ROBERT COSTA: Democrats debate gun control and Syria, and challenge Senator Warren’s healthcare position. This is the Washington Week Extra.
Good evening. I’m Robert Costa. The policy divides within the Democratic Party were on full display this week as Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate revealed rifts on issues including healthcare, gun control, and foreign policy. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders faced criticism from other candidates for their support for Medicare for All. Senator Amy Klobuchar hit out at her Massachusetts colleague about whether or not Warren’s plan would raise taxes on the middle class.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): (From video.) At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.
MR. COSTA: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg pushed back against Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii for her noninterventionist take on Syria.
SOUTH BEND MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) Respectfully, Congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong. The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence; it’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.
MR. COSTA: With a little over three months before the first votes are cast, how are these divides shaping the 2020 race?
Joining me tonight, Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR; Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; and Jeff Mason, White House correspondent for Reuters.
Sue, you cover some of these senators on Capitol Hill. Senator Warren ascendant in the Democratic race, but facing a wave of challenges not only from Vice President Biden, but Pete Buttigieg, Senator Klobuchar. Are moderates having a moment?
SUSAN DAVIS: I think Elizabeth Warren’s having a moment maybe more because I think the attacks are trained on her because she is now the ascendant one in the race. You know, Bernie Sanders has been sort of static, although he showed some strength this week too. Biden’s trajectory has been going the other way. And I think she benefited from the vibe around Biden in the first couple of debates that when you’re seen as the frontrunner you’re the one that has to take the incoming, and for her tactically, you know, she was under attack at that debate this week. I think her people would say it’s proof that she’s the one ascendant in this race, that you don’t go after the one you don’t think is your biggest competitor.
MR. COSTA: Is part of that, Ashley, about Pete Buttigieg and Senator Klobuchar sensing not only that Warren’s the leader in the polls, but that maybe Vice President Biden’s a little vulnerable and they could try to take his so-called slot politically in the coming months?
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, I think it’s twofold. I think they see that Warren – I think Biden on poll averages may still technically be ahead of her, but Warren’s trajectory is upwards, and so, again, as Sue said, you attack the person who’s ascendant – you attack the person who’s your biggest threat. And then the other interesting dynamic with Biden especially is, in watching Trump and covering Trump, if the president makes an attack on you, so far that then makes that attack off-limits for Democrats. So what was interesting is you go into his debate and the president is hammering Joe Biden on corruption and what he and his son were doing in Ukraine, and it’s worth noting there’s absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing, but there is a very fair argument that the president is implicitly and explicitly making that it would be fair for Democrats to make that while there is no wrongdoing it was certainly perhaps bad judgment and absolutely very swampy to have his son sit on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. But because the president has made that argument against Biden, none of the other Democrats feel like they can make that argument because they will face such backlash from Democratic voters. So in certain ways I think they probably wouldn’t have gone after Joe Biden anyhow because he is a bit more static now, but they also were not going to make the argument against him that the president was making.
MS. DAVIS: Also, just one thing about the Biden vote and where it goes, because I think that’s a great question, but I think we have to be skeptical that the people that benefit are that – are people like Pete Buttigieg or even Amy Klobuchar because the core Biden support still is African American voters, and if there is one thing that Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly proven his inability to do is garner any strength among African Americans. So if Biden does continue to fail that’s a great question, but I’m not sure that, oh, because you’re in moderate lane –
MR. COSTA: How is she – how is Senator Warren doing with African American voters?
MS. DAVIS: It’s the same thing. I mean, right now, because, one, you don’t really hit into African American voters until South Carolina, and South Carolina is the early state where Biden still is strongest, so no one’s really chipped into that support yet. Warren’s people would say she’s got room to rise. People like this idea of the centrist moderate lane. Those candidates – Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg – just have shown no ability to appeal to black voters yet.
MR. COSTA: What do you make, Vivian, of the foreign policy discussion during the debate? You had Senator Warren not – she criticized the president’s handling of Syria, but she wasn’t embracing the idea of, quote, “endless war.” She was not out there as a vocal hawk. Is she trying to navigate different ideas and positions at once to not seem – to be against President Trump’s leadership, but also not be seen as a total hawk?
