Democratic Presidential Candidates Mix it Up in Primary Debate in Atlanta

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Ten Democrats took the stage in Atlanta Wednesday night (Nov. 20), for the fifth primary debate of the 2020 election to plead their case to the American people about why they deserve their party's nomination for president. Hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post, the debate is the first since public hearings in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump began, with the latest witness appearing mere hours before the candidates took the stage. The subject was clearly at the top of mind for many on stage, as Trump became the focus of several attacks by from candidates on a wide variety of issues.

Moderators Rachel Maddow, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, NBC News White House correspondent, Kristen Welker, and The Washington Post's White House reporter, Ashley Parker quizzed the candidates on a variety of issues through the night, ranging from Climate Change, border security, housing and foreign policy. The candidates who qualified for the debate included:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren
  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • California Senator Kamala Harris
  • New Jersey Senator Cory Booker
  • Hawaiian Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
  • Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar
  • Billionaire Tom Steyer

You can read a full primer on all ten candidates here.

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Naturally, looming large over the night was the subject of impeachment and the debate's moderators did not shy away from the topic. The first question went to Sen. Elizabeth Warren who was asked if she would try to convince her Republican colleagues to vote for conviction when the time came. Warren highlighted the Mueller report as a reason for her Republican collegues to vote 'yay.' She also pointed to Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who testified today, talking about he was only appointed to the position because he donated money to Trump. Warren promised she would not give "away ambassadorships to the highest bidders."

Sen. Bernie Sanders said he wanted to go after Trump as well, however, Democrats shouldn't make the election all about the president and instead focus on other issues such as homelessness, health care and climate change.

"He is likely the most corrupt President in the modern history of America. But we cannot simply be confirmed by Donald Trump. Because if we are, we are going to lose the election," Sanders said. "The American Congress can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time."

When asked how Biden would work with Republicans who want him investigated, the former vice president told the audience that the impeachment inquiry has taught him quite a few things, including the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump don't want him running in 2020.

“Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee,” Biden said, referring to the hearings about Trump withholding military aid to Ukraine in exchange for the country to investigate the former vice president and his son Hunter.

California Senator Kamala Harris had some of the sharpest words of the night about Trump, calling him a "criminal."

"First of all, we have a criminal living in the White House. And there is no question that in 2020 the biggest issue before us until we get to that tender moment is justice on the ballot. And what we saw today, Ambassador Sondland by his own words told us, that everyone was in the loop. That means, it is a criminal enterprise engaged in by the President, from what we heard today, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and chief of staff," Harris said.

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Impeachment wasn't the only subject the candidates debated. Warren's proposed Ultra-wealth tax was challenged by many of her fellow candidates on stage.

"I have proposed a 2 cent wealth tax. That is a tax for everybody who has more than $50 billion dollars in assets. Your first $50 billion is free and clear, but your 50 billionth and first dollar you gotta pitch in two cents. And when you hit a billion dollars, you gotta pitch in a few pennies more," Warren said, explaining her proposal, which she has pointed to as a way to fund her proposed Medicare-For-All program.

"By asking billionaires to pitch in 6 cents on each dollar of net worth above $1 billion, we can raise an additional $1 trillion in revenue," Warren said.

The candidates' stances on health care have largely remained unchanged with the many of the candidates on stage slamming Warren's Medicare-For-All plan, which she claims will lead to lower costs overall for American families.

Sanders replied, using one of his fan-favorite lines, reminding voters that he "wrote the damn bill."

Biden pointed to the success of Obamacare and how Democrats should focus on improving and expanding it, saying Medicare For All couldn't get through Congress.

"If you go the route of my two friends on my rights and my left, you have to give up your private insurance," Biden added.

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Hawaiian Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was asked about criticism she made of Hillary Clinton, and the "rot" that Clinton had inflicted on the Democratic party. Tulsi commented on the party establishment saying they had continued "to be influenced by the foreign policy establishment in Washington, represented by Hillary Clinton and others' foreign policy, by the military industrial complex."

Sen. Harris was asked if she wanted to respond, and the California senator did not hold back, condemning the Hawaiian Representative for criticizing former President Barack Obama on Fox News and for meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad while wondering why any candidate on stage would be spending "full time during the course of this campaign, again, criticizing the Democratic Party."

Gabbard didn't back down, replying that Harris was "continuing to traffic in lies, and smears and innuendos."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar had one of the bigger laugh lines of the night after she told the story of her first Senate race and how she managed to raise "$17,000 from ex-boyfriends."

Candidates sparred briefly over 'lock him up' chants that have been heard directed at Trump at a World Series game last month, and recently, at rallies held by Sen. Sanders. The Vermont senator was asked what he thought of the chants that have been heard at his rallies.

