Why you should care
Because it's crunch time in the presidential primary race, but the gloves are still on.
Adrienne Elrod is a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.
Conventional wisdom dictates the final debate 20 days before the first-in-the-nation caucus would be anything but lackluster. But Tuesday’s Democratic presidential face-off in Des Moines proved otherwise. Candidates did not take the bait, instead engaging in a two-hour conversation that was as tame and friendly as it gets.
Sure, there were substantive policy discussions and a few mesmerizing split-screen moments, but compared to previous debates, the final debate before the Iowa caucus lacked the vigor and key moments of contrast one anticipates at such a critical juncture. In fact, the fieriest moment came after the event concluded, when Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appeared to have a tense exchange.
But a closer look at the trajectory of the horse race offers a glimpse as to why calmness and level temperament prevailed … at least for the cameras. First, as the field winnows, candidates appear to be approaching debates as less pertinent to the final outcome. With the Senate impeachment trial looming and a prevailing awareness that this may be the last prime-time moment candidates will have to showcase their message before Iowa, candidates on Tuesday were focused on not making news but on honing their respective closing arguments.
Secondly, the presidential hopefuls seemed to be mindful of caucus strategy. The caucus process involves people moving to another candidate if their first choice is not viable in a particular precinct — meaning it’s valuable to be someone’s second choice, and you don’t want to insult their favorite. This seemed to be on the minds of both Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Tom Steyer, neither of whom went out of their way to start a policy battle. Both Klobuchar and Steyer are polling in the single digits in Iowa, and Steyer in particular lavished praise on the top pack in the polls. He praised Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s generation and at one point interjected: “I just want to emphasize what Senator Sanders said.”
But amid the tameness, there were a few noteworthy contrasts. As expected, early on, foreign policy was front and center, with former Vice President Joe Biden reminding voters he has the depth, experience and relationships to tackle today’s biggest conflicts. Biden offered a substantive rationale for keeping troops in the Middle East, while Sanders stuck to his longstanding “no war” mantra, setting the stage for the hawk versus dove matchup that may be a leading issue for voters should these two candidates be the last men standing.
And much like 2016, the top candidates see trade differently, creating an illustrative policy clash between Sanders and Warren. Sanders opposes President Donald Trump’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, saying “we could do much better than a Trump-led trade deal” and that it doesn’t do enough to help fight climate change. Warren, meanwhile, supports it, saying she’s willing to take an incremental win for Iowa farmers, then fight for stronger protections if she’s elected.
And where was Buttigieg on Tuesday night? He had some strong moments, including his closing argument and a sharp answer when asked why he was best suited to face Trump. “If a guy like Donald Trump keeps trying to use religion to somehow recruit Christianity into the GOP, I will be standing there not afraid to talk about a different way to answer the call of faith, and insist that God does not belong to a political party,” Buttigieg said.
But perhaps the best moment was the one we’ve all been waiting for: the back and forth between Warren and Sanders on the private discussion they had about the 2020 race, where Sanders allegedly told Warren a female candidate could not beat Trump. After debate host CNN broke the story a couple days ago, you knew the network’s moderators would press the issue. But it didn’t explode into the open conflict many expected.
Sanders denied saying a woman could not win, then not only did Warren stand her ground about her recollection of the discussion, but she came away with one of the most memorable lines on any debate stage this cycle: “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.” Without a frontal attack on Sanders, Warren took advantage of this highly charged truce breaker, likely peeling off a handful of Sanders backers to strengthen her standing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Aside from that, the attacks were mostly confined off-microphone or via surrogates, rather than under the brightest lights. While the debate wasn’t a feisty, fiery, lit discussion, candidates offered substance with a bit of contrast. And most importantly they showed that above all else, they are unified around the top priority this cycle: to defeat Trump. With the seemingly unending chaos that surrounds Washington, this was the right tone Democrats needed to strike at the right time.