Democratic Debate: Candidates Air Widely Diverging Viewpoints

By Zachary Stieber

Seven Democratic presidential candidates met in South Carolina Tuesday night to try to convince voters there to support them, just days before the fourth primary or caucus in the nation.

Billionaire Tom Steyer qualified for the debate after he missed last week’s event in Nevada. The 62-year-old businessman had supported early efforts to impeach President Donald Trump.

He joined six candidates on stage: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 78; former Vice President Joe Biden, 77; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 78; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 38; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), 70; and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), 59.

Here were some highlights:

Sanders Would Look Into Moving US Embassy Back to Tel Aviv

Sanders says he would study the issue of relocating the American Embassy in Israel to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem but wouldn’t commit to commanding the change.

The Vermont senator said during Tuesday night’s debate in Charleston, South Carolina, that he is “very proud of being Jewish” but also pressed that “you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.”

In 2018, the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American Embassy there. The move had been required under U.S. law since 1995 but was postponed repeatedly by presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

The other Jewish candidate onstage, Bloomberg, said, “You can’t move the embassy back.”

Capping off the issue, Warren said moving the embassy is not a decision for the United States to make, adding, “We should let the parties determine the capitals themselves.”

Sanders Defends Praise for Dictators

Asked about his recent praise of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Sanders continued saying he opposes authoritarians but again noted that Castro did some good things while in power.

“You got a real dictatorship there [in China]. Of course, you have a dictatorship in Cuba,” Sanders said. But he again praised the “literacy programs” under dictator Fidel Castro, claiming he was repeating praise that emanated from former President Barack Obama.

Sanders argued that he was just “honest” about U.S. foreign policy, adding that being honest “includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world.”

“And when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that,” he said.

Biden challenged Sanders, telling him that Obama “did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government.”

Buttigieg said Democrats are not going to win “by reliving the Cold War.” And Democrats will struggle in House and Senate races if they have to explain away praise for dictatorships, he added.

Several current Democratic lawmakers, as well as the Florida Democratic Party, condemned Sanders’ remarks after he made them over the weekend.

Bloomberg Wouldn’t Remove Troops From Middle East

Bloomberg said he would not remove all troops from the Middle East.

“You cut it back as much as you can,” he said. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks showed that “people plan things overseas and execute them here,” he said.

The United States has to have some troops where terrorists congregate,” Bloomberg said. Not doing so, he alleged, is “irresponsible.”

“This is a dangerous world,” he said, highlighting 9/11 again.

Buttigieg said he disagreed.

“I don’t think we need to have troops anywhere terrorists can gather because terrorists can gather anywhere in the world,” he said. Instead, the U.S. needs “intelligence capabilities,” he added.

The topic has arisen in previous debates. Warren and Buttigieg said at a debate last year that they support removing all troops from the Middle East.

Buttigieg, Biden Join Attacks Against Sanders

Nearly every rival on stage attacked Sanders in the opening hour of the debate in Charleston, with Buttigieg and Biden targeting the current front-runner on different fronts.

Biden repeated criticism of Sanders’ views on gun manufacturers, claiming that the senator’s position on gun makers “has caused carnage on our streets.”

In response, Sanders said he has “cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote.” The issue came up after an introductory question that included mention of the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church—just steps from the debate venue—in which nine black Bible study participants were slain in a racist shooting.

Sanders, in 2005, supported a proposal backed by the National Rifle Association granting gun manufacturers broad legal protections. He has repeatedly been put on the defensive during the 2020 campaign on his perceived support for the gun manufacturing industry.

In a twist on the issue, Buttigieg also took on Sanders, saying his position on guns wasn’t an old one but “is a current bad position that Bernie Sanders holds.”

Buttigieg also alleged that the cost of “Medicare for All,” a plan endorsed by Sanders and Warren, “adds up to four more years of Donald Trump.” He called out Sanders for declining to support the elimination of the Senate rule known as the filibuster, which requires 60 out of 100 senators to approve most major bills. Despite that fact, the Democratic presidential front-runner is pitching an array of sweeping policy changes that are highly likely to fall short in Congress with the filibuster still in place.

“How are we going to lead a revolution if you can’t support a rules change?” Buttigieg challenged Sanders.

Bloomberg Nearly Says He ‘Bought’ Members of Congress

Bloomberg nearly misspoke to say he “bought” new Democratic members of the U.S. House.

