Some of the candidates used the explosive congressional testimony from the EU ambassador Gordon Sondland earlier in the day as a launchpad to renew calls for Donald Trump’s impeachment.
“We have a criminal living in the White House,” said Kamala Harris, the California senator. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, argued her Senate colleagues had a “constitutional responsibility” to remove Trump from office.
Others, while condemning the president’s actions in the unfolding Ukraine scandal, urged their competitors to focus on their own vision for the country, rather than ongoing impeachment proceedings.
“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump, because if we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election,” said the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
The candidates were later pushed on whether they would support a criminal investigation into the president should they win office and Trump return to civilian life.
Joe Biden, the former vice-president, offered a fairly procedural response, suggesting he would allow his attorney general to make an independent call on the matter. “I would not dictate who should be prosecuted,” he said.
Candidates spar over the climate crisis
The climate crisis has so far stayed on the fringes of the Democratic debates, but tonight saw a robust discussion on the immediacy of the issue and how some of the candidates planned to attack it.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager, argued he was the only candidate in the field that has placed the climate crisis as the central issue in their campaign.
“It it isn’t priority one,” he said, challenging Biden and Warren’s positioning. “It’s not going to get done.” Steyer said he would use his presidential power to declare a state of emergency when he assumed office.
Biden retorted immediately, pushing the Obama administration’s record on climate.
“I don’t need a lecture from my friend,” Biden said, arguing that Steyer’s track record investing in coalmining spoke for itself. “I welcome him back into the fold here,” the former vice-president said.
Sanders also pushed his record introducing climate change legislation in the Senate declaring an emergency.
Tulsi Gabbard reinforces her status as a pariah candidate
Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, continued to reinforce her outsider status by criticising the Democratic mainstream and laying into Hillary Clinton, who she has already labelled “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic party”.
In defending those comments, Gabbard argued she was criticising her party that “has been and continues to be influenced by the foreign policy establishment in Washington, represented by Hillary Clinton and others’ foreign policy, by the military industrial complex and other greedy corporate interests”.
Kamala Harris was invited to respond, and issued a particularly pithy put-down.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama.”
Harris also said that Gabbard had “buddied up to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump in the Trump Tower” before Trump was sworn in as president.
Gabbard also sparred with Pete Buttigieg at the end of the debate, challenging his national security credentials. Buttigieg responded by criticising Gabbard’s decision to meet with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Finally, a question on voting rights
Despite its pivotal importance to the 2020 election, the issue of voting rights and modern day voter suppression has not been raised by moderators at any of the previous four debates or at all during the 2016 primary.
Tonight’s debate ended that silence.
“We need federal leadership to establish voting rights for the 21st century because this affects every other issue that we care about,” said Buttigieg. He urged the Senate to pass legislation currently passed in the house that ensures automatic voter registration, and said he would make election day a public holiday should he be elected president.
Earlier in the debate the Senator Amy Klobuchar attempted to force the issue through on another question.
She made reference to allegations of widespread voter suppression in Georgia last year during a gubernatorial election contested by the Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams. She argued, were it not for voter suppression, “Stacey Abrams would be governor of this state right now.”
Buttigieg avoids major overt criticism
Despite a clash with Tulsi Gabbard, Pete Buttigieg avoided any real direct criticism from the other candidates, despite many commentators believing he would be targeted for his lack of experience after strong recent polling in Iowa.
Buttigieg struck a strong tone when asked by moderators about his lack of legislative history at the highest levels of government. He portrayed himself as Washington outsider who would bring small town values to the presidency and shake up the capitol from the inside. He added that he was “literally the least wealthy person on this stage”, with reference to the perceived privilege of the other candidates.
Nonetheless, the Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar revised her specific criticism of Buttigieg – namely that a woman with his level of experience would not be on the debate stage – to a broader critique of societal sexism.
If the United States was a gender equal society, the candidate said, “We’d be playing the game ‘name your favorite woman president.’”
She later added: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”