The 7 biggest moments of the Democratic debate

Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are not having it with Pete Buttigieg, as evidenced by Friday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire.

The 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has sought to cast himself as a fresh face on the political scene and play into the “Washington outsider” narrative. But Warren and Klobuchar, two deeply experienced and talented politicians who have nevertheless been dogged by questions of “electability,” are not having it.

“We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us,” Klobuchar quipped in reference to Buttigieg. And Warren’s take on Buttigieg’s hedged answer on racism in the police department he oversaw: not good enough.

Not all of the most important moments were that contentious, but Friday’s debate fell days after the chaotic Iowa caucuses, the results of which are still unknown, and tensions were notably high. Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg appear to have received the most support in Iowa, and while Warren outperformed her polling there, it has been largely overlooked by the media in lieu of covering the ongoing meltdown over results. Joe Biden’s support, on the other hand, was somewhat surprisingly weak, while Klobuchar seems to have delivered at least what she wanted to.

We’re now just days away from the New Hampshire primary. Elbows are getting sharper, and emotions are running high. It was evident at this latest debate that candidates are feeling the heat and sharpening their cases for their campaigns. (Though at one point, there was a Bernie-Biden hug, and Tom Steyer really does seem to love Sanders.)

If you spent your Friday night doing something other than watching the debate (which, fair) and want to catch up, or if you want to relive the showdown, here are the seven biggest moments of the night:

Bernie and Biden go at it on Medicare-for-all

The Medicare-for-all cost question simply will not go away. On Friday, Joe Biden took his turn going after Bernie Sanders on his plan.

“Bernie says he wrote the damn thing — but he’s unwilling to tell us what the damn thing is going to cost,” Biden said. “It will cost more than the entire federal budget now, the idea middle-class taxes are not going to up is just crazy!”

Sen. Bernie Sanders argued with Joe Biden about the cost of Medicare-for-all during the debate on Friday night.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This time, Biden had brought some receipts from a failed single-payer experiment in Vermont — Sanders’s home state. Ironically, said experiment was spearheaded by former Gov. Peter Shumlin, who now supports Biden.

“When they did it in Vermont, what happened?” Biden said. “They double the state income tax and then had a 14 percent tax on withholding, and they finally did away with it. So how much is it going to cost?”

Sanders responded bringing up a point he has brought up many, many times before: The cost of doing nothing to reform America’s health care system will also be incredibly expensive. At his town halls, Sanders often asks voters how much they pay in premiums and deductibles per year — often the answers are in the tens of thousands.

Raising his voice to match Biden’s tone earlier, Sanders told Biden his plan “would be much less expensive than your plan.”

“If we do what Joe wants, we’ll be spending some $50 trillion dollars on health care over the next 10 years,” Sanders said. “That’s the status quo, Joe. Maybe it has something to do with the fact the health care industry last year made $100 billion in profit. Maybe it has something to do with the fact we are wasting $500 billion a year trying to administer thousands and thousands of different plans. What Medicare for all will do is save the average Americans substantial sums of money.”

Health care is a top issue for Democratic voters, and there’s a real divide in the party about whether to stabilize Obamacare, pursue a public option, or go all-in on Medicare-for-all. But we have now been over this cost question ad nauseam with similar answers each time. As Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote back in October, it “totally ignores the toll of the Trump administration’s reckless agenda to pare back health coverage in this country.”

Ella Nilsen

Amy Klobuchar bats back at Pete Buttigieg with impeachment

Amy Klobuchar appears not to be a fan of Pete Buttigieg. The Minnesota senator took a swipe at the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor at the November debate over the gender dynamics of women succeeding in politics. And on Friday evening, she demonstrated that, yet again, she has little patience for Buttigieg’s casting of experience as a negative. And she did it with some gravity: She mentioned President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, which she and two other candidates on the stage — Warren and Sanders — had taken part in in recent weeks.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer speak during the eighth Democratic debate on February 7, 2020.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

“I am listening to this about ‘meeting the moment,’” she said, using a phrase Buttigieg had just invoked to talk about the challenges the next president will face, “and my first thought is, ‘I’m a fresh face up here for a presidential debate, and I figure, Pete, that 59, my age, is the new 38 up here.’”

But then her tone turned more serious: “We had a moment the last few weeks, Mayor, and that moment was these impeachment hearings, and there was a lot of courage that you saw from only a few people.” She named Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), who voted to convict the president despite being from a deep-red state, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the only Republican who voted to convict, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified during President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry in the House and was removed from his post on the National Security Council on Friday.

“What you said, Pete, as you were campaigning through Iowa as three of us were jurors in that impeachment hearing, you said it was exhausting to watch and that you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons,” Klobuchar said.

It was a powerful defense of political experience and a reminder of the gravity of holding elected office at the highest levels of government.

Criticizing things because it’s popular makes you seem like a “cool newcomer,” Klobuchar said. “We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us,” she said.

—Emily Stewart

A nice hug

Sure there were plenty of presidential candidates shouting at each other on the debate stage, but there was also a very nice moment of levity in the form of a cute side-hug.

Right after ABC moderator Linsey Davis framed a question about Hillary Clinton’s recent comments on Sanders that “nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he gets nothing done,” Biden swooped in for a hug with Bernie — as if to ward off the bad 2016 juju.

Listen, this week has been a year, and hugs are nice!

Ella Nilsen

Joe Biden calls on the crowd to stand up for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key impeachment witness

Klobuchar wasn’t the only person to invoke Vindman’s name on Friday evening — Biden did as well. During the first hour of the debate, the former vice president made a dig at Trump over his latest choice of Medal of Freedom recipient — one of America’s most notorious racists— and said Vindman should have been the one to receive the country’s highest civilian honor.

