Special: Takeaways from the December Democratic primary debate

Dec. 20, 2019 AT 10:20 p.m. EST

With only eight weeks until the Iowa caucuses, 2020 candidates took the stage in California and debated healthcare, campaign finance reform and impeachment. Moderator Robert Costa and the panelists discuss who stood out.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

On Thursday our colleagues at PBS NewsHour and POLITICO hosted a debate for Democratic presidential candidates. It was the day after President Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, and several of the contenders will potentially have a vote in that pending Senate trial days before voting begins. Here’s what Senator Amy Klobuchar had to say about everything.

SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): (From video.) As we face this trial in the Senate, if the president claims that he is so innocent, then why doesn’t he have all of the president’s men testify? If President Trump thinks that he should not be impeached, he should be not scared to put forward his own witnesses.

MR. COSTA: The impeachment proceedings have revealed the stark partisan divisions on Capitol Hill. Former Vice President Joe Biden said this when asked about working with Republicans.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I refuse to accept the notion, as some on this stage do, that we can never, never get to a place where we have cooperation again. If that’s the case, we’re dead as a country. We need to be able to reach a consensus. And if anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans and not want to cooperate, it’s me the way they’ve attacked me, my son, and my family.

MR. COSTA: The field has narrowed in recent weeks, but questions about diversity hover. Here’s Andrew Yang.

ANDREW YANG: (From video.) It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight. The question is, why am I the lone candidate of color on this stage?

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine; Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for NPR; Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal; and Phil Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.

Molly, we were talking about the debate during the broadcast, now here on the Extra. What are we missing here? You look at this list of candidates, Andrew Yang is at 3 or 4 percent. We didn’t talk about him on the show. Automation catching on as an issue, could it or not?

MOLLY BALL: Sort of. I mean, I think Yang has had success getting people to pay attention to that, and it’s been part of the reason that he’s risen is because he is tapping into something that people – you know, economists disagree about whether this is actually a thing, but it’s something that people see out there and feel in their lives and are concerned about. And you know, the field is still very fluid. It is, thankfully, starting to narrow a little bit. I thought it was really nice in the debate to be – to have few enough candidates that they could really engage with each other and have some meaningful exchanges, but it’s still a little bit all over the map. You know, it’s kind of a funny lineup to have, you know, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang up there, but no Cory Booker or Julian Castro even though they’re both still in the race. And in polls something like three-quarters of Iowa caucusgoers saying they could still change their minds; Iowans are terrible late deciders, they drive us political reporters crazy every four years. But it is – it really kind of is anybody’s race at this point.

MR. COSTA: Are we thinking about this race too much in terms of Iowa, Jerry? Because if so crowded – the field’s so crowded, maybe three or four or five tickets come out of Iowa. There’s this myth – maybe it’s not a myth, but it’s – in politics, only two or three tickets out of Iowa. This field has remained crowded for months; maybe it stays crowded for months on end.

GERALD SEIB: I think it does, but I don’t think we’re overthinking Iowa because the – Iowa will winnow out the field. And you know, you can’t have five, six, seven people walk out of Iowa into New Hampshire and on to South Carolina all seeming viable; that’s not the way this is going to work. And in a way the early states may become more important because all they’re doing is setting up the next stage when whoever survives those first four states has to face Michael Bloomberg and his literally limitless checkbook. So I think the question of who can stand through those early states and then move to the second stage of the campaign is probably more important this time around than it normally is, and so I don’t think we’re overrating them.

MR. COSTA: Bloomberg, you think about this strategy, he’s waiting until Super Tuesday. He just continues to build his name ID. If the field is crowded and there are – it’s still not determined who is the frontrunner coming out of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, do his people and top Democrats believe he can be a serious contender for this nomination?

PHILIP RUCKER: He could be a serious contender, and right now he has an advantage that these other candidates – almost all of them – don’t have, which is money. I mean, he has slick advertising introducing himself, his record as mayor of New York, the fights that he’s fought like on gun control, climate change, saying he’ll be the one to beat Trump. Those ads are all over the country, and voters are seeing them and not seeing ads for these other candidates. But one point that Bloomberg should keep in mind is that Tom Steyer has a lot of money, the billionaire from California. He’s been on TV for months and it has not seemed to help him build much of a base of support within the party.

MR. COSTA: I almost wore a Tom Steyer Christmas plaid tie. (Laughter.)

MR. RUCKER: We’re glad you didn’t.

MR. COSTA: Thank you, Phil. (Laughter.) You don’t think I could pull it off?

MR. RUCKER: That’s a very sharp yellow tie, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Thank you. Notre Dame colors, as you may – you may know.

But you think about this Democratic race, Bloomberg, so many candidates get thrown into this moderate pile, but I would argue as a reporter these candidates aren’t necessarily moderate, they’re New Democrats. They’re to the left on climate change, on expanding the government in terms of offering a public option on healthcare. Is it fair to call these candidates moderate as they compete for the nomination?

