The best responses in an otherwise tame Democratic presidential debate

By Alexandra Yetter, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Maddy Asma

The Democratic presidential debate came on the heels of a full day of public testimony in the U.S. House’s impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine. With no blockbuster performances from the candidates, the debate rated a shoulder-shrug.

As the fifth debate in a still-growing field of more than a dozen candidates, many of the answers were either stale, unoriginal or uninspiring. In the days leading up to the Wednesday night debate—hosted by the first all-female group of moderators from MSNBC and The Washington Post—pundits predicted an all-out attack on South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is inching up in polls within states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Only a few swings were taken onstage, but the candidates mainly stuck to predictable answers on talked-out policies and, at times, joked and defended other candidates onstage while others stuck to tried-and-true one liners, like Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) “I wrote the damn bill” quip.

That said, the night delivered a handful of impassioned, substantive answers on topics ranging from the climate crisis to gender double standards; and from abortion to attracting black voters, with some entertaining zingers sprinkled throughout. Here’s the best of both:

Kamala Harris on Tulsi Gabbard

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has been facing scrutiny recently amid Hillary Clinton labeling Gabbard a GOP darling as she is supported by right-wing outlets like Fox News, and even by Trump himself on his Snapchat. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) took the opportunity to call Gabbard out for this.

“It’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States who, during the Obama administration, spent four years full-time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” Harris said.

Gabbard denied these claims and said Harris was lying and trying to smear her because she had no argumentative basis against Gabbard’s proposed policies.

Andrew Yang on Tom Steyer

Among a handful of politicians who are proposing far-reaching wealth taxes to fund their policy proposals and pacts on no political action committees, Tom Steyer was an outlier as the sole billionaire onstage. As Steyer defended self-funding portions of his presidential campaign, Andrew Yang actually covered for him in a surprisingly wholesome moment.

“I want to stick up for Tom,” Yang said. “We have a broken campaign finance system, but Tom has been spending his own money fighting climate change, and you can’t knock somebody for having money and spending it in the right way.”

Pete Buttigieg on his political record

As the mayor of a small, Midwestern city who won his political position by 80% of the approximately 10,000 votes, those onstage and offstage have questioned whether Buttigieg has enough political experience to take over the presidency. However, he managed to spin this to position himself as the reformist, outsider candidate.

“I get it’s not traditional establishment Washington experience, but I would argue we need something very different right now. In order to defeat this president, we need somebody who can go toe-to-toe who actually comes from the kinds of communities that he’s been appealing to,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t talk a big game about helping the working class while helicoptering between golf courses with my name on them. I don’t even golf. As a matter of fact, I never thought I’d be on a Forbes magazine list, but they did one of all the candidates by wealth, and I am literally the least wealthy person on this stage.”

Amy Klobuchar on double standards

With women moderating this debate, women’s issues were expected to be more fully discussed in comparison to past debates. In one question directed at Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), moderators asked whether she thought Buttigieg would be as far along as he is, given his amount of experience, if he were a female candidate.

In an applause-earning response, Klobuchar took the question as a chance to point out the double-standards for women in politics rather than attack Buttigieg.

“Women are held to a higher standard, otherwise we could play a game called ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has all been men,” Klobuchar said. “And if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

Elizabeth Warren on abortion inequality

Abortion access is a pretty cut-and-dried issue within the Democratic Party as it is a hallmark issue, but Warren took the rare debate topic as a chance to highlight a more nuanced issue—the economic inequalities when it comes to abortion access.

“I lived in an America where abortion was illegal, and rich women still got abortions because they could travel,” Warren said. “The people who are denied access to abortion are the poor, are the young, are 14-year-olds who were molested by a family member, and we now have support across this country.”

The candidates on black voters

The freshest, most substantive debate between candidates onstage came from a discussion on politicians exploiting black voters to win candidacies, then ignoring issues that affect them, as Harris was the first to point out.

Buttigieg, who has had trouble stirring up support among the black voting bloc, which has become the backbone of Democratic voters, said his faith and experience in South Bend pushes him to help marginalized and oppressed groups while pointing out that he, too, has had rights taken away from him as a gay man.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden emphasized the support he gained from the black community following his vice presidency with former President Barack Obama, and Warren—always on-brand—pointed out that her student loan debt forgiveness proposal would help bridge the racial income gap by making it easier for black students to attend higher education without crushing student loan debt.

However, it was Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) as one of only two black people on stage whose answer swept the board.

“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters. I’ve been one since I was 18,” Booker said. “Black voters are pissed off, and they’re worried … because the only time [their issues are paid attention to] by politicians is when people are looking for their vote.”