In this special post-debate edition: The moments that could end up mattering, a talk with the mayor of Los Angeles, and a new poll to keep Democrats nice and nervous.
Caves are for batmobiles, not wine, and this is The Trailer.
LOS ANGELES – There are really two Democratic primaries underway, with two different leaders, and one of them had a very good debate last night.
In one primary, unfolding in Iowa and New Hampshire over the next eight weeks, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg had taken command. The electorates in those states, hunting for the magic and inspiration they saw in Barack Obama, are not sure who's got it. But they had begun to see the future when they squinted at "Mayor Pete."
In the other primary, taking place in the other 48 states, former vice president Joe Biden has been leading all year. Black voters and older white voters want a nominee they can trust, one with the best chance of defeating Donald Trump. Inspiration would be nice, but mostly, they want to be reassured.
Biden, who has been watched uneasily in these first six debates, had the better night. He had plenty of solid, error-free time at the microphone, and he benefited from the crabs-in-a-barrel tussle between the Democrats trying to displace Buttigieg. It was the most substantive debate so far, thanks to some smart moderating from the PBS NewsHour and Politico (forgive the "Christmas spirit" round), and to rules that cut the field down to seven candidates.
These debates are remembered for individual moments, not all of them under candidates' control. Here was what mattered.
"A wine cave full of crystals." Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts had lost ground in Iowa to Buttigieg, even as most voters said they liked both candidates. That was the spark for a fight about campaign finance that Warren brought onstage, pivoting from a question about candidates' age ("I'd also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated") to bait Buttigieg into an argument about wealthy donors.
Spending so much time at fundraisers, Warren argued, made Buttigieg accountable to the rich, and she dramatized her point by invoking photos of a dinner held in the wine cave owned by former ambassador to Austria Kathryn Hall
"People who can put down $5,000 to have a picture taken don't have the same priorities as people who are struggling with student loan debt or who are struggling to pay off medical debt," Warren said.
Both candidates knew what they were doing. They had scrapped about transparency and big money for a week between the fifth and sixth debates. Warren had goaded Buttigieg into opening fundraisers to the press, which led to the "wine cave" photo, while Buttigieg portrayed Warren as a hypocrite who had courted big donors until it was possible for her not to.
"Your presidential campaign right now as we speak is funded in part by money you transferred, having raised it at those exact same big-ticket fundraisers you now denounce," Buttigieg said.
In real time, the exchange looked like a win for Buttigieg. But Warren's transfer of Senate funds to her presidential campaign was unmemorable, and widely known, while the "wine cave" was begging to be Googled; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had already purchased PetesWineCave.com to mock Buttigieg.
The candidate's handling of the topic veered toward smugness, citing Forbes to point out that Warren is wealthier than he is, and snarking "As of when?" as Warren talked about using "call time" to contact only low-dollar donors. Tellingly, Buttigieg's example of a low-dollar donor was "a grad student digging deep" to "chip in 10 bucks," imagining that even his grass-roots supporters were seeking advanced degrees.
When it was over, both sides figured that they'd won. But while Warren connected the topic to her campaign theme, fighting corruption, Buttigieg was defending a process Democratic voters didn't like to think about, and with an ad hominem attack at its center. Republicans had repeatedly attacked Warren as a wealthy elitist, to no effect; Democrats, who first met Warren as a crusading anti-Wall Street professor, had never heard this before.
"You tried and you lost by 20 points." Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) had bristled at Buttigieg for months, making a critique that many voters didn't seem to share: that the 37-year-old mayor of Indiana's fourth-largest city was not qualified to be president. Buttigieg's “Rust Belt mayor made good" story was connecting with Iowans, and Klobuchar's story ("senator wins elections, passes bills") was more politely received.
Klobuchar tried to hack away at Buttigieg's advantage by talking directly to his electoral record. In a normal political year, it could have seemed esoteric. It had a chance of succeeding Thursday because Democrats tell their candidates that what concerns them most is whether a candidate can defeat the president.
