderates saying, “Oh no, stop, stop, stop. Don’t go so fast,” and Warren and Sanders is pushing and just politically looking at it, Biden being further falling in the shadows a bit. What he has is he’s Obama’s Vice-President. What do you think this goes from here? What about this overall question of this seeming divide and a lack of direction Democrats have facing this Trump administration, this rise of fascism and the fact that you have 43-46 million people in this still backing Donald Trump. How do we walk away from this? Let’s start with Kimberly Moffitt and we’ll conclude with Sasha Abramsky

KIMBERLY MOFFITT: Again, I go back to the point that what we need to walk away with is who are going to be our short list of candidates that need to be considered for the Democrats. Until we get to that point, we find ourselves caught up in a lot of minutiae that distracts us from what the real issues are. While that’s going on, Donald Trump is working on continuing to build his base and support to demonstrate why he would be the best person to continue into the next administration.

MARC STEINER: Sasha?

SASHA ABRAMSKY: I agree with that. As long as you have 12 candidates in the ring, it’s very, very hard to focus on this huge issue, which is that we’re witnessing in real time the corrosion, perhaps the destruction of the American democratic experiment. In terms of what I took from the actual debate last night, the overriding impression I got was the irrelevance of Joe Biden. This is really fascinating because he’s been anointed as the front runner, but the longer he’s in the public eye and the longer he’s at the center stage in these debates, the more he seems to be essentially fading into the background. You have these contrasts now between Warren and Sanders on the one hand, who have this peace pact going on.

So they’re tag teaming a set of progressive policies, and then these younger assertive self-proclaimed moderates centered around Pete Buttigieg who are saying, “Well hang on a second, you’re going too far too fast.” That’s the divide we’re seeing. I think what we’re going to see going down the road, we’re probably going to see it reduced fairly quickly to between six and eight candidates instead of the current 12. Then beyond that, maybe four or five going into the actual primaries themselves and especially going in Super Tuesday. I’ve got to say, unless Joe Biden works out a way to connect much more with his audience, he’s not going to be the front runner for very much longer.

MARC STEINER: There’s a reason why Joe Biden didn’t win the nomination before when he tried. I think it’s not just his age, it’s the lack of substance there a lot. Anyway, this has been a great conversation. I appreciate the time both have taken a with us here at the Real News. Sasha Abramsky, Dr. Kimberly Moffitt, look forward to another conversation soon. We’ll see where this takes us and have a wonderful day.

KIMBERLY MOFFITT: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all so much for watching us. Let us know what you think. Go to our other site. You’re there now probably, if you’re not on YouTube. Let us know what you think. Take care.