Pete Buttigieg’s moment in the debate crosshairs came on Thursday night as multiple candidates piled on the South Bend, Indiana, mayor over his big money fundraisers and relative lack of political experience compared to other candidates.
First, the feud between Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg that has raged on the campaign trail for weeks spilled on to the debate stage, drawing all of the top candidates into a feisty debate over big money in politics and donor influence on policy.
As Warren and Buttigieg have fought over many of the same voters, namely white college educated voters, the Massachusetts senator has repeatedly chided both the mayor and former Vice President Joe Biden for involving big donors and bundlers in their campaign — who she believes represent corruption in politics.
Warren sparked the argument by implicitly comparing her campaign to Buttigieg’s by talking about her selfie line, noting that she offers those pictures for free compared to candidates who ask donors for a financial contribution in exchange for a picture.
“I can’t help but feel that might have been directed at me,” Buttigieg said after raising his hand to respond. He argued that Democrats are in “the fight of our lives right now” against an opponent in President Donald Trump who has already amassed $300 million for the campaign.
“This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump. And we shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our back,” Buttigieg said, noting that he welcomes contributions from $10 all the way up to the maximum.
“The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that,” Warren said.
Buttigieg noted that according to Forbes magazine, “I’m literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or billionaire.”
“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” the South Bend mayor said to Warren, noting that she courted high dollar donors in her previous campaigns.
“I do not sell access to my time. I don’t spend time with millionaires and billionaires. I don’t meet behind closed doors,” Warren retorted.
Buttigieg noted that Warren’s campaign is funded, in part, by money she raised at big money fundraisers while she was running for Senate. He said those fundraisers didn’t corrupt her and would not corrupt him.
Klobuchar interrupted the sparring match by noting she had never been to a wine cave, but arguing that what unites Democrats is a commitment to pass campaign finance reform.
Sanders then interjected that Biden has received contributions from 44 billionaires, compared to the 39 billionaires who have contributed to Buttigieg.
“So, Pete, we look forward to you — I know you are an energetic guy and a competitive guy,” Sanders added, “to see if you can take on Joe on that issue. But what is not — what is not a laughing matter, my friends, this is why three people own more wealth than the bottom half.”
Businessman Andrew Yang tried to steer the conversation back to the original question, which had been about former President Barack Obama’s remark that many of the world’s problems could be solved if more women were in power, and part of the problem is that older, white men don’t get out of the way.
“Money and men are tied together,” Yang said after the Warren-Buttigieg contretemps. “That’s where I thought Elizabeth was taking the conversation. The fact is strong societies would elect more female leaders. … I’m on the record saying that you need both strong men and female leaders in government because the fact is if you get too many men alone and leave us alone for a while, we kind of become morons.”
Pushing for his plan to give $100 a year to every American adult to donate to political campaigns, Yang added that more Americans would contribute to campaigns if it were in place.
“You would have many, many more women that would run for office because they don’t have to shake the money tree in the wine cave,” Yang said.
Once the sparring began, it seemed hard for the top candidates to hold back. Buttigieg, who has been rising in the polls in Iowa, was also targeted by Klobuchar for minimizing the experience of the current and former senators on the stage.
“When we were in the last debate, Mayor, you basically mocked the 100 years of experience on the stage,” Klobuchar said. “I see Elizabeth (Warren) who started the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau and helping 29 million people. I see the vice president’s work in getting $2 billion for his cancer (legislation). I see Sen. Sanders working to get the veterans bill passed across the aisle and I see what I have done, which is to negotiate three farm bills and be someone that actually had major provisions put in those bills. So while you can dismiss committee hearings, I think this experience works. And I have not denigrated your experience as a local official.”
Buttigieg replied that Klobuchar had, in fact, denigrated his experience, and he noted that he had served in the military.
“Let me tell you about my relationship to the first amendment. It is part of the constitution that I raised my right hand and swore to defend with my life. That is my experience, and it may not be the same as yours, but it counts, senator. It counts.”
Candidates tackle race
Standing on a stage that was the least diverse and most male-dominated of the entire campaign, the top Democratic presidential candidates engaged in a heated discussion over how to make their party — and government more broadly — reflect the diversity of the country.
Noting that Democrats rely on black, Hispanic and Asian voters, the PBS/Politico moderators addressed the first question on that topic to Yang, noting that he was the only candidate of color on the stage.
“It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight. I miss Kamala, I miss Cory, although I think Cory will be back,” Yang quipped, noting the exit of California Sen. Kamala Harris from the race and that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker did not meet the criteria for the debate.