"I think winning matters," Klobuchar said, ribbing Buttigieg not just for his 2010 defeat in a race for state treasurer, but for his high-profile loss as a candidate to run the DNC. "I think a track record of getting things done matters. And I also think showing our party that we can actually bring people with us, have a wider tent, have a bigger coalition, and, yes, longer coattails, that matters."
Buttigieg had a rebuttal to Warren: She was focused on "purity tests" that could hurt in a general election. There was no easy response to Klobuchar's blunt electoral argument, because Buttigieg really had won only two elections in a strongly Democratic city. He was on the defensive and sounded like it. "If you just go by vote totals, maybe what goes on in my city seems small to you," Buttigieg said, to which an exasperated-sounding Klobuchar said he'd lost his only statewide race by 20 points. (The margin was actually 25 points.)
"What we need is a trade policy that stands up for workers." Sanders has been the most consistent performer in these debates. He shows up, he jokes around, and he talks about his record. He's rarely attacked, for a strategic reason that's destined to be either insightful or deeply ironic: His rivals just don't think he can win.
Sanders used that position effectively Thursday, navigating around his rivals to describe a populist, electable 2020 campaign. Trade, which labor unions point to as the biggest problem for the party in 2016, gave Sanders his biggest opening, after he was the first candidate asked about the new USMCA treaty designed to update NAFTA.
"You're talking to somebody who, unlike some of my colleagues here, voted against NAFTA, voted against PNTR with China," Sanders said. "Two agreements that cost us over 4 million decent-paying jobs."
The only "colleague" this applied to was Biden, and Sanders also engaged with him more directly than in any previous debate. But the larger point was that Sanders distinguished himself from colleagues who could not match his record. Labor does not oppose USMCA as it did NAFTA, but Warren hasn't taken a position on it yet. Warren got in the most licks about campaign finance, but Sanders was the candidate setting purity tests (he's even given back a billionaire's money) without getting ribbed for it.
Sanders didn't say everything he wanted to. An exchange with Biden on Medicare-for-all added nothing to the primary's most-discussed topic, and for the second debate in a row, Sanders never hit the former vice president on his decision to bless a super PAC. (Biden had previously denounced the super PAC as a concept, and claimed credit for Sanders's decision not to have one.)
"If anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans, and not want to cooperate, it's me." Joe Biden has had plenty of bad debate moments, only some of them sparked by rival candidates. (Nobody forced him to start rambling about record players back in September.) Unusually for a candidate leading in polls, he complained about the format, telling audiences at his own events that the debates were more like joint appearances, revealing little.
The looser format proved Biden's point, as did the general lack of interest by other candidates in attacking him. (These things happen when long shots get pushed offstage.) Biden evaded a question about reparations to talk about immigrants ("They are ready to stand up and work like the devil") with no downside. He accepted the premise of a question that could hurt in a general election – would he fight climate change even if it hurt "blue-collar" workers? – then gave an optimistic answer that no candidate attacked.
"We're the only country in the world that's ever taken great, great crises and turned them into enormous opportunities," said Biden, hitting a main campaign theme: that the country can do transformative things with some smart investments, not a restructuring of the economy.
It's unclear if Biden's rivals could hurt him by talking about his son Hunter's tabloid-friendly life. The vice presidential scion, who lives just miles from the debate site, came up only when Biden talked about his willingness to work with Republicans who attacked him. "If anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans and not want to cooperate, it's me," Biden said. "The way they've attacked me, my son, and my family. I have no love, but the fact is, we have to be able to get things done."
Even one of Biden's less helpful instincts, his reluctance to let another candidate claim credit for something he does too paid off. After jumping off Warren's riff on accessibility and "selfies" ("You're not the only one that does selfies, senator”), Biden described the personal interactions he had with voters. It was a rich contrast, with Warren describing how voter contact informed her policies, while Biden focused on how he personally liked to inspire people. By talking about how he cheered up a child with a stutter, Biden got an unexpected assist from former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who tweeted and deleted a cheap shot making fun of him. Anything that convinces Democrats that a Biden candidacy would rattle and defeat Republicans is good for him, and Biden's rivals let him do that convincingly for two and a half hours.
