2 minutes. “Let’s begin,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper says, before introducing a first question about impeachment. Everyone gets a chance, but the septuagenarians go first. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) rehashes stuff she has said before about the Mueller report and the rule of law. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), recently recovered from a heart attack, looks well as he explains President Trump’s alleged crimes. Former vice president Joe Biden, coifed and tailored as if he just stepped out of a men’s store catalogue, can’t settle on whether Trump is “the most corrupt president in modern history” or “all of our history.”
5 minutes. Because everyone has basically the same answer on impeachment, the candidates search for ways to define their brands. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) quotes the author Maya Angelou. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) speaks about feelings and duty. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) says Trump is making “Russia great again.” Former housing secretary Julián Castro talks about Ohio job losses. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg gestures with his hands as he asks America to envision the day after Trump is pushed from office. “It starts out feeling like a happy thought,” he says. “But really think about where we’ll be: vulnerable, even more torn apart by politics than we are right now.”
12 minutes. Gabbard says impeachment should not be partisan. Steyer tries to get applause by calling Trump a “criminal in the White House.” Yang uses the moment to blame Amazon, a company run by the owner of The Washington Post, for “closing 30 percent of America’s stores and malls” and paying no taxes. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.), in his trademark poetry-slam cadence, riffs on how Trump has betrayed those who have served the country in uniform.
16 minutes. Biden gets a question about his son Hunter, who got a job for a Ukrainian gas company while he held elected office — and whose dealings have become a focus for Trump’s attacks on the former vice president. “I want to point out there’s no evidence of wrongdoing by either one of you,” Cooper says, before asking if it was wrong for family members of vice presidents to take jobs like that. Biden doesn’t seem to want to answer. Instead, he says no one did anything wrong and he never talked business with his son. “This is about Trump’s corruption. That’s what we should be focusing on,” Biden says.
18 minutes. Cooper tries to get Sanders to bite on Hunter Biden. Sanders responds by talking about “the pain of the working class of this country.”
20 minutes. Now it is Warren’s time in the frying pan. Marc Lacey, an editor at the New York Times, which is co-hosting the debate with CNN, asks the question Warren won’t answer. Will she raise taxes on the middle class to pay for Medicare-for-all? Warren still won’t answer. Instead, she talks about the “70,000 selfies” she has taken with voters, which really aren’t selfies because someone else is holding the camera.
21 minutes. Lacey tries again, asking if she should acknowledge what is obvious. Warren, a former high school debate champion, responds this time with a double negative. “I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families,” she says. She won’t say taxes.
22 minutes. Nearly half the people onstage are ready to pounce. Some want to debate the policy. Others want to turn Warren’s strategy of not admitting what everyone knows into a proxy for her character. “Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” says Buttigieg. Warren bites back by saying the mayor’s plan — Medicare-for-all who want it — is really “Medicare-for-all who can afford it.” Snap.
25 minutes. After a quick rebuttal that notes his plan’s subsidies, Buttigieg deftly pivots back to his opening theme. Warren, he says, wants to disrupt and divide the day after Trump leaves office. “Why unnecessarily divide this country over health care when there’s a better way to deliver coverage for all?” he asks. Sanders chimes in to say taxes will go up under Medicare-for-all. “Well, at least that’s a straightforward answer,” says Buttigieg, getting in yet another dig at Warren.
26 minutes. CNN cuts to a shot of the four in the center of the stage, Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren, which is a nice compliment for Buttigieg and a dismissal of Harris, who has recently faltered in the polls. Both Klobuchar and Biden chime in to hit the same points on Warren’s refusal to say what her policy would do. They score blow after blow, and in response, Warren keeps lapsing into her stump speech, talking about how the middle class has been hollowed out. Maybe this strategy worked better in high school.
31 minutes. Sanders gives Warren a break. He attacks Biden for not backing his bill. He says 500,000 people go bankrupt every year from medical costs, a contested statistic. Then, he accuses Biden of a lack of courage. Biden smiles, but before he can respond Harris breaks the spell by changing the topic. She says its time to talk about “women’s reproductive health care.”
33 minutes. The resulting applause serves as a palate cleanser. But the moderators move on. Now everyone is talking about robots taking jobs. Yang disagrees with Sanders about whether the best response is more government employment or cash subsidies. But then, just as the robot conversation gets going, Booker chimes in to sayHarris is right about reproductive health care. “Women are people. And people deserve to control their own bodies,” he says.
