December 20, 2019 at 1:31 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Knives out for Buttigieg in debate as LGBTQ issues finally come up
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend, Ind.) speaks at a Democratic primary presidential debate on Dec. 19. (Photo courtesy of PBS News Hour/POLITICO)

Climate change, health care — and for the first time this year in a substantive way, LGBTQ issues — were major topics during the Democratic debate Thursday night, when seven candidates squared off on stage for the last time in 2019 and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg found himself the target of criticism.

In no particular order, here’s five takeaways from the PBS/Politico debate, which took place in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University’s Gersten Pavilion. 

The seven candidates on stage along with Buttigieg were entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joseph Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and businessperson Tom Steyer.

1. Lower-tier candidates had their moment

With the number of candidates on the debate stage winnowed down to seven, each of the contenders on stage had a greater opportunity for speaking time, giving those considered lower tier — like Yang, Klobuchar and Steyer — their time in the sun.

Klobuchar was both energetic, forceful and engaging as she made her case for the nomination. Keeping her reputation as queen of puns in the Democratic primary, Klobuchar in response to the first question quipped, “As a wise judge said, the president is not king in America, the law is king.”

The Minnesota Democrat’s use of imagery was particularly powerful when the issue of climate change came up and she talked about the way her home state has first-hand experience with the issue.

“What we are seeing there is unprecedented flooding, we’re seeing an increase of 50 percent in homeowners’ insurance over the last few years,” Klobuchar said. “And when we make these changes, we have to make clear to people that when we put a price on carbon, that that money is going to come to back to those areas where are going to be hurt, where jobs are going to change and to make them whole with their energy bills.”

Klobuchar was able to tie that in with electability, saying when you make that case “you bring in the Midwestern votes, you win big.”

“I think the best way to do it is by putting someone at the top of the ticket who’s from the Midwest,” Klobuchar concluded.

Steyer, who has been struggling to make his case for relevancy in the Democratic primary, certainly made up for that in his debate performance when he made his case for being the best candidate to take on Trump, who’s likely to run a strong economy.

“I built a business over 30 years from scratch,” Steyer said. “We’re going to have to take him on on the economy in terms of growth as well as economic justice. We’re going to have to be able to talk about growth, prosperity across the board for everyone in America. My experience, building a business, understanding how to make that happen, means I can go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump and take him down on the economy and expose him as a fraud and a failure.” 

Yang also had some good moments, especially in response to the first question on the topic of impeachment, when he seamlessly transitioned to a changing economy.

“If your turn on cable network news today, you would think he’s our president because of some combination of Russia, racism, Facebook, Hillary Clinton and emails all mixed together,” Yang said. “But Americans around the country know different. We blasted away 4 million manufacturing jobs that were primarily based in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri. I just left Iowa — we blasted 40,000 manufacturing jobs there. 

“The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems, the more Americans lose trust that we can actually see what’s going on in our communities and solve those problems,” Yang concluded.

But the extra time wasn’t always good for these candidates, especially Yang. Among other things, he made a bizarre comment his plan for a $1,000 universal monthly income would somehow have led to more candidates of color on the debate stage. Later on, he said American youth are addicted to both smartphones and drugs, drawing an odd comparison between the two.

Yang’s response to the final question, what he would give as a gift to the candidates, was a copy of his book. That ended up coming off as self-serving when other candidates offered more aspirational answers like beating President Trump in 2020 election.

2. The knives were out for Buttigieg

Buttigieg didn’t have his best night, and that’s putting it gently. He had a lot of canned answers and talking points that made him seem robotic. The only breakout moment for him was when the issue of China came up and he had a great line about the country using technology for “the perfection of dictatorship.”

On top of that, the knives were out across the stage for Buttigieg, whom many polls shows is the front-runner in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In each instance, Buttigieg fought back aggressively, but his opponents — who are reportedly grumbling about his success given his lack of experience — knew how to draw out his weaknesses.

The first exchange took place between Buttigieg and Warren, when the Massachusetts Democrat took an oblique knock at him by saying she doesn’t raise money from wealthy donors who pay $5,000 for a selfie.

Buttigieg — who unlike Warren, is willing is hold fundraisers with major donors — picked up on that, rejecting the criticism.

“Donald Trump and his allies have it abundantly clear that they will stop at nothing, not even foreign interference to hold on to power,” Buttigieg said. “They’ve already put together more than $300 million. This is our chance. This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump, and we shouldn’t try to do it with one-hand tied behind our back.”

But Warren twisted the knife in further, pointing out Buttigieg held a fundraiser in California in a “wine cave” full of crystals where alcohol was served for $900 a bottle.

“Think about who comes to that,” Warren said. “He had promised that every fundraiser that he would do would be open door, but this one was closed door. We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoked-filled rooms would not pick the president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”

Buttigieg shoot back by saying he’s the only candidate on the stage who isn’t a millionaire or a billionaire, decrying such complaints as “purity tests” and saying if he swore off those donations he couldn’t be on the stage. Buttigieg also made it personal: “Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”

The exchange went on with Warren saying she doesn’t sell access to her time. Buttigieg went on to say her presidential campaign was funded in part by money she transferred after having raised money at big ticket events.

“Did it corrupt you, Senator?” Buttigieg said. “Of course not.”

Taking a different approach, Klobuchar said she was hurt by earlier comments Buttigieg made about his lack of experience being a lack of experience in Washington. To the contrary, Klobuchar said, many candidates on the debate stage accomplished a lot as representatives in the federal government.