"Democrats spar over how to combat Trump, a roaring economy and impeachment," by Matt Viser, Michael Scherer and Amy B Wang
The debate explained.
A candidate unlikely to make another debate has become a full-time advocate.
The end of the least-suspenseful party swap in modern history.
Health care didn't get another debate moment, but it's still dividing the party.
"Warren vs. Buttigieg on purity tests, explained," by Amber Phillips
The legend of the crystal wine cellar.
The latest on the impeachment of President Trump:
- Former White House officials say they feared Putin influenced the president’s views on Ukraine and 2016 campaign
- Pelosi’s delay sparks standoff with Senate GOP over Trump impeachment trial
- ‘It’s a horrible thing they did’: Trump now bears the indelible mark of impeachment
- Here's what happens next
2020 election (CNN/SSRS, 1,005 adults)
Joe Biden: 49% (-4)
Donald Trump: 44% ( 1)
Bernie Sanders: 49% (-3)
Donald Trump: 45% ( 2)
Elizabeth Warren: 47% (-5)
Donald Trump: 46% ( 2)
Donald Trump: 46% ( 2)
Pete Buttigieg: 45% (-5)
When CNN last asked voters to imagine a 2020 presidential election, the House had just begun an impeachment inquiry into the president. A few detours aside, the president has generally handled the impeachment like Bill Clinton did two decades ago: dismissing it as partisan and asking voters to consider how good the economy is. The result is a shuffle that shows Trump's resilience and his weakness: More than 1 in 3 voters who think the economy's doing well are ready to vote against the president. But what had been a reason for Democratic confidence (every potential candidate leading Trump) has become a study of why no candidate might, to use Joe Biden's phrase, "beat him like a drum."
ON THE TRAIL
LOS ANGELES – More than two dozen Democrats have sought, or are seeking, the party's presidential nomination. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti isn't among them. He passed on a bid in early 2019 after making some early state visits and investments that intrigued Democratic voters. And he was comfortable with that decision, especially on a debate night.
"It's tough for people to balance good TV with the context of who they are," Garcetti said in an interview before the debate.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
WASHINGTON POST: What do expect to happen in the suburban California districts that Democrats won in 2018? How is impeachment going to play?
ERIC GARCETTI: I think it's stressful for everybody. … It's stressful in the sense that a national leader has broken the law and has betrayed the Constitution. That people believe that is stressful. But what we really want people to be focused on is the core issues of our lives, and it kind of feels like Washington is focused on Washington. I don't think that it won't be a core part of the conversations that most people have door to door, on the phone, or in closing arguments. I think with activist groups, it's important with certain voters. You know, the one out of 10 who are like, this is the end-all, be-all. But for most Democrats, it's not the core issue.
WP: One thing you hear Washington say about impeachment is: Hey, look at 2000. Look at [then-Rep.] Jim Rogan losing because of impeachment. [Rogan lost reelection to Democrat Adam Schiff in a suburban Los Angeles district.]
EG: That was not the result of Jim Rogan. That was the result of L.A. changing. You know, people took the wrong lesson from that. Similarly, Orange County is just fundamentally changing, and as long as people stay mostly in step with that, I don't think there's much turning back from those victories. I think that that's the new normal here.
WP: Early in the Trump presidency, you were one of the people advocating an infrastructure bill. How would you assess the chances of that before this election?
EG: I think it's probably as close as Tulsi Gabbard being our next president. (Laughter) Whoops, did I just say Tulsi? I'll give you another quote. I think the odds of getting infrastructure passed are about as close as California voting for Trump. Unfortunately, the day it could have happened, the president cited the talk of impeachment as a reason to have a fit and walk away. Now, if he's smart he'll do it before the election. It would be one of the strongest and best things to ever run on, for everybody, in both parties. And this president would be running on that because, you know, when I traveled the country last year, infrastructure was right there with health care in every conversation.