37 minutes. CNN’s Erin Burnett tries to get the topic back on robots and jobs. Warren talks about bad trade deals. Castro talks about infrastructure investment and a Green New Deal. Yang challenges Warren for not adopting his universal basic income plan, which would pay adults $1,000 a month. He mentions the self-driving trucks and self-serve kiosks at McDonald’s. Warren responds by saying she supports increases in Social Security payments. The conversation continues for a while, with several candidates endorsing stronger unions and better trade deals.
46 minutes. Burnett appears to try to set a trap. She asks Sanders if he thinks billionaires should be taxed into millionaire status. Steyer, a billionaire who has joined the debate stage for the first time, is just a few feet away. “We cannot afford a billionaire class,” Sanders responds. But Steyer is ready. “First of all, let me say this. Senator Sanders is right,” he says. He flips class politics on its head and makes the case that he is as radical on economic inequality as the Democratic socialist.
49 minutes. But Warren is not ready to give up the class struggle. She asks why everyone on the stage besides Sanders and herself thinks “it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation of Americans?” Biden takes offense. “No one is supporting billionaires,” he says. So does Buttigieg, who generally sounds the best in these debate settings. Here, he tries some next-level mental jujitsu. He says people in the Midwest have come to distrust politicians who focus on “who sounded better on a debate stage or in a committee hearing.”
53 minutes. Klobuchar does not want to lose the pile-on-Warren thread. “I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires,” she says. “Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.” Warren is dismissive, without actually engaging with Klobuchar. “Look, I understand that this is hard, but I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started,” Warren says. Klobuchar is ready. “Simply because you have different ideas doesn’t mean you’re [not] fighting for regular people,” she says.
57 minutes. A discussion continues about the wealth tax embraced by Warren. Yang likes the idea, but he says it has failed in lots of places. O’Rourke says it is part of a solution, but worries that Warren is being “punitive.” This gives Warren a chance to say she is “really shocked” that anyone would consider her punitive and to lapse into another part of her stump speech, where she says the wealthy got help from public infrastructure and need to “pitch in” to pay some of it back.
63 minutes. “We’ve got to take a quick break,” says Cooper. Only two hours left. Democracy is hard.
68 minutes. We’re back with foreign policy. The focus in on Trump’s recent decision to pull troops out of Syria. Everyone on the stage is against either the withdrawal or the way Trump handled the withdrawal, leaving behind former Kurdish allies to face Turkish forces alone. Biden seems particularly worked up. “This is shameful, shameful what this man has done,” he says.
70 minutes. Gabbard, the only candidate who raises doubts about reports of Syrian chemical weapons use on her campaign website, scrambles the conversation by blaming the Turkish slaughter of Kurds on “the regime change war that we’ve been waging.” The Syrian civil war started before U.S. troops arrived, and the U.S. troops in the country were not focused on changing the Syrian regime. Gabbard goes on to say accusations that she is Russian asset are “completely despicable.” She repeats the phrase “regime change war” four more times.
73 minutes. The other candidates work to distance themselves from Gabbard. Warren says she wants to get out of Syria but in a smarter way, and she appears to be reading talking points from a piece of paper on her podium. Buttigieg, who is delivering his most forceful debate performance of the year, calls Gabbard “dead wrong.” This prompts an odd exchange where Gabbard and Buttigieg debate the difference between “regime change war” and “endless war.” “What is an endless war if it’s not a regime change war?” Gabbard asks.
78 minutes. The discussion turns to the U.S. standing in the world and the trust of its allies. Candidates agree that Trump has not been good for either. Several also point to growing Russian geopolitical strength.
91 minutes. Cooper changes the topic to gun violence, pitting O’Rourke and Buttigieg against each other. O’Rourke wants a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, although he offers only vague notions of how it will be enforced. Buttigieg thinks the proposal could prevent other new gun regulations from becoming law by polarizing the debate. The back and forth gets a bit nasty. “I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg says to O’Rourke, who responds by saying Buttigieg’s position is a “slap in the face” to gun violence survivor groups. The other candidates also weigh in on guns.
105 minutes. The topic changes to opioid policy. Several candidates say they support strong enforcement against pharmaceutical companies that flooded the market with drugs. Yang and O’Rourke says they support decriminalizing small amounts of opiates. When O’Rourke says marijuana should be legalized, Yang chimes in. “Yes. Preach, Beto,” he says.
