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Warren faces skepticism, attacks from fellow 2020 Democrats at Ohio debate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren faced tough questions from moderators and fellow candidates at a 2020 primary debate in Ohio on Oct. 15, 2019. (CNN Newsource)

The fourth Democratic presidential debate kicked off Tuesday night with most of the 12 candidates on stage making the case for why the current president should be impeached before they even have a chance to run against him.

“No one is above the law and that includes the president of the United States,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said of President Donald Trump. “Impeachment is the way we establish this man will not be permitted to break the law over and over without consequences.”

Democrats have called for Trump’s impeachment over a July phone call in which he asked the president of Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit him politically while holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the country.

“The president has left the Congress with no choice,” said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

One of the probes Trump sought involved former Vice President Joe Biden’s efforts to force the Ukrainian government to remove a chief prosecutor who had investigated a natural gas company that paid his son Hunter to sit on its board.

“The idea that we have a president who’s prepared to hold up national security money to get dirt from one of our allies on a political opponent is incomprehensible,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Trump maintains there was no quid pro quo involving the aid funds and the investigations, and administration officials claim he was genuinely concerned with possible corruption in Ukraine. Democrats, citing Trump’s public statements and a rough transcript of the call released by the White House, have doubts.

“As a former prosecutor, I know a confession when I see it,” said California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Still, several candidates acknowledged this is a politically sensitive process that could divide the country and Democrats must proceed with caution.

“This has got to be about patriotism and not partisanship... We have to conduct this process in a way that is honorable,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Biden defended himself and his son when pressed by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper, turning attention back to what he described as “Trump’s corruption.”

“He’s going after me because he knows if I get the nomination, I will beat him like a drum,” Biden said.

Health care

The debate then turned to the ongoing battle between progressive and moderate candidates over whether to impose a Medicare-for-All program or a less extreme health care plan that leaves private insurers in place.

Buttigieg criticized Warren for failing to adequately explain how she would pay for her proposal to transition to Medicare-for-All.

“Your signature is to have a plan for everything except this,” he said.

In response, Warren dismissed the mayor’s “Medicare for all who want it” approach.

“Understand what that really means: it's Medicare for all who can afford it,” she said.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar argued the “best and boldest idea” would be to follow up on former President Barack Obama’s preference of offering a public option alongside private insurance. She warned Warren and Sanders embracing a pricy new program that would almost certainly raise taxes would fuel Republican talking points, and she questioned whether Medicare-for-All is politically feasible.

“The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done,” Klobuchar said.

However, Sanders framed the issue as one of political courage and suggested his opponents lack it.

“The issue is whether the Democratic Party has the guts to stand up to the health care industry,” he said.

Jobs

In a state where many workers have lost their jobs to the shift toward automation in manufacturing, much of the economic debate focused on how to deal with that transition.

Businessman Andrew Yang defended his signature proposal of giving every American a $1,000 “freedom dividend” a month rather than the federal jobs guarantee Sanders has promoted.

“When we put the money into our hands, we can build a trickle-up economy,” Yang said.

Sanders pushed back against skepticism that his plan would provide employment for everyone who loses jobs to automation.

“Damn right we will,” he said.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard called universal basic income a “good idea” to help deal with the uncertainty created by automation.

“Really, what this is about is getting to the heart of the fear that is well-founded,” she said.

Sanders also elaborated on recent comments suggesting that billionaires should not exist.

“When you have half a million Americans sleeping out in the street, when you have 87 million people uninsured or underinsuredand then you also have three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society, that is a moral and economic outrage,” he said.

Billionaire Tom Steyer said Sanders is right about an income gap that is “absolutely undemocratic and unfair” and called for repealing tax cuts for wealthy people like himself.

“The corporations have bought our government,” Steyer said. “Our government has failed.”

Warren questioned why other candidates object to her wealth tax plan, suggesting they are trying to protect billionaires. Others fired back that her approach is not the only way to address income inequality and they all agree on the underlying goal.

"No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires," Harris said. "Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires."

Warren also rejected former Rep. Beto O'Rourke's characterization of her economic policies as "punitive."

"I don't have a beef with billionaires," she said, arguing that those who have had the opportunity to succeed in America should give more back so others can do the same.

Syria

Democratic candidates repeatedly slammed President Trump for pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria and allowing Turkey to invade Kurdish territory.

“It has been the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history in terms of foreign policy,” Biden said, later dismissing Trump as "erratic" and "crazy."

Given that the withdrawal has already happened, Cooper pressed candidates on what they would do now and whether they would send Americans back into the area. Gabbard was harshly critical of Trump but of the U.S. role in Syria as well.

“Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hands,” Gabbard said, adding that other lawmakers and media outlets that have promoted U.S. involvement in Syria carry some blame as well. She also complained about reporting on CNN and elsewhere that has criticized her stance on Syria.

Warren agreed in principle that U.S. forces should not be involved in Syria’s civil war, but she stressed the way President Trump has gone about trying to pull out of conflicts in the region raises serious concerns.

“I think we ought to get out of the Middle East... but we have to do it the right way, the smart way,” Warren said.

