After Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders nearly tied for the win in this week’s Iowa Democratic presidential caucus — once the results were finally in — Friday night’s debate saw some digs at the two, but most of the exchanges were civil and issue-oriented.
As in previous debates, there wasn’t much mention of LGBTQ issues. Former Vice President Joe Biden mentioned his early support for marriage equality, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts noted her commitment to lowering prices for HIV drugs, among other prescription drugs.
But the debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., coming four days before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, covered a plethora of other issues, including race, economics, climate change, foreign affairs, the Supreme Court, and who’s best positioned to beat Donald Trump in November.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Buttigieg, the first truly viable openly gay major-party candidate, faced some questions about his lack of national experience. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar mentioned him being a “cool newcomer” and said, “We have a cool newcomer in the White House and look where it got us.”
Businessman Tom Steyer said, “We need people with experience. That’s why I’m worried about Mayor Pete.” Biden touted his work in getting the Affordable Care Act passed as Barack Obama’s vice president.
To Biden, Buttigieg responded, “Look, I freely admit that if you’re looking for the person with the most years of Washington establishment experience under their belt, you got your candidate, and of course it’s not me. The perspective I'm bringing is that of somebody whose life has been shaped by the decisions made in the big white buildings in Washington, D.C. We need a perspective that will allow us to leave the politics of the past in the past, turn the page, and bring change to Washington.”
Buttigieg emphasized the need for coalition-building, saying he hoped to reach independents and “future former Republicans” to support him for president.
He was also pressed on his record on race in South Bend, with moderator Linsey Davis saying there was a rise in arrests of Black residents for marijuana possession when he was mayor, with Blacks much more likely to be arrested for that offense than whites. He denied there was a rise, but she said there was. “The year before you were in office it was lower,” she said.
He replied that drug enforcement was targeted at cases where there was a link to violent crime. “These things are all connected,” he said. “But that’s the point. So are all of the things that need to change in order for us to prevent violence and remove the effects of systemic racism, not just from criminal justice, but from our economy, from health, from housing, and from our democracy itself.”
Warren, asked if Buttigieg’s response was substantive, answered simply “No” and received applause. “You have to own up to the facts,” she said. “And it’s important to own up to the facts about how race has totally permeated the criminal justice system. … We need to rework our criminal justice system from the very front end on what we make illegal, all the way through the system, and how we help people come back into the community.”
Biden got grilled on a racist remark made by South Carolina state Sen. Dick Harpootlian who said a Black state legislator, Rep. Jerry Govan, defected from Biden to Steyer because “when billionaires get involved … they don’t have to persuade anybody, they just buy them.” Biden said he had spoken to Harpootlian and that the latter was sorry for the comment.
Speaking of billionaires, several candidates had things to say about a candidate not on the stage, wealthy businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A viewer from Nashville had submitted a question asking the candidates onstage why they were better positioned to beat Trump than Bloomberg.
“I don’t think anyone ought to be able to buy their way into a nomination of being President of the United States,” Warren said. “I don’t think any billionaire ought to be able to do it, and I don’t think people who suck up to billionaires in order to fund their campaigns ought to be able to do it. Everyone on this stage except Amy and me is either a billionaire or is receiving help from PACs that can do unlimited spending.”
Vermont Sen. Sanders added, “There are millions of people who can desire to run for office, but I guess if you’re worth $60 billion and can spend millions of dollars on commercials you have a slight advantage. That is nonsense.” Then he took aim at Buttigieg, saying, “Unlike some of the campaigns up here, Pete, I don’t have 40 billionaires funding my campaign coming from the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street and all the big money interests.”
Buttigieg shot back, “As the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire, I know a thing or two about building a movement because mayor of South Bend, Ind., is not exactly an establishment fundraising power house. We are here without the involvement of any corporate PACS because hundreds of thousands of people.” He said his campaign wanted to be inclusive of everyone, whether small donors or deep-pocketed ones.
There was also discussion of appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal courts, which Trump has been filling with right-wing judges. While most of the candidates avoided saying they favored a “litmus test” for support of abortion rights by judicial nominees, they said they generally favored those who believed there are rights not enumerated in the Constitution. That would include the right to privacy, on which the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide is based. Several expressed support for codifying Roe v. Wade into law so as not to be dependent on courts to uphold it. There wasn’t any mention of the LGBTQ rights cases the Supreme Court heard in the fall and will rule on in a few months.
Biden noted his role in blocking far-right judge Robert Bork from being appointed to the Supreme Court (after Bork’s nomination was derailed, Anthony Kennedy was appointed and ended up being an LGBTQ equality champion). But some commenters on Twitter took Biden to task for not doing more to stop another right-wing nominee, Clarence Thomas, who ended up being confirmed.
Some recent events came up, as expected. Klobuchar thanked two of her Senate colleagues, Doug Jones and Mitt Romney, for showing courage in voting to convict Donald Trump in his impeachment trial — Romney being the only Republican who voted to convict, and Jones being a Democrat facing reelection in ultraconservative Alabama. Trump was acquitted this week.
And Biden brought up the fact that at Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Trump bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on radio talker Rush Limbaugh — who happens to be a virulent homophobe, transphobe, racist, misogynist, and of course a Trump supporter. Biden said Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official who testified against Trump in the impeachment trial and was fired today, was far more deserving of the honor. Trump “should have been pinning a medal on Vindman and not on Rush Limbaugh,” Biden said. He then led the crowd in a standing ovation for Vindman.
There was much more — discussion of gun control, drug policy, climate change, foreign policy, health care, and other issues. See a further roundup of highlights here from ABC News, which carried the debate.