Last week’s Democratic presidential debate saw many of the candidates go after former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his first appearance on the debate stage. In Tuesday night’s follow-up, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, due to his current front-runner status, was the target of many of his competitors — but there were still some sharp jabs at Bloomberg.
They joined five other candidates in Charleston, S.C., in the last debate before Saturday’s South Carolina primary: former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; U.S Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and businessman Tom Steyer. Televised on CBS, it was also the last debate before Super Tuesday, March 3, when 14 states representing 40 percent of the U.S. population will hold primaries, along with the territory of American Samoa and Democrats living in other countries.
Sanders is coming off wins in the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada and Iowa caucuses (the latter in terms of popular vote, not pledged delegates), and some of his competitors worried aloud about his ability to beat Donald Trump should he become the nominee. Sanders has served in the House and Senate as an independent but is running for president as a Democrat, and he calls himself a “democratic socialist,” favoring universal government-funded health care, tuition-free public college, and other sweeping reforms.
The night’s first question went to Sanders, regarding how he would convince voters to support him in the general election at a time when the economy was doing well. “The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires,” he said. “For the ordinary American, things are not so good. Last year, real wage increases for the average worker were less than 1 percent.”
Bloomberg responded, “I think Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he’s president. I do not think so. [Russian President] Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected.” U.S. officials have said Russia is attempting to boost Sanders’s campaign, without his blessing.
Sanders said he would stand up to Putin, a close ally of Trump. “Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in an American election,” Sanders said.
Buttigieg sought to present himself as a moderate alternative to Sanders, saying, “I mean, look, if you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump. Think about what that will be like for this country.”
Warren said she agrees with many of Sanders’s ideas, as “progressive ideas are popular ideas,” but that she is better equipped to put them into practice. She pointed to her creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as evidence of her ability to “dig in, do the hard work, and actually get it done.” On health care, she favors universal coverage as well, but “Bernie’s plan doesn’t explain how we’re going to get there,” she said.
Later in the debate, Klobuchar questioned how Sanders’s programs would be paid for, and she said voters weren’t necessarily on board with them. Steyer said the Democratic Party faces a huge risk if the choice is between a democratic socialist and someone with a long history of Republican affiliation, Bloomberg, who has been a Republican, an independent, and a Democrat.
The candidates’ records on gender and race came up for a good deal of discussion. Warren, as she did last week, hit Bloomberg on sexist remarks he has been accused of making to women at his financial information company. She said that when she was forced out of a teaching job early in her career because she was pregnant, at least she didn’t have a boss who said to her, “Kill it,” as Bloomberg had allegedly said to a pregnant employee.
He denied making the remark. “I’m sorry if she heard what she thought she heard,” he said of the employee.
Warren also pressed him to lift the nondisclosure agreements keeping women who had settled claims of harassment and discrimination from talking about their experience. He said he had done so.
Bloomberg also came under fire for his stop-and-frisk policy as mayor, a policing strategy that disproportionately targeted African-Americans and Hispanics. He said he cut back on the policy and worked for programs that increased educational and business opportunities for Black and brown New Yorkers.
Biden, who is popular with African-Americans, touted his record of working for civil rights. He is seen as counting on South Carolina, where a majority of Democrats are Black, for a win to invigorate his campaign. He told moderator Gayle King he is taking nothing for granted: “I’ve worked like the devil to earn the vote of the African-American community.” King asked if he would stay in race if he doesn’t win in the state, and he responded, “I will win South Carolina.”
The debate again saw little discussion of LGBTQ issues. Bloomberg mentioned his efforts to persuade the Republican-led New York State senate to pass marriage equality legislation as an example of his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion. Buttigieg referred to his husband’s position as a teacher in the public schools to show his understanding of educational issues. Also, during the candidates’ closing statements, Buttigieg invoked his religious faith but said he would never seek to impose his religious values on others, swearing by his wedding ring.
Other highlights: Bloomberg defended his support for charter schools, which are publicly funded but exempt from certain rules for public schools, while Warren touted traditional public education, saying her secretary of education would be someone with experience in the public schools. She also slammed Bloomberg for having made campaign donations to Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Klobuchar positioned herself as a candidate with bipartisan appeal and an ability to carry rural areas in the Midwest. Biden criticized Sanders’s record on gun control, such as his vote to exempt gun manufacturers from legal liability, while noting his own support for measures such as an assault weapons ban. Sanders acknowledged he had made “a bad vote” but otherwise has often supported gun regulations and incurred the wrath of the National Rifle Association.
Sanders also got some heat for admiring remarks he’d made years ago about Cuba and that he defended on 60 Minutes last Sunday. “Authoritarianism of any stripe is bad,” the senator said at the debate. “But that’s different from saying governments occasionally do something good.” Buttigieg said the Democrats may lose U.S. House and Senate races “if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime.”