“I grew up the son of immigrants and I had many racial epithets used against me as a kid,” Yang said. “But black(s) and Latinos have something much more powerful working against them than words. They have numbers. The average net worth of a black household is only 10% that of a white household. For Latinos, it’s 12%. A black woman is 320% more likely to die from complications in childbirth. These are the numbers that define race in our country.”
He argued that he was the lone candidate of color on the stage because Americans of color lack the disposable income to donate to campaigns.
“The way we fix this is we take Martin Luther King’s message of a guaranteed minimum income,” Yang said, touting the central plan of his campaign. “I guarantee if we had a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month, I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight.”
When the moderator turned to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, he initially sought to turn the conversation back to climate change, which had been the previous topic, before answering the question.
“Senator, with all respect, this question is about race,” interjected moderator Amna Nawaz, a journalist from PBS. “Can you answer the question as it was asked?”
Sanders replied that Americans of color will suffer the most “if we do not deal with climate change.”
“We have an obligation up here, if there are not any of our African American brothers and sisters up here, to speak about an economy in which African Americans are exploited, where black women die three times at higher rates than white women, where we have a criminal justice system which is racist and broken, disproportionately made up of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who are in jail,” Sanders continued. “So we need an economy that focuses on the needs of oppressed, exploited people, and that is the African American community.”
Klobuchar was asked how she would talk to Americans who are uncomfortable with the fact that the United States will be majority nonwhite within a generation.
“I say this is America. You’re looking at it,” Klobuchar said. She argued that Democrats must aggressively target voter suppression and gerrymandering, and made a push for her bill that would register every child in America to vote when they turn 18. Arguing for an agenda of “economic opportunity,” Klobuchard said, “because as Martin Luther King Jr. said, what good is it to integrate a lunch counter if you can’t afford a hamburger?”
Candidates mostly agree on impeachment
The candidates touching off their discussion by debating who among them could make the most persuasive case that Trump should be removed from office at a time when the public is divided.
Sanders called the President, who was impeached on Wednesday, a “pathological liar” who is “running the most corrupt administration in the modern history of this country.”
“We have a President who is a fraud, because during his campaign he told working people one thing and he ended up doing something else,” Sanders said. “I believe, and I will personally be doing this in the coming weeks and months, (we should be) making the case that we have a President who has sold out the working families of this country, who wants to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid after he promised he would not do that.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would try to show voters “the impact of corruption.”
“This President has made corruption, originally, his argument, that he would drain the swamp. And yet he came to Washington, broke that promise and has done everything he can for the wealthy and the well-connected,” Warren said.
Most of the candidates were in agreement that impeaching Trump was necessary, but Yang said his party needs to stop obsessing over impeachment.
Yang said the push to impeach Trump has glossed over the deeper problems facing the country, including the polarization between the parties and the fact that voters are increasingly getting their news from sources that share their views.
“The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems, the more Americans lose trust that we can actually see what’s going on in our communities and solve those problems,” Yang said. “What we have to do is we have to stop being obsessed over impeachment — which unfortunately strikes many Americans like a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be — and start actually digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place.”
Yang added that leaders “have to take every opportunity to present a new, positive vision for the country, a new way forward to help beat him in 2020, because make no mistake, he’ll be there at the ballot box for us to defeat.
Taking on Trump over the economy
The candidates also tried to address the major conundrum they will face next year — the fact that America’s economic numbers under Trump look strong and unemployment is at an all time low, giving him a much better chance of being re-elected next year.
Former Vice President Joe Biden argued that middle-class neighborhoods aren’t feeling those economic gains.
“The middle class is getting crushed,” Biden said. “We have to invest in those things that make a difference in the lives of middle class people so they can maintain their standard of living. That’s not being done. And the idea that we’re growing, we’re not growing. The wealthy, very wealthy are growing. Ordinary people are not growing. They are not happy with where they are.”
Buttigieg agreed with Biden’s assessment.
“The biggest problem in our economy is simple. People are not getting paid enough. That is not the result of some mysterious cosmic force. It’s the result of bad policy. And we’ve got to change it by raising wages and empowering workers,” he said.
PBS moderator Judy Woodruff challenged Warren to answer criticisms from some economists that her plans would hike taxes by $8 trillion over the decade.
“Oh they’re just wrong,” Warren said, referring to the economists. She said she would tell voters that she’s argued for a wealth tax on millionaires that would create a 2 cent tax on every dollar they make over $50 million and above.