112 minutes. Sanders, 78, gets a question about his age and his health, given the heart attack. He answers by bragging about his youthful allies. “Well, let me invite you all to a major rally we’re having in Queens, New York,” he says. “We’re going to have a special guest at that event.” The guest is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), 30, who, The Washington Post later reports, will be endorsing him at the rally. Sanders also thanks all the well-wishers during his illness. “I’m so happy to be back here with you this evening,” he says.
115 minutes. Biden, 76, responds to the age question by saying his experience is one of his best qualities. Warren, 70, basically dares anyone to keep up with her. “I will outwork, out-organize and outlast anyone,” she says.
119 minutes. Gabbard, 38, gets the age question and answers by saying that as a military veteran she is ready to be commander in chief. Then she tries to ask Warren to justify her qualifications to lead the military, but the moderators cut her off and go to another commercial break.
124 minutes. And we’re back. The topic is big tech and whether companies like Facebook and Amazon need to be broken up. Most are leaning that way, although the details differ somewhat. Warren is particularly bothered by Amazon’s ability to gather information from vendors on its network and then use that information to compete with those vendors. “Look, you get to be the umpire in the baseball game, or you get to have a team, but you don’t get to do both at the same time,” she says.
132 minutes. Harris takes a question about Facebook and turns it into a question for Warren about Twitter. She asks Warren to join her in demanding that Twitter suspend Trump’s account for violating the rules. Like other platforms, Twitter tends to give public officials more leeway to be abusive. “No,” says Warren. “No? Wow,” says Harris, looking shocked. “You can’t say you’re for corporate responsibility if it doesn’t apply to everyone.”
139 minutes. The previously scheduled reproductive health section of the evening arrives. The candidates support reproductive health and are unhappy with the Trump administration.
145 minutes. Buttigieg has spent much of the night telling other candidates that they are too polarizing, but now he revels in the fact that he was the first candidate to prominently embrace the idea of overhauling the Supreme Court to prevent a conservative majority. “Some folks said that was too bold to even contemplate,” he brags. He hasn’t settled on how he would “depoliticize” the court, but options include term limits, rotating justices off and increasing the number from 9 to 15. Castro and Warren say they are interested in the ideas.
149 minutes. Biden gets a question about whether his platform is bold enough. He boasts of all he has accomplished and pivots to attack Warren and Sanders. “Both are being vague on the issue of Medicare-for-all,” he says, trying to bring back the argument from earlier. Sanders is happy to oblige, listing off some of Biden’s less popular accomplishments. “You got the disastrous war in Iraq done. You got a bankruptcy bill, which is hurting middle-class families all over this country. You got trade agreements, like NAFTA,” he says.
152 minutes. Rather than respond on Medicare-for-all, Warren begins listing off all the things she got done while working in the Obama administration fighting for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This leads Biden to praise her. “I agreed with the great job she did, and I went on the floor and got you votes,” Biden says.
153 minutes. Warren can’t manage to return the compliment, at least not directly. “I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law, and I am deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it,” she says.
154 minutes. Buttigieg does the meta-thing that politicians do when they want to make it look like they are not politicians, calling the debate between Biden and Warren a “false choice.” “If I had a buck for every argument that I’ve witnessed like this, I could pay for college for everybody,” he says, delivering what is clearly a rehearsed line. “We need to move past what has been consuming this whole political space for as long as I’ve been alive.”
156 minutes. Klobuchar weighs in to say bold doesn’t matter if you don’t win, and she knows how to win in the Midwest.
157 minutes. Cooper asks Sanders why his approach is more likely to beat Trump. “Here’s the radical reason,” says Sanders. “It’s what the American people want.” This is not yet clear.
160 minutes. A final break. Almost there.
165 minutes. And we’re back. The final question is for everyone. Each candidate is asked to talk about a surprising friendship. Castro talks vaguely about people he has known who are different from him. Gabbard talks about her friendship with former congressman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Klobuchar talks about former senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who died last year. “I miss him every day,” she says. Steyer talks about a woman he met in South Carolina who is fighting for cleaner water. O’Rourke talks about his former colleague Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.). Booker talks about bible study in the office of Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). Yang talks about a Trump-voting trucker he met and turned into a supporter. Harris talks about Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Buttigieg talks about the friends he met serving in Afghanistan. Sanders talks about Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Warren talks about Charles Fried, a Republican solicitor general who helped her get a job. Biden talks about McCain as well.
186 minutes. “Candidates, thank you,” says Cooper. “That concludes the fourth Democratic debate.” Think hard, America.