"What the American people are saying is nobody is above the law," Sanders said. "And I think what the American people are also saying is, in fact, if this president did break the law, he should be prosecuted like any other individual who breaks the law. But at the end of the day, what we need to do is to bring our people together, not just in opposition to Trump."

While Biden was not asked about the chants, he did refer to them while speaking on support for a criminal investigation into Trump after he leaves the White House.

"I would not direct it, and I don’t think it’s a good idea that we model ourselves after Trump and say, lock him up. Look, we have to bring this country together," Biden said. "It’s about civility. We have to restore the soul of this country,” Biden said. “Follow the law, let the Justice Department make the judgment as to whether or not someone should be prosecuted, period."

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Debate In Atlanta, Georgia

Following the break, the conversation turned to housing in America and how many cities across the country have seen housing costs skyrocket in recent years. Billionaire Tom Steyer pointed to his home state of California, which has seen homelessness rise dramatically in recent years, in part due to the high cost of housing.

"It starts with a homeless crisis that goes all through the state,” said Steyer. "But it also includes skyrocketing rents that affect every single working person in the state of California."

Steyer said the country needed to focus on building new housing, but also do it in a way that considered issues like affordability, sustainability, and urban planning.

Sen. Cory Booker, who began his career as a Tenants Rights lawyer, agreed, raising the issue of gentrification, promising to combat it through a tax credit for those who pay more than one-third of their income in rent. The tax credit would help prevent rising housing costs from pushing low-income families out of their longtime homes.

Warren agreed, pointing to the housing problem as being on the "supply side."

"The federal government has subsidized housing for decades for white people,” Warren said, pointing out that black Americans did not get similar help. "That’s called redlining."

Climate change was also a major topic of debate between candidates, with everyone on stage agreeing it needed to be a priority. Rep. Gabbard called it an issue that transcends political parties and everyone can come together to break the hyper-partisanship to pass aggressive climate policies.

Steyer, who has made climate change a central theme of his campaign, criticized Warren and Biden for not making it a day one priority. Steyer promised that on Day One of his administration, he would declare a state of emergency on climate change and make it a part of any foreign policy.

Biden didn't waver, pointing out Steyer made money on running coal mines while he was working on climate policy.

"I don’t really need a lecture from my friend. While I was passing the first climate change bill my friend was producing more coal mines and produced more coal around the world, according to the press, than all of Great Britain produces," Biden said.

Steyer shot back that everyone on stage had lived in an economy built on fossil fuels and that he'd changed his mind about them more than a decade ago.

Sanders promised to go after the fossil fuel industry saying they were criminally liable because they had evidence that their products were hurting the environment.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Debate In Atlanta, Georgia

Harris went after Trump on his relationship with Kim Jong Un and North Korea. When asked if she would make concessions to Kim to keep talks about the country's nuclear program going, the California senator said "Donald Trump got punked" and that he had conducted his foreign policy "born on a fragile ego."

The California senator called Trump the "greatest threat to the national security of our nation at the moment."

The topic turned to the subject of sexual violence and the #MeToo movement, with Biden saying the culture around women needed to change in the U.S.

"No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger other than in self-defense and that rarely ever occurs. So we have to just change the culture. Period. And we have to keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it. I really mean it. It's a gigantic issue," Biden said.

Booker took a shot at Biden, raising the former vice president's remarks from earlier this week where Biden said he still opposed legalizing marijuana on the federal level, saying he wanted to see more science on whether it could be a "gateway drug." The senator from New Jersey drew laughs after he told Biden that he thought he "might have been high when you said that."

During a conversation about race, Biden found himself flustered after he misspeaking by saying he'd been endorsed by the only African American woman to be elected to the Senate. That led California Senator Kamala Harris, the second black woman elected to the Senate, to laugh and raise her hand, reminding Biden she was on stage.

"That's not true," Harris said, with a laugh.

"I said the first," Biden said, correcting himself.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard clashed, calling out each other's judgment and experience. The Hawaii congresswoman slammed Buttigieg, suggesting that he wanted to use the U.S. military to fight drug cartels in Mexico, a claim he denied, calling the idea "outlandish."

Buttigieg questioned Gabbard's judgment in who she sat down with, saying that he had enough sense to "not have sat down with a murderous dictator," referring to Syria's Basha al-Assad.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Debate In Atlanta, Georgia

The next debate is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles on Dec. 19 and is scheduled to be hosted by PBS and Politico. Six candidates have already cleared the debate's qualifications, which require the candidates to get at least 200,000 unique donors and hit at least 4 percent in four qualifying polls, or 6 percent in two single-state polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina.

Photos: Getty Images

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