“I have not denigrated your experience as a local official,” Klobuchar said. “I have been one. I just think you should respect our experience.”

Buttigieg responded Klobuchar had, in fact, denigrated his experience before a break in the debate by implying his relationship to the First Amendment was talking point, but he “was going to let it go because we have bigger fish to fry here.”

Klobuchar shot back, “I don’t think we have bigger fish to fry than picking a president of the United States.”

The Afghanistan war veteran wouldn’t stand for that.

“Let me tell you about my relationship to the First Amendment,” Buttigieg said. “It is part of the Constitution that I raised my right hand and swore to defend with my life. That is my experience, and it may not be the same as yours, but it counts, Senator. It counts.”

Klobuchar said she certainly respects Buttigieg’s military experience, but the election is about choosing a president.

“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and has been able to show that they can gather the support that you talk about from moderate Republicans and independents as well as a fired up Democratic base,” Klobuchar said. “And I have not just done it once, I have done it three.”

If there’s a such a thing as a gay card, Buttigieg played it.

“Do you want about the capacity to win?” Buttigieg said. “Try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”

But Klobuchar pointed out Buttigieg tried before to win statewide in Indiana and couldn’t make it happen. South Bend, she said, was another matter.

“If had won in Indiana, that would be one thing,” Buttigieg said. “You tried and you lost by 20 points.”

Those weren’t the only times the debate was heated. On the issue of health care, Biden, who wants to build on Obamacare, and Sanders, who wants Medicare for All, got into a quarrel about affordability that got testy. Klobuchar came in to rescue to resolve it, saying her plan for a non-profit public option was both progressive and practical.

3. Biden showed off his foreign policy chops

In contrast to Buttigieg, Biden had inarguably his best debate performance over the course of the year. He was filled with a new energy he hadn’t exhibited before on stage and offered concrete plans for policy.

When the issue of age came up, Biden had the response he should have given in the first debate when Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) all but told him it was time to give up the torch: With experience comes wisdom.

“I’m running, because I’ve been around, on my experience,” Biden said. “With experience hopefully comes judgment and a little bit of wisdom.”

Amid media reports Biden has indicated he’d only serve one term as president, he somewhat blunted this response by refusing to commit one way or the way on stage about a second term, but it’s debatable whether that was much of a drawback.

But Biden shined the most during the debate when foreign policy came up, giving the former vice president a chance to show off his chops on his credentials on the issue.

Take for instance, the issue of China, when Biden condemns the nation for human rights abuses and offered a specific plan his audience could easily envision.

“We have to make clear is that we, in fact, are not going to abide by what they’ve done,” Biden said. “A million Uighurs, as you pointed out, are in concentration camps. That’s where they are right now. They’re being abused. They’re in concentration.”

Biden pledged to move 60 percent of U.S. seapower to the Pacific Ocean to “let, in fact, the Chinese understand that they’re not going to go any further, we are going to be other to protect other folks.”

The former vice president went on call for rebuilding alliances with South Korea, Australia and Indonesia and going to the United Nations to issue sanctions against China.

4. LGBTQ issues finally came up

After one question on LGBTQ issues had come up heretofore in only the Democratic debates this year (and one that didn’t really require candidates to give thoughtful answers on policy), a debate moderator finally posed a question on LGBTQ issues to the candidates.

PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked the candidates about their support Equality Act, comprehensive legislation that would prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and what they would do to address anti-trans violence. In this year 2019 alone, 27 transgender people were counted as killed.

Sanders, who was the first candidate asked to respond, drew a contrast with the current anti-LGBTQ Trump administration and himself by saying leadership on LGBTQ issues is important.

“We need moral leadership in the White House,” Sanders said. “We need a president who will do everything humanly possible to end all forms of discrimination against the transgender community, against the African-American community, against the Latino community and against all minorities in this country.”

With transgender people calling for greater access health care, including transition-related care, Sanders said his Medicare for All plan would ensure all Americans would have access to health care “regardless of their sexual orientation or their needs…including certainly the transgender community.”

Warren took a slightly different route, committing herself to each year as president reading the names of the transgender people killed in the Rose Garden of the White House. 

“I will make sure that we read their names so that as a nation, we are forced to address a particular vulnerability on homelessness,” Warren said.

Additionally, Warren pledged to reverse the Trump administration policy at the Bureau of Prisons that refuses to respect the gender identity of transgender inmates when placing them into federal detention.

Before the question was asked, Warren also name-checked the transgender community in reference to comments former President Obama made about needing new women leaders, saying she believes he was “talking about women and people of color and trans people and people whose voices just so often get shoved out.”

5. Impeachment was avoided like the plague

Impeachment only came up during the debate in the context of the first question, when moderator Jody Woodruff pointed out the U.S. House impeached Trump this week despite polls showing a majority of American public are opposed to impeachment.

That might have something to do with why the candidates wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot-pole afterward.

Klobuchar used the opportunity to call for White House officials to serve as witnesses in the Senate trial, a sentiment echoed on stage. All the candidates responded by criticizing Trump, but clearly were eager to move to other subjects. 

Just as Yang moved to the topic of the changing economy, Buttigieg shifted to corporate greed and being able to change things in the 2020 election.

“it’s up to us,” Buttigieg said. “No matter what happens in the Senate, it is up to us in 2020. This is our chance to refuse to be taken in by the helplessness, to refuse and reject the cynicism.”

Not one candidate brought it up afterwards. It was clear they wanted to have the job of ousting Trump from the White House themselves.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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