Bloomberg was speaking at Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina about how he spent $100 million to help Democratic candidates flip U.S. House seats held by Republicans. He began to say “I bought,” before catching himself and saying “I got them,” noting their elections helped Nancy Pelosi become speaker of the House.

Bloomberg is one of the world’s richest men and has funded numerous candidates and political causes.

President Donald Trump’s campaign spokesman and eldest son were among those on Twitter highlighting the flub.

“Wow!!! He’s admitting he BOUGHT those seats!” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted.

Bloomberg, Klobuchar Argue Against Selecting Socialist as Nominee

Rivals tried to convince voters not to elect a socialist as the Democratic nominee. Sanders, a self-described socialist, currently leads the field in delegates after winning Nevada.

Klobuchar noted that she was the only candidate to raise her hand during last week’s debate when candidates were asked if they were concerned with having a socialist as the nominee.

“I do not think that this is the best person to lead this ticket,” she said of Sanders.

She referred to Vanderbilt University research published last year that named Klobuchar as the most effective member of the U.S. Senate.

Sanders and Warren, she noted, were near the bottom of the list.

“It matters if you can actually get things done,” Klobuchar said.

Also—taking aim at Sanders, Bloomberg said: “We just cannot afford some of the stuff that people talk about.”
“We will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. The House, the Senate, and some of the state houses will all go red,” he said.

Bloomberg’s base of support “is all billionaires,” Sanders argued, telling the audience that he beat Trump in polls showing him going head-to-head with the president.

“The polls aren’t the election,” Bloomberg said. “Can anyone imagine moderate Republicans voting for him?”

Rivals Allege Bloomberg Was Racist

Prompted by moderators, rivals said that Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policies while mayor of New York City was racist.

Both Klobuchar and Buttigieg answered that they believe Bloomberg’s policies were racist.

Buttigieg said he was mindful that there were “seven white people” on the stage. Bloomberg jumped in, saying he believed it would have been harder to amass his fortune if he was black, and that he knew black people who would have had an easier path to success if they were white.

Klobuchar said that elements of the justice system should be reformed. “I think what we need to do, instead of just reviewing everything from the past, is talk about where we’re gonna go forward,” she said.

Bloomberg has apologized for stop-and-frisk, arguing that the policy got out of control.

Warren brought up how Bloomberg donated to Republican candidates and lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (D-S.C.), and said that Democrats would never trust him. Bloomberg pushed back, pointing to his record at the helm of New York.

“I have the experience, I have the resources, and I have the record,” he said.

Biden on Declining Poll Numbers

After a host said that Biden’s lead was slipping in polls, he said the last poll he saw had him with a 15 percent lead.

“I’ve worked like the devil to earn the vote of the African-American community,” he said. South Carolina has a sizeable black population, and Biden has led polls there since he announced his bid for the presidency last year.

“I intend to win South Carolina, and I will win the African-American vote here,” Biden said.

Asked if he would end his bid if he didn’t win the state, Biden repeated that he would win the state.

The last poll, from NBC News and Marist, saw Biden with a four percent lead over Sanders, but the poll before that, from Public Policy Polling, had him with a 15 percent lead over Sanders. The third most recent poll had Biden with a five percent lead over Sanders.

The average of the polls had Biden with 30.3 percent, Sanders with 22.3 percent, and Steyer with 13.3 percent.

Warren Makes Electability Argument

Warren argued that she and Sanders are both progressive but that she’d make a better president than her fellow senator.

“Getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard, and it’s going to take someone who can dig into the details,” Warren said.

Warren listed some of her accomplishments while contrasting her plans with Sanders, noting that the senator has not released information on how he’d pay for his Medicare for All plan.

“Progressives have one shot,” she alleged, and should use it on a candidate “who can get something done.”

Sanders and Warren have similar policy proposals but Warren has earned a reputation as a policy wonk, releasing plan after plan laying out what she’d do and how she’d do it if she’s elected. But she began faltering after releasing a plan to fund Medicare for All, or government-run healthcare, and later said it would take years to introduce the program.

Sanders has also argued for broad change but has at times dismissed questions of how his administration, if he’s elected, would manage to pay for divisive proposals, including the government-run healthcare. He released a fact sheet on Monday that his campaign said showed how he’d fund his major plans.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.