Americans had reason on Wednesday to stay glued to their television sets throughout the day. Early in the morning, many watched as a top US diplomat gave explosive testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Another impeachment hearing followed, and less than two hours after the testimony wrapped up, Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls took the stage in the fifth debate of the campaign season.
The debate comes at a critical time for the candidates as they seek to capture the attention of voters in the run-up to the primary election season, which kicks off in February in Iowa. That has been difficult for many, however, as the impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump intensifies.
The debate, hosted by the Washington Post newspaper and MSNBC in Atlanta, Georgia, welcomed 10 candidates on the stage: Former Vice President Joe Biden, US Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, businessman Tom Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
The Democratic White House race has so far featured a three-way battle at the top of recent national polls between moderate Biden and progressive leaders Warren and Sanders.
But Buttigieg has taken the lead in two recent polls in Iowa and is on the move in early-voting New Hampshire despite questions about his relative lack of experience and his inability to make inroads with African-American voters.
Here’s a look at where the candidates stood on some of the key issues discussed on Tuesday night.
Wednesday’s debate was the first to take place since the Democratic-led impeachment investigation moved into the public phase, and the inquiry was on the candidates’ minds.
“We have to establish the principle that no one is above the law, we have a constitutional responsibility and we need to meet it,” said Warren, an early supporter of Trump’s impeachment.
Buttigieg said the “constitutional process of impeachment should be beyond politics and it’s not part of the campaign. But the president’s conduct is.”
The Democratic-led House of Representatives in September launched the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s bid to get Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma. It is also looking into whether Trump may have withheld $391m in security aid to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed separatists as a way to pressure Kyiv to undertake the investigations.
Trump has denied doing anything wrong, and accused Biden of corruption without offering evidence. Biden also has denied any wrongdoing and said Trump’s efforts showed he was worried about having to face him in the 2020 election.
A US diplomat said on Wednesday that “everyone was in the loop” about a Trump administration effort to get Ukraine to carry out investigations that might ultimately benefit Trump, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He also said there was quid pro quo (Latin for “a favour for a favour”).
Although the candidates appeared united on their stance towards Trump and impeachment, some warned the Democrats not to lose focus.
“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump,” Sanders said. “Because if we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election.”
Khashoggi, who was a Washington Post newspaper columnist, was killed in October 2018 after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Trump has been criticised for his continued relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), despite reports that US intelligence concluded that MBS ordered the killing – a conclusion the Saudi kingdom rejects.
Biden said he would make the Saudi Arabian government “pay the price” for any responsibility in the killing of Khashoggi.
Biden said he believes the journalist was killed at the behest of MBS, and that, as president, he would end subsidies and sales of military material to the kingdom.
“I would make it very clear, we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them”, Biden said.
Klobuchar said that “when the president did not stand up the way he should to that killing and that dismemberment of a journalist with an American newspaper, that sent a signal to dictators … and that’s wrong.”
Sanders, said that the US has “to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room with American leadership”, and say: ‘We are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflict’.”
He added that Saudi Arabia “is not a reliable ally”.
Also on the foreign policy front, Sanders said he is “pro-Israel” but that is no longer “enough” and the US “must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve”.
The healthcare debate was on repeat on Wednesday night, with candidates clashing again over Medicare for Alll, a plan to provide universal, government-run health insurance.
Wednesday’s tussle began with squabbles over a programme that some Democrats worry could alienate voters who are wary of fully government-run healthcare and will be difficult to get through Congress. And yet, partly because it is among the few areas where the field has clear ideological divides, Democratic contenders cannot stop talking about it.
Biden continued his push for modifications to the healthcare reforms passed during the presidency of Barack Obama. The former vice president argued that voters are hesitant to make the transformative government-backed changes pushed by candidates including Sanders and Warren.
“The fact is that right now the vast majority of Democrats do not support Medicare for All,” Biden said. “It couldn’t pass the United States Senate right now with Democrats. It couldn’t pass the House.”
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll out this week found that 77 percent of Democrats support Medicare for All.
Buttigieg also attacked the progressives, saying government should not be “commanding people” to accept Medicare for All.
“Whether we wait three years as Senator Warren has proposed or whether you do it right out of the gate is not the right approach to unify the American people around a very, very big transformation that we now have an opportunity to deliver,” Buttigieg said.
The debate took place in the southern state of Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the gubernatorial race last year to Republican Brian Kemp.
Abrams, who was seeking to become the state’s first black woman governor, accused Kemp of voter suppression, which she said disproportionately affected minority groups. Kemp oversaw the election as Georgia’s secretary of state.
Abrams name was brought up at least twice during the debate.
“It was the voter suppression, particularly of African American communities, that prevented us from having a governor – Stacey Abrams, right?” Booker said.
Booker was met with applause and laughter when he took aim at Biden for saying he would not legalise cannabis.
“I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Booker said, adding that cannabis is already legal for white privileged people, but it puts black and brown individuals in jail.
Responding to Booker, Biden said he would decriminalise the use of cannabis, but would investigate its health effects.
Booker said that black voters want “authentic connections”, adding that African Americans are angry that the only time politicians talk to their communities is when they want their vote.
“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters,” Booker said. “I’ve been one since I was 18.”
Harris called herself the Democratic presidential candidate best poised to revive the coalition of voters that sent Barack Obama to the White House.
Harris highlighted her ability to connect with black women in particular, saying the Democratic Party has often relied on them to win without truly focusing on their issues.
“For too long candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Harris said. “The question has to be: ‘Where ya been, and what are you going to do?'”
Biden incorrectly stated during the debate that he has the support of the “only African-American woman ever elected to the Senate”. That drew a response from Harris, an African-American woman on stage alongside Biden and other hopefuls on Wednesday in Atlanta. Harris interjected that “the other one is here”. Biden quickly stated, “I said the first.”