At Democratic debate, all candidates agree: Trump must go
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden listens during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta. The usual differences emerged on issues like health care, but the necessity of removing Trump was a point of unity. | John Bazemore / AP

ATLANTA—When it comes to GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, the ten Democratic hopefuls on stage in Atlanta on Nov. 20 all agree: Impeach him.

None of the ten—former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and multimillionaire businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer—claimed that they were the only one who could actually defeat Trump.

Instead, in the latest nationally televised “debate,” in Atlanta, most spent their time outlining various plans and talking points they said could unite voters to come out on Election Day and turn Trump out of office. The event took place just hours after the conclusion of another day of revealing testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry.

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, second from left, speaks as other candidates, including Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., listen during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Nov. 20, in Atlanta. | John Bazemore / AP

This week, the House Intelligence Committee has heard from top non-partisan national security staffers, an aide to GOP Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump donor-turned-ambassador Gordon Sondland. All put Trump and Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other top Trumpites at the center of a plan to manipulate U.S. tax dollars—$391 million in security aid to the Ukraine used as a virtual bribe—in return for Ukrainian cooperation in Trump’s personal political gain for next year’s election campaign. That, many lawmakers believe, is a “high crime and misdemeanor” calling for impeachment and trial.

At the debate, Kamala Harris charged that the impeachment hearings reveal a massive conspiracy across government departments to work with Trump to overturn congressionally mandated funding to Ukraine to pressure that country into granting Trump favors useful to him personally.

Sondland, who spoke before the inquiry yesterday morning, was a handy target for Elizabeth Warren’s condemnation of the pay-for-play culture in D.C.; she noted Sondland’s $1 million contribution to Trump’s inauguration committee showed the corrupt clout of big private corporate money.

The testimony also showed “there is a different set of rules for two different groups of people”: Trump and the rest of the 1% on one side and everybody else on the other, Harris said. “We have to bring justice back for everybody.”

When questioners in the audience reminded Bernie Sanders that his crowds now sometimes chant “Lock him up!” in reference to Trump, the Vermonter turned that question aside with a smile. “People are now catching on to the degree this president thinks he is above the law. And they’re saying ‘If he breaks the law, he should be prosecuted like anyone who broke the law,’” Sanders commented.

“We have a criminal in the White House,” Harris, the former San Francisco DA and state attorney general declared. “We have a criminal enterprise by the president, the vice president, the Secretary of State, and the (White House) chief of staff.” She would prosecute him, post-presidency, she said.

By contrast, Joe Biden said that as president he said he would leave that decision up to his Attorney General. “And I would back him up,” Biden said. Trump often demands his Justice Department should prosecute Hillary Clinton, his 2016 Democratic opponent.

Aside from impeachment, the rest of the debate covered territory already familiar after previous discussions by the candidates, particularly health care.

Despite differences on issues like Medicare for All, all the candidates supported ending the Republican attacks on Obamacare, whether they come from Trump and GOP lawmakers in Washington or from GOP-run state governments that refuse to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act. Beyond that, all the plans enunciated go in the direction of expanding rather than shrinking the availability of health care.

Biden made some of the most divisive statements last night by saying again that Medicare For All wouldn’t pass Congress, and that Sanders’ “revolution” wouldn’t fly with the U.S. at large. He claimed, incorrectly, that “a majority of Democrats don’t want Medicare for All.” The bill, HR1384, already has a majority of House Democrats as co-sponsors and polls show huge Democratic support for Medicare For All.

Buttigieg and Klobuchar also joined in criticizing Medicare For All. Buttigieg told Warren: “There’s a majority in the country for doing something on goals like Medicare For All who want it without commanding people to give up private health care whether they want to or not.”

The women candidates on the stage spoke with particular force on the need for stronger support to working families struggling to both raise children and care for the elderly. Harris, like Klobuchar, came out strongly for legislation that would benefit the nation’s women who, she said, bear heavy burdens in today’s economy. Harris advocated six months paid leave for women taking care of children while Klobuchar called for three months.

Inequality was also once more a prominent topic of contention. Although all the candidates expressed a desire to close the wealth gap in the country, none actually discussed how useful a much larger union membership would be in achieving that goal. Steyer, however, mentioned the word “union,”—in the context of vigorous action against climate change, his signature issue. “We can do this and create literally millions of good-paying union jobs across the country” in battling climate change, Steyer said.