He then asked the audience to “stand up and clap” for Vindman, who had been escorted from the White House earlier in the day. “That’s not who we are. We are not what Trump is,” he said.

The moment, while a moving one, is also emblematic of Biden’s case for the presidency: to restore the dignity of the country and prove that Trump is not representative of the country at large.

If you’re not caught up on Vindman, Vox’s Jen Kirby explained what happened:

Vindman, a top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He testified that he found the call inappropriate and that he saw it as “improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”

Now Vindman has been removed from his post in the White House as of this Friday, according to his lawyer. His twin brother, a lawyer for the National Security Council, was also fired.

— Emily Stewart

Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar on abortion rights

Activists have been pushing the debate moderators to #AskAboutAbortion, and some 90 minutes into Friday’s debate, they did so. The question first came to Biden: Would he use support for abortion rights as a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees?

The former vice president gave a somewhat incoherent answer to the question, jumping from the constitutional basis of Roe v. Wade to the various female Supreme Court nominees he helped confirm. Then Elizabeth Warren started talking.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar offered sharp answers on abortion rights at the Democratic debate on Friday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“I’ve lived in an America in which abortion was illegal, and rich women still got abortions, and that’s what we have to remember about this,” she began. It was a reminder that when the Court rules in the abortion case June Medical Services v. Gee later this year, the Americans most likely to be affected are low-income people and people of color.

“Three out of every four people in America believe right now that the rule of Roe vs. Wade should be the law,” Warren went on. “That means we should be pushing for a congressional solution as well. It is time to have a national law to protect the right of a woman’s choice.”

Most Democrats in the race support codifying Roe in statute, and it would be a difficult battle. But Warren articulated the position clearly, and made the point that the current Court, with two Trump appointees, may well be out of step with American public opinion.

Klobuchar also had a strong answer on the question, offering a reminder that during the 2016 campaign, Trump said he favored putting women in jail for getting abortions. He later walked that back, but, Klobuchar asked, “Is it a big surprise we are seeing states like Alabama enacting laws that will criminalize doctors who perform abortions?”

It’s a question a lot of abortion-rights advocates have been asking too, noting that Trump’s election seems to have emboldened states to pass a wave of near-total abortion bans.

You don’t have to be a woman to give a strong answer on abortion rights. Sanders was clear and concise in offering a three-point plan for protecting them. But Warren and Klobuchar showed a kind of sharp thinking on the issue that some male candidates, like Biden, have never really had to develop.

—Anna North

Is Pete Buttigieg’s answer on racism in the South Bend police department good enough? Elizabeth Warren says no.

Pete Buttigieg’s answer on racism in the South Bend Police Department under his watch might not have been up to par. Just ask moderator Linsey Davis — and Elizabeth Warren.

Davis, a correspondent at ABC News, pointed out that while Buttigieg was the head of South Bend, a black man in the city was four times likelier to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, and that the disparity increased after he took office. Buttigieg tried to talk around the answer — pointing out that drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average and within the state and trying to instead pivot to talking about drug issues and arrests in the country nationally.

“There is no question that systemic racism has penetrated to every level of our system, and our city is not immune,” he said. But Davis continued to press him: answer the question.

Buttigieg hedged again, talking about targeting gang violence and gun violence “slaughtering the community” and targeting police enforcement. And so Davis turned to Warren: Was that answer substantial enough?

Her answer: “No” — to applause.

“You have to own up to the facts, and it’s important to own up to the facts about how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system,” she said, citing studies about how people of color are likelier to be punished than the criminal justice system in the US. Perhaps more interestingly, she stressed that race has to be talked about beyond criminal justice. “We need to start having race-conscious laws,” she said.

Buttigieg has a big problem with black voters, and Friday may not have fixed it.

—Emily Stewart

All the talk of race with few candidates of color on stage

There was a good chunk of time toward the end of the debate devoted to issues of race, which was noticeable given the fact there are no longer any black or brown candidates on the debate stage. Only one candidate of color, businessman Andrew Yang, was on stage Friday.

Indeed, all the talk about reparations, voting rights issues, gerrymandering, and criminal justice issues might have seemed out of place in New Hampshire, a state that’s about 90 percent white. It was clear many of the candidates were thinking ahead to the voters in more diverse early states like Nevada and South Carolina.

The discussion about race was kicked off after Buttigieg was asked about racism in South Bend’s police department. But billionaire Tom Steyer — a very white man wearing a very plaid tie — kept the conversation going.

“We have not said one word tonight about race. Not one word!” Steyer admonished his fellow candidates. “Are you kidding me? We have a very diverse country, we have a very diverse party … For goodness’ sake, pull it together.”

Steyer, who’s making a concerted push in South Carolina, continued by talking about his support for reparations and challenged Biden to call out one of his top South Carolina surrogates, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, for remarks some have deemed racist. The conversation continued on from there, with Warren calling for new housing, education, and health care laws that specifically address persistent racial inequities; as well as a baffling rejoinder from Andrew Yang that universal basic income — not new laws — would help solve racism in America.

At one point, Klobuchar jumped in with a point on voter discrimination, saying, “There’s something else insidious that we haven’t addressed, and that is systematic racism when it comes to voting.”

After New Hampshire votes on Tuesday, expect these issues to come up a lot more in states like South Carolina and Nevada, both of which have a bigger black and Latino population than New Hampshire.

—Ella Nilsen