Updated Nov 21, 2019

5 takeaways from the fifth Democratic debate

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The fifth Democratic debate on Wednesday ended with more shared laughs than attack lines, striking a stark contrast to the partisan impeachment hearings that have dominated news coverage over the past two weeks.

The big picture: The Pete Buttigieg pile-on landed more softly than many had projected. Instead, the top four candidates in early state polling — Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — pulled many of their punches, giving some of the lower-tier candidates a chance to make waves in a debate that will otherwise do little to shake up the race.


1. When it came to attacks on Buttigieg, who is now viewed as a frontrunner in Iowa after his breakout poll in the early voting state, Sen. Kamala Harris dealt perhaps the biggest blow of the night without directly attacking him. Asked about a controversy over Buttigieg's campaign using a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to promote his racial equality plan, Harris used the moment to speak to a broader issue:

  • "For too long, candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party," Harris said. "They show up when it's close to election time and show up at a black church. ... but just haven't been there before."
  • Buttigieg responded that he agrees with Harris: "I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in American who don't yet know me." He then pivoted to LGBT rights: "While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country."

2. Buttigieg and Harris both sparred with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has become a favorite among conservatives for her anti-interventionist and attacks on the Democratic establishment.

  • Gabbard accused Buttigieg of proposing to send troops to Mexico to fight drug cartels. An incredulous Buttigieg asserted that she was taking his comments out of context, and he attacked her for meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2017.
  • Harris, who slid in the polls after Gabbard attacked her in the second debate, finally hit back: "I think that it's unfortunate that we have someone on this stage ... who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama."

3. In the shadow of Wednesday's explosive impeachment hearings, there was a consensus among candidates that President Trump should be impeached for his alleged abuse of power. Joe Biden, who is at the center of the impeachment allegations, said that he would not wield the Justice Department as a political tool to investigate Trump after he leaves office.

  • Notably, five of the candidates on stage — Sens. Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, Sanders and Harris — will be required to sit as jurors if articles of impeachment are sent to the Senate. That could provide a boost to candidates like Buttigieg and Biden, who would be free to campaign in Iowa in the key weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses.

4. Wednesday was only the third primary debate in history moderated by an all-women panel. As the New York Times' Michael Grynbaum points out, it also became the first Democratic debate of the cycle in which the first two questions went to two female candidates.

  • Overall, the debate saw a greater focus on women's issues, with questions about abortion rights, paid family leave and the cost of childcare.
  • Klobuchar, who had a strong night positioning herself as a practical, but compassionate alternative to Warren and Sanders, highlighted the higher standard that women running for president are held to, adding: "If you think a woman can't beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day."

5. Joe Biden, who is still atop most national polls, had numerous embarrassing gaffes, but still showed command on important issues like foreign policy. Axios' Margaret Talev notes that the wide swing of Biden highs and lows really underscored why he remains a frontrunner, but with significant vulnerabilities.

What to watch: Sen. Cory Booker is the highest-profile candidate who has not yet qualified for the next debate, and made a plea for donations in his closing statement to get him to the December stage.

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