Sanders challenged the narrative that the country is hopelessly divided and the idea that only by “moderating” positions would Democrats appeal to the majority. He reiterated his points about people living paycheck to paycheck and one step away from bankruptcy due to health care costs. On a broad range of economic issues, from healthcare to taxing the rich, he said the overwhelming majority of American people are actually united around key issues.

The Democratic Congress has passed 300 progressive bills—on everything from election reform to workers’ rights to a national minimum wage—but all have gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated Senate. All would provide opportunities for building unity across the moderate-left divide, and pledging to sign them into law if elected could allow candidates to show they have the power to build a winning coalition. Such a possibility went unmentioned Wednesday night, however.

Warren hit on her theme about the rich and their undue influence and explained how her proposed two-cent tax on every dollar earned over $50 million could pay for her ambitious programs.

Like the other debaters, Warren talked about “what unites us.” For her, unity measures include a wealth tax on the rich and instituting Medicare For All over a period of years—preceded by letting people under 18, over 50, or making less than $50,000 yearly buy into current Medicare.

Booker differed with Warren on her idea of a wealth tax. He said he would raise the estate tax and tax capital gains at the same rates regular workers pay. “Everybody’s tired of billionaires paying zero taxes,” he said.

Like Warren, several other candidates, led by Klobuchar and Sanders, slammed the malign influence of money in politics. The Minnesotan said she would push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that unleashed the tsunami of corporate cash on U.S elections.

Warren and Sanders both reiterated their campaigns don’t take corporate contributions or set up political action committees to curry favor with other Democratic candidates. Biden takes the corporate cash, but the others were too polite to say so. Sanders claimed to have the biggest base of small-dollar donors.

Steyer, the richest candidate on the Atlanta stage, fended off a question about why voters should support ultra-rich candidates such as Yang or himself. Steyer touted his campaigns and spending, $300 million for the last 10 years, to raise awareness of the “existential threat” of climate change, and on fighting the oil, coal, and other energy companies, plus big tobacco, or so he claimed. Biden promptly noted that before he converted to progressive causes, Steyer’s investment house funded “dirty” coal power plants.

Yang invoked his young children, saying he’s running because he worries about what type of world his generation will leave them. He also said his plan for $1,000 grants per adult per month would help families who now can’t afford child care. Yang, and the others, all endorsed paid parental leave, though in different forms.

Although the hopefuls got in a few jabs against each other, no one contender emerged as a target during most of the debate. When foreign policy came up, some clearer lines of division did emerge, however.

Sanders and Gabbard were the only candidates who dissented from the general consensus about the U.S. military’s role in the world.

Sanders reminded Biden that while they were both senators, Biden voted for both the Gulf War and the Iraq War, while Sanders voted against the Gulf conflict and led the opposition to GOP President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion. Arguing in favor of diplomacy for the region, he said the U.S. should play the role of broker in negotiations between Saudi Arabia—which he bluntly called a “pariah state”—and Iran, as well as between Palestinians and Israel.

He said the Palestinians deserve a state and peace, too. Sanders said recently at a meeting in Washington of the progressive Jewish group J Street that U.S. aid to Israel should be conditioned on reversing right-wing-backed settlements in the West Bank. Trump reversed the U.S. position that the settlements are illegal, a policy for the past 52 years, the day before the debate.

Gabbard decried the billions spent on the wars and the lost U.S. and Middle East lives in recent wars. She blamed machinations of the “Clinton-Bush-Cheney-Obama-Trump” foreign policy which caters, she said, to “the military-industrial complex.” She reminded the crowd and the TV audience that she saw the carnage up close, having spent seven years in the military.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. | John Bazemore / AP

The Pentagon, of course, has enormous amounts of waste, which feeds the military-industrial complex, helping explain why so many Pentagon and corporate priorities drive U.S. policy. A special commission appointed under former President Barack Obama’s then-Defense Secretary found $125 billion in yearly military spending waste, in what was then a $500 billion budget. The Pentagon suppressed the report, which was leaked to the Washington Post.

The Atlanta debate is important since the first actual balloting, the Iowa caucuses, loom on Feb. 3, with the New Hampshire primary eight days later. Another debate will take place in mid-December.

Both are especially important for the five senators. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plans for the impeachment trial of Trump—now almost a foregone conclusion—will pin all 100 senators to their chairs in Washington in January, before those states’ votes.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.