AYESHA RASCOE: Well, I mean, it’s in terms of levels, right? So I think they are moderate compared to Bernie Sanders or to maybe an Elizabeth Warren, so they’re moderate in that sense. But yeah, the party has just – it’s a sign of where the party has come that now the public option is the more moderate – (laughs) – proposal, and this idea – like, even listening to them talking about climate change yesterday, you had Joe Biden saying very readily that, yes, I’m willing to, you know, sacrifice a whole bunch of jobs because I’m going to have – you know, in coal or in fossil fuels – because we’re going to move over to clean energy, like just point blank. And this is – this was a huge fight during the Obama administration, and in many ways they were kind of beaten in that fight because they didn’t get climate change legislation through because Republicans were successful at saying you’re going to take away all these jobs and you’re going to raise energy costs. But you see Biden now leaning into that because that’s where the Democratic Party is, and I think that could be also an issue for someone like Bloomberg when it comes to issues like stop-and-frisk and things like that, when the – when it comes to those kind of policing issues. That’s where he could have an issue.

MR. COSTA: Any thoughts on where this Democratic Party is collectively as you look at this debate and every other debate we’ve watched this year?

MS. BALL: Well, I just think you cannot overlook the level of desperation in the Democratic base right now, right? There’s been a level of almost panic ever since 2016. And it’s what drove 2018, in large measure. Just the Democrats are so desperate for a savior. And I hear so much anxiety from sort of rank and file Democratic voters, because they see the feet of clay of each one of these candidates. And they just want someone that they feel can withstand the sort of furnace blast of negativity that they know Trump is going to throw at them.

So there is – and so, you know, we see – on the one hand, all these candidates are sort of broadly liked within the party. On the other hand, nobody’s perfect. And so I think in the slick advertisements that, like, a Mike Bloomberg is airing, they see someone who might be a savior. And he is getting a little bit of traction, despite the fact that he sort of seems, on his face, to be out of step with the moderate – the modern Democratic Party. He is getting some traction I think because they’re looking for someone who has the credentials, has the profile, has the money, and is tough enough to be on that stage.

MR. SEIB: But at the same time, we had a poll this week that just came in just before the debate, and Mike Bloomberg was at 4 percent nationally among Democratic primary voters. So it hasn’t happened yet. It might.

The other thing that occurs to me is that Democrats have a problem here, which is they are running against a president who has really nice economic numbers at his back. Now, the bad news for Democrats is, that’s a good platform for the opposition to run on. The good news is, if you had economic numbers like the ones President Trump has right now, you should be at, like, 60 percent job approval. He’s at 44 percent. So you know, the good news is, from the Democratic point of view, maybe the negatives about Trump will outweigh a positive economy. But a positive economy at this stage in the election cycle is a problem for the opposition party.

MR. COSTA: Is that your read inside the White House when you’re talking to sources there, that regardless of what President Trump does in terms of behavior at a rally, or a tweet, as long as the Dow Jones Industrial Average is at 28,000 and the S&P’s at 3,000 they feel like those suburban voters may not break away totally?

MR. RUCKER: Well, they know it’s not quite that simple. But they do count on the economy, and they know that it’s essential that the economy stay strong. There was a moment of sort of freak out panic among some Trump advisors in the late summer of this year when the market started to fall, and there were indications that we were headed towards potentially a recession. And that caused a lot of concern in the administration, and a consideration of what can we do as the executive branch of the government to ensure that this economy stays robust, because Trump knows that’s his calling card come next November.

MS. RASCOE: And that’s really – and, you know, when I talk to people, I mean what they’re saying is, as long as that economy stays good, he’s the incumbent. He does – that President Trump has a great chance to just win it all because he has that economy, and that is what drives so much. And so regardless of whether people – and he says this. You might not like me, but you like the way the economy’s going.

MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there. Oh, wait, you have one more thing to say, Molly?

MS. BALL: I just wanted to say, it is funny that in a discussion of the Democratic debate we ended up, yet again, on Trump. (Laughter.) Because that has been – it’s my fault. I brought him up.

MR. COSTA: Wait. Wait. Let me – let me end on a different note, then. Know what I kept thinking when I was watching the debate? Who is the leader of the Democratic Party on this stage? And I said, the leader to me, as a reporter, is Speaker Pelosi. She is the leader of the party right now. And when you think about it, it’s December 2019. And as powerful of a story as this Democratic race is, it’s often not on the front page of the American conversation. In part, President Trump does dominate everything. But Speaker Pelosi dominates her party, perhaps.

MS. BALL: She is certainly – she’s the highest-ranking Democrat right now. And she has been in this situation before. Remember? Her first speakership she was the speaker of the House, but George W. Bush was in the White House. And so Democrats had managed to win the House because of public anger at the Republican president, who she proceeded to go toe-to-toe with, while still trying to find things they could cooperate on when they could. And with her as, arguably, the leader of the party in 2008, Democrats did pretty well in that election.

MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there for the holidays. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Bob Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.


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