Sanders suggested Turkey’s status in NATO should be reconsidered as a result of the current crisis.

“Turkey is not a U.S. ally when they invade another country and engage in mass slaughter,” he said.

Biden predicted that question will be moot if Trump wins in 2020.

“If he is re-elected, I promise you, there will be no NATO," he said.

Several candidates accused President Trump of undermining U.S. credibility and leadership on the world stage in Syria, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere.

"Understand this president is turning the moral leadership of this country into a dumpster fire," Booker said.

Guns

O’Rourke faced new questions about his proposed mandatory buyback of assault-style weapons. He argued it only makes sense if you support banning these weapons, as many Democrats do, you should support taking them off the streets as well.

“Every single one of them is a potential instrument of terror,” he said, though he struggled to explain how confiscation would work without sending officers door-to-door to collect them.

His comments led to sparring with Buttigieg over how far Democrats should go in pushing for gun control. The mayor, a military veteran, bristled at the suggestion that support for an optional buyback is not a brave enough position.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro cited the recent shooting of an innocent Fort Worth woman in her own home by police as one reason not to try to enforce mandatory confiscation of assault weapons.

"I am not going to give these police officers another reason to go door-to-door," he said.

Klobuchar warned more moderate restrictions have public support and might actually have a chance of passing through Congress. Democrats advocating more extreme solutions could alienate allies they need to get something done.

“That’s what we should be focusing on and I don’t want to screw this up,” she said.

Harris was less optimistic about action in Congress, vowing to take executive action on guns if lawmakers cannot work it out in her first 100 days in office.

"Congress has had years to act and failed because they do not have courage," she said.



Drugs

Candidates laid blame for the opioid epidemic that has killed many Ohio residents on pharmaceutical companies, government regulators, and capitalism itself.

“This is a disease of capitalism run amok,” said Yang, who supports decriminalizing possession of many controlled substances.

Harris, the former attorney general of California, called for prosecution of some executives at companies that produce opioids.

“They are nothing more than some high-level dope dealers,” she said.

Sanders, who suffered a heart attack earlier this month, objected to an attempt to transition to questions about candidates’ health before he got to address the subject.

“I’m healthy, I’m feeling great, but I would like to respond to that question,” he said.

Health

Sanders defended his vitality, announcing a major campaign rally in Queens with a surprise guest. Moderators also questioned Warren and Biden about serving as a septuagenarian president.

“One of the reasons I’m running is because of my age and my experience,” Biden said. “With it comes wisdom.”

He promised to release decades of health records before the Iowa caucuses in February, though he did not offer a more specific timeline.

Younger candidates also faced questions about their ability to do the job. Gabbard, 38, pointed to her experience in the military and in Congress as sufficient training to do the job from day one.

Gabbard was then cut off for a commercial break as she tried to question former college professor Warren about whether she has the right experience to do the job.

Booker dismissed uncertainty about the health of any of the Democratic candidates, considering who the nominee will be up against in the general election.

“We know that the most unhealthy person running for the presidency in 2020 is Donald Trump,” he said.

Women’s rights

After Harris and Booker lamented the lack of discussion of women’s reproductive rights in previous debates earlier in the night, moderators returned to the issue in the debate’s third hour. Ohio is one of several states that have passed restrictive anti-abortion laws, and candidates said they would act as president to prevent such statutes from taking effect.

“I would codify Roe v. Wade and make it the law of the land,” Klobuchar said.

Booker proposed creating an office of reproductive freedom in the White House and called for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which limits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion.

With the Supreme Court set to hear a case involving abortion restrictions, moderator Erin Burnett asked Biden whether he would support adding more justices to the court if the current majority votes to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I would not get into court-packing... We’d begin to lose any credibility the court has at all,” Biden responded.

Buttigieg detailed his plan to reform the Supreme Court by expanding and depoliticizing it or introducing term limits.

“The point is that not everybody arrives on a partisan basis,” he said.

Warren stated such solutions may be worth considering, but given the public support for upholding Roe v. Wade, that issue should not need to be resolved by the judiciary.

“We should not leave this to the Supreme Court. We should do it through democracy because we can,” she said.

Dreams

As has often been the case in the 2020 Democratic campaign, the debate turned to the question of whether to seek grand, ambitious solutions or realistic, practical ones. Biden cited his track record in the Senate and the White House to argue he knows how to achieve big goals.

“I’m the only person on this stage that has gotten anything really big done,” he said.

Warren disputed that, recalling her fight to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when many told her it was impossible.

“It was a dream-big, fight-hard,” Warren said, crediting President Obama for championing her vision.

Others took issue with both positions.

“We are being offered a false choice,” Buttigieg said, rejecting the Massachusetts senator’s approach as “infinite partisan combat.”

However, Sanders maintained that the only way to get elected is to inspire voters with revolutionary ideas.

“The way you win an election at this time in history is not the same old, same old,” he said.

Ellen

The debate closed with a question about controversy surrounding comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ friendship with former Republican President George W. Bush and whether candidates have had similar relationships with people whose views differed from theirs. Gabbard cited her friendship with former Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy.

