With fewer than three weeks before the first Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa, candidates sparred Tuesday over policy in the Middle East and growing inequality at home. But they struggled to find breakout moments in what has become a tight race with no clear front-runner to take on President Donald Trump.
Just six candidates took the debate stage at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, for the first televised debate of the presidential election year.
They entered 2020 in a statistical dead heat. Former vice-president Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg are all polling within a few percentage points of each other in Iowa, with large numbers of the state’s Democratic voters still undecided ahead of caucuses on Feb 3.
Here are highlights from the debate:
Democrats have repeatedly questioned the White House rationale for the assassination of a top Iranian general earlier this month, which later led Iran to shoot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people, including 57 Canadians.
But while the candidates largely agreed on the need to scale back U.S. military presence in the Middle East, they disagreed on how far to go.
Both Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, who are vying for the party’s progressive wing, promised to pull all U.S. troops out of the region. “We need to get our combat troops out,” Ms. Warren said. “We have to stop this mindset that we can do everything with combat troops.”
Mr. Biden accused the President of lying about evidence of an imminent attack by Iran on U.S. embassies, but argued for retaining small numbers of U.S. Special Forces in Iraq to combat a resurgence of the Islamic State. “They’ll come back if we do not deal with them and we do not have someone who can bring together the rest of the world to go with us,” he said.
The former vice-president also drew criticism from Mr. Sanders for his 2003 vote in the Senate to authorize the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “I did everything I could do to prevent that war,” said Mr. Sanders, who voted for U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan but opposed the invasion of Iraq. “Joe saw it differently.”
Mr. Biden called his support for the war in Iraq “a mistake” and touted his efforts while in the Obama administration to draw down U.S. troops in the region.
Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders have largely avoided attacking each other in this race, but their warm relationship began to fray this week when CNN reported that Mr. Sanders had privately told the Massachusetts senator in 2018 that a woman was unlikely to win the presidency.
Mr. Sanders denied the accusation. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman couldn’t be president of the United States,” he added, pointing to his former Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, winning the popular vote in 2016.
Ms. Warren, who publicly confirmed the conversation took place, took a pointed jab at the electoral records of her male counterparts on the stage.
“Can a woman beat Donald Trump?” she asked. “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.”
She went on to argue that she was the only Democrat contender who had beaten an incumbent Republican in the past 30 years, referring to her 2012 Senate victory over Republican Scott Brown. That prompted Mr. Sanders to fire back that he had also beaten a Republican, Peter Smith, in a 1990 Vermont Congressional race – which Ms. Warren then pointed out was 30 years ago.
There was even more discord between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren on the Trump administration’s signature United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The trade agreement was approved by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives last month and is set for a vote in the Republican-led Senate later this week.
Arguing the new trade deal benefits “large corporations” at the expense of labour and environmental protections, Mr. Sanders said the pact would force U.S. workers to compete against Mexican “starvation” wages. “If this is passed, it will set us back a number of years,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of trade agreements negotiated by the CEOs of large corporations.”
Ms. Warren said the USMCA was not a good deal, but argued it was an improvement on the status quo. “Let’s help the people who need help now,” she said. “It will give some relief to our farmers. It will give some relief to our workers.”
The other candidates conceded that USMCA has flaws, but that it is better than the existing North American free-trade agreement it is set to replace, with more protections for automotive jobs, farmers and environmental rights.
Mr. Biden used the trade deal as a way to portray Mr. Sanders as an unrealistic idealist who could not get things done as president. “I don’t think there’s any trade agreement the Senator would agree on,” he said.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, vying with Mr. Biden for the party’s centre, contended that the deal would make it easier for North America to band together to take on China.
High health-care costs continue to be a leading issue among Democratic voters – and a leading area of disagreement among the candidates.
Mr. Sanders’ challengers pressed him repeatedly on where he would find the money for a universal health care plan known as Medicare for All. “I think you have to show how you’re going to pay for things, Bernie,” Ms. Klobuchar said.
Mr. Sanders argued that he would fund his proposal with a modest income tax hike that “will cost substantially less than the status quo” of what Americans pay out of pocket for health care.
Ms. Warren has shifted her stance on health care over the campaign and from initially supporting Medicare for All to now favouring a more gradual transition to universal health care. But she criticized moderate counterparts like Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg who support retaining private insurance plans and adding a voluntary public option, calling the idea a “small improvement.”
"We’ve got to move past a Washington mentality that suggests that the bigness of plans only consists of how many trillions of dollars they put though the Treasury,” Mr. Buttigieg shot back.
The wild card
California hedge fund manager Tom Steyer qualified as a last-minute addition to the debate on the strength of two polls that showed him with double-digit support in Nevada and South Carolina, where he has spent heavily on advertisements.
He has cast himself as an environmental activist and a progressive who supports imposing higher taxes on the wealthy, in contrast to rival billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, the centrist former mayor of New York City.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Steyer, 62, aimed his attacks at Mr. Buttigieg, 37, comparing his long business career against controversy the former Indiana mayor has drawn for his brief stint at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
“Mayor Pete has three years as an analyst at McKinsey. I have 30 years of international business experience,” Mr. Steyer said. “You demoted me,” Mr. Buttigieg replied. “I was actually an associate. But that’s okay; it was not the biggest part of my career.”
Mr. Steyer also attacked Mr. Buttigieg on climate change, contrasting him against Mr. Steyer’s own adult children to argue the former mayor is not in tune with younger voters demanding ambitious environmental policies. “Frankly Mayor Buttigieg, you’re their generation,” he said. “I think you would be standing up more.”
“That’s right, this issue is personal for me,” Mr. Buttigieg countered. “That’s why we’re going to tackle the climate from day one.
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