4 things to watch for in fifth Democratic debate

Posted at 3:21 PM, Nov 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-20 15:21:09-05

ATLANTA — In case three days of impeachment hearings aren’t enough political gridlock for the week, the fifth Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night will surely bring another dose.

On the debate stage in Atlanta at Tyler Perry Studios will be former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, businessman Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and businessman Andrew Yang.


Since the last debate in Ohio, candidates have shifted their campaign strategies to a state-by-state basis to prepare for the upcoming caucuses and primaries. Buttigieg made headlines this week when he gained a 9-point lead in Iowa over Warren, the second-highest polling candidate in the state.

Branded as the middle-ground millennial candidate, Buttigieg has been slowly climbing in the polls since his campaign launch in April. Beto O’Rourke’s departure from the race further solidified Buttigieg’s strong standing, as the two candidates were frequently compared for their similarities in age and center-left policy stances on health care.

As Warren and Biden can attest, showing up to a debate as the frontrunner means one thing: playing defense. Buttigieg will likely be attacked from progressive candidates like Sanders, and challenged by fellow moderates like Klobuchar. The South Bend mayor has held his own in the past, thanks to his academic syntax mixed with millennial sass, but he’s never been this big of a target before.


Known for having a plan for everything, Warren’s Achilles heel has been her inability to brand her own plan to pay for Medicare for All, famously saying she’s “with Bernie.” Last week, she walked back on the ambitious plan and instead proposed putting children and poor families on Medicare during her first 100 days as president and not fully attempt to implement Medicare for All until her third term in office.

Why the change? Higher taxes on the middle class.

Sanders has been transparent since day one about Medicare for All raising taxes on the middle class in exchange for not having to pay anything for private insurance. That imperative cog of Medicare for All is one Warren could never quite stomach.

It would serve Warren well on the debate stage to spend as little time as possible explaining her switch. However, she’ll have to make enough of a case for her plan to hang onto Democratic primary voters who see Medicare for All as a non-negotiable.


In the wake of the Ukraine scandal, the Ohio debate was the first in which candidates spent a significant amount of time discussing impeachment. The point is arguably moot on a presidential debate stage, as each candidate’s assumed success would itself remove the current president from office. Still, the candidates have reveled in attacking the president. It is after all, one thing on which they all agree.

Chances are the candidates haven’t had the dozens of hours to spare on the campaign trail to watch the impeachment hearings, so they likely won’t get into the weeds with Gordon Sondland’s testimony or Marie Yovanovitch’s claims of intimidation. The candidates would serve themselves well to keep in mind that should they win the Democratic nomination, they will have to appeal to the entire electorate, the majority of which believes the impeachment hearings won’t change their mind.

A candidate who wants to avoid eating their words on impeachment during the general election should focus their message on unifying the country and the Democratic party.

On the subject of impeachment, Biden may have to hopscotch around a question from moderators asking him to answer to Republicans’ accusations over his family’s involvement with Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company in the midst of the impeachment inquiry.


MSNBC, the network hosting Wednesday’s debate, has been called into question for alleged abuses of power by NBC executives in scandals related to Harvey Weinstien and Matt Lauer.

On Monday, Booker, Harris, Sanders and Warren sent a letter to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez urging him to pressure NBC’s parent company Comcast to conduct an “independent investigation into the toxic culture that enabled abusers and silenced survivors.”

MSNBC host and debate moderator Rachel Maddow has been critical of Comcast for this on “The Rachel Maddow Show” and may welcome the candidates’ concerns.

The letter from the candidates said in part:

“Donald Trump has been credibly accused of sexual harrassment (sic) and sexual abuse by dozens of women. We, as a party, have to offer voters a clear and unquestionable difference come November when it comes to these important issues. We can not do that when we prop up and support companies that have systematically covered up numerous indicents (sic) of sexual violence with no accountability or changes of leadership.”


As the Iowa caucus is quickly approaching on Feb. 3, the candidates who didn’t qualify for Wednesday’s debate stage are hard-pressed to gain enough traction to survive until Super Tuesday.

Notably not on the debate stage Wednesday include former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Marianne Williamson, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Maryland Rep. John Delaney.

It has been widely speculated that billionaire Michael Bloomberg may also enter the race.