DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Six Democratic presidential candidates have wrapped up their final debate before primary voting begins with talk of hope, defeating President Donald Trump and bringing a divided nation back together.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday that “character is on the ballot” in the 2020 election and that eight years of Trump in office would be “an absolute disaster.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders said “this is the moment when we have got to think big, not small,” and have courage to take on the “1%," while Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she has hope in America’s future despite its challenges and looks forward to becoming the first female president.
During the debate, Warren stood behind her charge that Sanders told her in 2018 he didn’t think a woman could defeat Trump. She made an energetic case for a female nominee, raising gender as a core issue in the Democrats’ sprint to the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders firmly denied Warren’s accusation and said it was “incomprehensible” to believe he would suggest a woman couldn’t become the president.
Warren said he did and argued that she was the only candidate on the debate stage who defeated an incumbent Republican candidate any time in the last 30 years.
Sanders disputed that, arguing that he defeated incumbent Republican Peter Smith in a 1990 congressional race.
Warren then began counting quietly with her finger, asking, “Wasn’t it 30 years ago?”
Sanders noted his win again and then said the dispute isn’t a pressing concern.
The Democratic Party’s leading presidential candidates also sparred over Iraq, war and foreign policy.
Biden wasted no time in the opening minutes of Democrats’ presidential debate in calling his 2002 vote authorizing an Iraq invasion a mistake.
It was an unusually matter-of-fact tone of contrition for Biden, especially as he tries to emphasize his long foreign policy record as a vice president and a six-term U.S. senator. The 77-year-old candidate has throughout his campaign mostly defended portions of his record that have come under criticism from his party’s progressive flank.
Sanders nonetheless tried to capitalize on the issue Tuesday night. He pointed out that he voted against the Bush administration’s war powers request as a member of the House, and he called the war the “worst foreign policy blunder in history.”
Biden maintained that he’d compare his “record overall” to any of his Democratic competitors, and he pointed to his role in the Obama administration in dramatically scaling back U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Sanders said he fears that Trump’s actions involving Iran could be leading the United States into a foreign policy quagmire of the highest level.
The Vermont senator said that what he sees as the country’s top foreign policy disasters - the wars in Vietnam and Iraq - were “based on lies.”
Sanders accused Trump of being dishonest about the intelligence that led to the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Sanders pressed the need for an international coalition, adding, "We cannot keep acting unilaterally."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this week that he had seen no hard evidence that four American embassies had been under threat when Trump authorized the targeting of Iran’s top commander, raising questions about the scale of the threat described by Trump last week.
Warren and Sanders blasted the trillions of dollars that the U.S. has spent in Middle East wars since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Warren said “We have to stop this mindset” and bring home “combat troops.”
The more moderate candidates countered that a U.S. presence is necessary in the Middle East, though Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the focus should be on small special forces.
To some degree, the debate is about framing. Sanders and Warren didn’t go so far as to say they would never order military deployments. Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg were careful to express caution about large, extended missions of ground troops.
But the differences highlighted two distinct foreign policy camps within the Democratic Party.
What has become a signature trade deal of President Donald Trump's administration is a conflict point among the Democrats competing to replace him.
Sanders said he opposes the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, or USMCA, in part because it “does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions in the world.”
Asked why she backed the deal, Warren said it was a “modest improvement” over existing agreements and could be a placeholder for future reform.
Biden said that, as president, he wouldn’t push a trade deal that didn’t include buy-in from environmentalists and unionists. Klobuchar said she backed the deal, as did Buttigieg, who said it “has been improved. It is not perfect.”
Biden later said Sanders should be more upfront with voters on how much it will cost to move the country to a single-payer “Medicare for All” system.
Asked if voters deserved more information on the price of his signature proposal, Sanders maintained his argument that his proposal "wouldn't bankrupt the country" because it would end out-of-pocket and prescription drug prices.
Biden proposes making fixes to the existing Affordable Care Act system, and Buttigieg proposes somewhat of a hybrid.
Noting she would use executive power to cut prescription drug prices, Warren said her $20-plus trillion plan costs more than those ideas because they represent only incremental change.
Biden says the outcome of a Senate impeachment trial against Trump won’t affect his arguments against the Republican president in the 2020 campaign. And the former vice president said that it’s “irrelevant” whether Trump claims exoneration if the Republican-led Senate votes as expected and doesn’t remove him from office.
Biden said House Democrats had “no choice” but to impeach the president for Trump's efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to launch investigations into Biden's son Hunter's business dealings in the country and his own foreign policy engagement in Ukraine when he was vice president.
Trump’s claims about the Bidens have been debunked. But Biden said he expects Trump and Republicans to continue to allege that the Bidens are corrupt.
“I did my job,” Biden said at the debate.
Klobuchar said the upcoming Senate trial on President Donald Trump’s impeachment “is a decency check on our government.”
“This is a patriotism check,” she added, noting the upcoming 2020 election is yet another check.
Klobuchar and her fellow senators running for president will have to contend with the impeachment trial as the push to the Iowa caucuses enters its final days. Other candidates like Biden and Buttigieg will be able to continue campaigning freely as the Senate trial gets underway.
Klobuchar also criticized her Senate Republican colleagues over reluctance to allow certain witnesses for the Senate trial, saying, "We've asked for only four people."
“And if our Republican colleagues won’t allow those witnesses, they may as well give the president a crown and a scepter. They may as well make him king," Klobuchar said.
Buttigieg says he will keep up his effort to appeal to black voters, whose support will be vital to winning his party's nomination.
The former mayor said that “the black voters who know me best are supporting me,” referencing local leaders in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana.
Buttigieg has built up support in some of the early states but has struggled in South Carolina, where black voters comprise the majority of the Democratic primary electorate. It's the first state where candidates' mettle with black voters is tested.
Buttigieg pointed Tuesday to his endorsement from U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland, who earlier this month became the first member of the Congressional Black Caucus to back Buttigieg’s campaign.