“When I look out at our country, I don’t see deplorables,” Gabbard said, referring to 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate description of Trump supporters. “I see fellow Americans.”

Klobuchar was one of several candidates who pointed to their work alongside the late Republican Sen. John McCain, and she called for Democrats to change the tone of discourse in the country.

“We have to remember what unites us is so much bigger than what divides us,” she said.

O’Rourke detailed his cross-country drive with Texas Rep. Will Hurd in a rented Chevy Impala, much of which they streamed on social media. Harris discussed working with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on a bill to eliminate cash bail.

“We need a leader who has the ability to unify our country,” she said.



Background

A lot has changed in America since the last Democratic primary debate.

When the top 10 Democratic 2020 candidates debated in Texas last month, former Vice President Joe Biden was the undisputed frontrunner, the military situation in Syria was stable, and candidates knew nothing about a whistleblower complaint that would soon trigger an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

Twelve candidates were set to debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio Tuesday night with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren leading in national polls, Biden struggling to defend his son’s business activities, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders recovering from a heart attack. Meanwhile, bipartisan outrage is bubbling up over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria and a rapidly escalating impeachment probe is overshadowing many other issues in Washington.

The three-hour debate, hosted by CNN and The New York Times, kicked off at 8 p.m. ET with CNN anchors Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper and Times editor Marc Lacey moderating.

To qualify for the debate, candidates needed to receive at least 2% support in four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee and receive contributions from 130,000 individual donors, including at least 400 donors from 20 different states. The 12 candidates who met those requirements are:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
  • South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii
  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
  • Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
  • Businessman Tom Steyer
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Businessman Andrew Yang

Warren was expected to face more scrutiny Tuesday night than she has in past debates after overtaking Biden as the top candidate in most major polls. Sanders, 78, needed to allay growing concerns about his age and stamina after a heart attack sidelined him for several days earlier this month.

Biden was under pressure to stop his slide and remind Democratic voters why they thought he was the most electable candidate throughout the summer. With his actions as vice president and his son Hunter’s business dealings inextricably intertwined with the impeachment probe against Trump, Biden also needed answers to thorny questions about his family he has avoided at previous debates.

House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry last month after a whistleblower revealed Trump had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July phone call to investigate a Ukrainian natural gas company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board and former Vice President Biden’s efforts to force the government to fire a chief prosecutor who had investigated the company.

Biden has maintained the removal of the prosecutor was also sought by other U.S. allies and was unrelated to a corruption probe of the company that may or may not have still been active. Also, he had threatened to withhold loan guarantees unless the Ukrainian government replaced the prosecutor with someone who would fight corruption more aggressively.

Hunter Biden defended his business activities in Ukraine and China on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday, insisting there was nothing illegal or unethical about it. However, he said he takes responsibility for showing “poor judgment” and he would have behaved differently if he knew his work would become a favorite political target of President Trump.

Hunter Biden has agreed not to work with any foreign companies if his father is elected president. He has already left the Ukrainian gas company and he plans to step down from his position with an equity fund backed by Chinese government-owned entities. That may not be sufficient to silence his father’s Republican critics, but Biden’s fellow Democrats are more likely to turn questions back to how President Trump’s family may be profiting off his office than to take him to task over this.

Beyond the top three candidates, the remaining 16 Democratic contenders continue to struggle to find traction even when they have qualified for debates. Previous debates have generated bursts of positive media coverage for Harris, Gabbard, and others, but most are still wallowing in the low single-digits in national polls.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock told Sinclair not making it onto the debate stage poses a challenge for lesser-known candidates trying to convince primary voters to take them seriously. Still, he said he intends to remain in the race at least until the first primary votes are cast in February.

Gabbard complained recently that DNC debate rules are “rigged” and have usurped the role of early state voters in determining the party’s nominee. She said she was contemplating boycotting Tuesday’s debate over that concern, but she decided to attend.

"We have your back, folks, and every single candidate on this debate stage and every single candidate running for president would make a hell of a better president than this Donald Trump," DNC Chair Tom Perez said on stage before the start of the debate.

Past Democratic debates focused heavily on health care and intraparty disputes over how much government control over the insurance system is appropriate. They have also devoted extensive time to progressive priorities like gun control, climate change, and immigration reform, but circumstances brought other topics to the forefront Tuesday.

Though some in the Democratic Party have long argued for impeaching President Trump over a variety of issues, including his alleged obstruction of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of interference in the 2016 election, it has rarely been discussed in the debates. With a full-blown impeachment inquiry underway, the House conducting numerous depositions this week, and several candidates on stage likely to have to vote on the matter eventually in Congress, some expected questions about whether Trump’s actions were impeachable to play a larger role.

Foreign policy was rarely a central issue in the first three debates, though there was some discussion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, President Trump’s policies toward Iran and North Korea, and the state of U.S. leadership on the world stage. Trump’s hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kurdish territories in northern Syria and a subsequent Turkish invasion lent new urgency to any discussion of international relations.

The next Democratic primary debate is set for Nov. 20 in Georgia, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post. The polling and fundraising thresholds will again increase, and so far, only eight candidates have met both requirements: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders, Steyer, Warren, and Yang.

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