The fifth gathering of Democratic candidates, held in Atlanta and sponsored by MSNBC, came in the shadow of the impeachment hearings and resulted in a mostly civil exchange as candidates, with some exceptions, pushed policy differences over personal attacks. The frontrunners mostly escaped without much damage, while those in danger of not qualifying for next month’s debate made their cases for support to a national audience.
Here are four key takeaways from the night.
Booker hits Biden on pot legalization as former VP touts black bona fides
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who had what most observers consider another strong debate performance, took a shot at former Vice President Joe Biden, who earlier this week said he wasn’t ready to support legalization of marijuana at the federal level, saying more study is needed to determine whether or not it’s a “gateway drug.”
“I have a lot of respect for the vice president,” Booker said. “He swore me into my office. He’s a hero. This week I hear him literally say that ‘I don’t think we should legalize marijuana.’ I thought you might have been high when you said it.”
The line drew laughs and applause before Booker, one of two black candidates onstage, pivoted to a more serious point about race.
“Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people,” he said. “And it’s why the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”
Booker continued: “With more African-Americans under criminal supervision in America than all the slaves since 1850, do not roll up into communities and not talk directly to issues that are going to relate to the liberation of children. There are people in Congress right now that admit to smoking marijuana, while our kids are in jail right now for those drug crimes.”
He added: “We need someone who can inspire African-Americans to come to the polls.”
Asked to respond, Biden said he supports the decriminalization of marijuana.
“Anyone that has a record should be let out of jail and have those records expunged,” he said, but added: “I do think it makes sense, based on data, that we should study what the long-term effects are for the use of marijuana.”
Biden then took the opportunity to respond to Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who repeatedly said during the debate that she wants to rebuild the so-called Obama coalition of white, black and Latino voters.
“You know, I’m part of that Obama coalition,” the former vice president said. “I come out of the black community in terms of my support. If you notice, I have more people in the black community supporting me, they’ve announced for me, because they know me. They know who I am.”
Biden then recounted several of his African-American endorsements, including, he said, “the only African-American woman ever elected to the United States Senate.”
He was referring to former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who endorsed him in April.
Harris, an African-American woman elected to the United States Senate and running against Biden, raised her hands and laughed.
“No, that’s not true,” she said. “The other one is here.”
“I said the first,” Biden protested. “I said the first.”
“The point is, one of the reasons I was picked to be vice president is because of my relationship, long-standing relationship with the black community,” Biden said. “I was part of that coalition.”
Buttigieg escapes relatively unscathed
Before the debate, political observers predicted that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has enjoyed a surge in polling, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, would be the main target of his rivals. But by and large the other candidates, and the moderators — Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell and Kristen Welker of MSNBC and Ashley Parker of the Washington Post — treated him gingerly. Sen. Amy Klobuchar declined to repeat a charge she had made earlier this month that a woman with Buttigieg’s relatively slim political résumé as the mayor of a medium-size city wouldn’t have qualified for the debate.
“First of all, I have made very clear that I think Pete is qualified to be on this stage, and I am honored to be standing next to him,” Klobuchar said, “but what I said was true: Women are held to a higher standard.”
Klobuchar did later refer to Buttigieg as a “local official,” comparing his office as mayor with her position as a U.S. senator. Harris also chose to let Buttigieg off the hook when asked about his dismal polling among black voters, choosing not to capitalize on the controversy around his Douglass Plan to help African-Americans. The one candidate who did go after Buttigieg was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who implied, inaccurately, that he had proposed sending U.S. troops to Mexico to combat drug and gang violence.
Buttigieg said he was open to the idea of cross-border “security cooperation” but regarded it as a last resort.
“Do you seriously think anyone on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?” he asked.
Primary debate policy firsts
For the first time this cycle, candidates touched on paid family leave, voting rights and housing. The family leave conversation began when the panel of four female moderators asked Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren to contrast their proposals. The issue of voting rights came up in the context of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate in last year’s Georgia gubernatorial election who lost a close race, amid allegations of voter suppression.
The topic of housing came up with billionaire Tom Steyer stating he would build “millions of units.” Warren said she would support constructing more housing while also targeting discrimination, and Booker raised the issue of gentrification, which caused searches for the word to spike on Dictionary.com.
This was the first debate that didn’t include former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who failed to qualify for the stage but is still campaigning. He noted this on Twitter:
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) November 21, 2019
Foreign policy in the spotlight
While the impeachment inquiry into President Trump over dealings with Ukraine got some attention during the debate, often prompted by the moderators, the issue of U.S. foreign policy in general was raised several times by the candidates themselves.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Kamala Harris clashed over foreign policy. Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran and a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, has been critical of what she calls “regime-change wars” against dictators.
“This is personal to me,” Gabbard said. “I saw the terribly high human cost of war.”
Harris criticized the Hawaii congresswoman for failing to call Syrian President Bashar Assad a “war criminal.”
Asked about the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, Biden condemned the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, saying he would end subsidies to the kingdom, stop selling it military hardware and treat the Saudis as “the pariah that they are.”
Trump has repeatedly refused to blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death, despite the CIA’s assessment that the crown prince ordered the killing. And the Trump administration recently announced its intention to station thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia, arguing that it needs to protect oil in the region.
Booker called U.S. assistance for Saudi Arabia, which continues to carry out a war in Yemen, a “human rights violation.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders laid claim to being the first person on the stage to say not only that Saudi Arabia murdered Khashoggi, but also that “Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally.”
The Vermont senator also brought up the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations, saying the U.S. “must treat the Palestinian people with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
“If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”
— Sen. Amy Klobuchar
“The one entity that should not be in the middle of that decision is the government.”
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren on abortion
“Washington experience is not the only experience that matters.”
— South Bend., Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
“Well, first I’d say, ‘I’m sorry I beat your guy.’”
— Andrew Yang, when asked what he’d say on his first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin as U.S. president
“Thank you. I wrote the damn bill.”
— Sen. Bernie Sanders, when asked to respond to Warren’s approach to Medicare for All
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