MS. SALAMA: I mean, yeah. And it’s actually – it’s a double-edged sword when it comes to policies like this, because at the same – on the one hand, you don’t want to send Americans into harm’s way. That’s not, obviously, going to ever be popular with the American public. But on the other hand, America has traditionally played this role as sort of protector and defender of allies. And so those who want to maintain some sort of traditional foreign policy see that we owe it to our allies in Syria, namely the Kurds, to at least stand by their side, especially when they’re coming under fire from Turkey, a NATO ally, and, like, all the complications with that. And so it’s a very hard thing to go out there. And I think she really kind of struggled a little bit with that, to come on the one hand and say, you know, I definitely want our soldiers out. This is a bad policy. On the other hand it’s, like, OK, but at what point does it end and what is your strategy moving forward? And we didn’t see a lot of, like, future answers from her.
MR. COSTA: What about the candidates who have been struggling in the single digits, Jeff? Senator Harris of California. She was seen as a top-tier contender when she entered the race. That major rally in Oakland. She has struggled to gain traction. Is she still in this when you talk to Democratic operatives and consultants? Does Pete Buttigieg really have a shot at the nomination?
MR. MASON: Well, they’re certainly both still in it, because they have money. And so they will use that to go as long as they can. I mean, one thing that was remarkable about that debate was how many people were on the stage, and the fact that – we were talking earlier about the debate not having actually been the big story of the week. Well, part of that is it’s just not resonating because Democrats see too many people up there. As it coalesces, as more candidates are sort of moved off of that stage, I suspect it will be a bigger story. But to your question specifically, yeah, I think they’re still in, but they’re not gaining a lot of traction.
MR. COSTA: We see the Democrats having a pretty vigorous debate on guns. And what does the White House think when they see the Democrats debating gun buy-backs and those kind of issues?
MS. PARKER: Well, they think that is politically good for them, because there have been some debates where I’ve talked to Trump associates and they say you – the Democrats could not have sort of behaved as more of a caricature of how conservatives expect Democrats to behave. But it is worth nothing that just about a month ago we were talking about some actual gun legislation led by the White House on Capitol Hill, after the latest mass shooting. And so it is this weird area.
I don’t expect the president or the White House is going to do anything on this, especially with impeachment. But it was this rare area where it felt like there was actually a national appetite to get something done. And Republicans were looking to the president and taking their cues from the president. And had the president done anything he could have gotten some commonsense legislation through Congress. That moment has passed. So they think this is politically good for them. But there was a world in which you could have seen some kind of bipartisan gun bill.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Bernie Sanders? He recently had a heart attack, came back on the debate stage. Does his campaign – do they believe they’re viable or not? And where does he stand in this race?
MS. DAVIS: Don’t count Bernie Sanders out, right?
MR. COSTA: Why not?
MS. DAVIS: I mean, this is just one of the stories, the sub-dramas of the 2020 race, right, of the Democratic primary. Bernie seems to ebb and flow. There seems to be times when he’s going to be – oh, it’s not going to go good for him, and he always comes back. He had a heart attack, terrible thing to happen to a 78-year-old candidate on the campaign trail. He came out at that debate, showed that he certainly still has the vigor. He had a great campaign money week, where he’s got more cash on hand than any other Democrat in the field, I believe. He’s got plenty of money to take him well into Iowa and beyond.
And then he scored what you could argue is one of the more coveted endorsements in the Democratic primary right now, and it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat from New York, who represents next generation, progressive, future politics. And she endorsed Bernie in this race. And I think all those things mount up to Bernie Sanders sending a message: I’m not going anywhere.
MR. COSTA: He’s having a big rally with Representative Ocasio-Cortez this weekend.
MS. DAVIS: And Bernie – Sanders still continually has some of the most committed die-hard support in this race. It’s unclear if that’s enough to get him the nomination, but he cannot be ignored in the nomination fight.
MR. COSTA: We won’t ignore you, Senator Sanders.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us, and see you next time.