WP: I look at that and the decision that the White House made on fuel standards [California is in court to defend its higher fuel standards] as doing things that aren't popular, when Democrats were on board for something popular.
EG: It's like a small child having a fit. The thing that kills me about California is that the president has a ton of supporters out here, and he's giving them the middle finger, too. I mean, he's saying, 'I'm going to classify you guys all as that California I don't like and that didn't vote for me.' And so in the largest state in the union, where he's got a ton of supporters: They want to have clean air. They don't want to see oil rigs off our coastline. They want to be protected like Florida. These aren't Democratic issues at all. They want to see infrastructure investments. But he's literally walked away.
WP: What's the state of the White House's push to relocate the homeless?
EG: I've been in touch with [HUD] Secretary [Ben] Carson. The tough thing about homelessness is, no matter how you come into this, you quickly learn it's tough to weaponize this and make this a partisan issue. You can absolutely blame conservative policies for why people are on the streets, you can claim that it's liberalism or you know, like that white paper that they put out. … It was so removed from reality. So I think when you don't weaponize it, it's clear what solves homelessness. And the federal government's commitment to veterans is the proof of what works. If they took that model and just applied it to non-veterans, we'd be on the road to ending homelessness.
WP: Why do you think the White House has looked at it this way?
EG: So, I think there was a narrative that came from thinking, oh, it's dirty and there's pestilence. And then Fox News ran stories and the president saw them, and he was in Japan and he said, "These streets are clean. It's ugly there [in L.A.]." We actually looked at how Japan has ended homelessness. They used to have it, and they don't now because the federal government said everybody who is homeless gets housing, and it paid for it. So if that's the model he's looking at, I think he can learn some lessons."
WP: Do you favor undocumented immigrants getting access to Medicare and Medicaid?
EG: I'm absolutely supportive of it. We pay for it one way or another. What people forget is, if you don't have preventative and kind of comprehensive health care, then your emergency room, your emergency responders and your schools kind of have to pick up the pieces. And that's very expensive. So, we all know ounce of prevention is much better. And I think California's very forward-thinking. It's the right policy. It's not just that, yay, we're for immigrants, we do this because we love them. I think it's the smartest fiscal policy.
WP: Why do you think that the mayor of the fourth biggest city in Indiana has convinced a lot of people that he's experienced enough to be president?
EG: I think he's a chief executive, I think he comes from the heartland. I think he's young and fresh. And I think all the rules are off. Look at Trump. I mean, Hillary Clinton would be president overwhelmingly if it was about the best qualifications. And, you know, if anything, people are more gravitating towards outsiders with less kind of 'Washington experience' than somebody who's had the perfect résumé. And I think Pete benefited from that. I also just think it's who he is. He's really smart. It's hard to find anybody who can match him kind of on Q and A's. People I know who have been skeptical of him, they see him like, they're like: He's genuinely really thoughtful.
WP: Do you ever look at Pete and say: Man, I could have put that together, too?
EG: No, but it proves the theory. So it's kind of gratifying. Yeah, my decision, I'm a hundred percent at peace with. And he and I talked a lot leading up to his decision to run. It was like: Are you going to do it? Are YOU going to do it? I don't know. He did it and I'm really glad he did.
The next Democratic debate, scheduled for Jan. 14 in Iowa, will have the party's strictest entry standards yet. To make it, candidates will need to hit 5 percent or more in at least four polls, nationally or in early states. If they hit 7 percent in two polls of the four early states, they're in. And they'll also need to show that they got at least 225,000 unique donations.
Any poll conducted between Nov. 14 and midnight Jan. 10 will count toward qualifying for that stage. As of now, it looks like five Democrats would make it under these rules: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. No nonwhite candidate is close to making the poll threshold, though three (Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang) have or are on track to hit the donor number. The rules effectively keep Mike Bloomberg offstage, too, as he refuses to take donations to his campaign.
... 25 days until the seventh Democratic debate
... 45 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 53 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 64 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 72 days until the South Carolina primary