The 4th Democratic Debate Takeaways Impeachment loomed large over the fourth Democratic presidential debate, but none of the candidates lingered on the topic. Instead Elizabeth Warren took fire as she continues rising in the polls. This episode: political correspondent Asma Khalid, political correspondent Scott Detrow, political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and senior editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
NPR logo

The 4th Democratic Debate Takeaways

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/770548126/770550286" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The 4th Democratic Debate Takeaways

The 4th Democratic Debate Takeaways

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/770548126/770550286" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the campaign.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I too cover the campaign.

DETROW: (Laughter).

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: Got to be different, man.

MONTANARO: Absolutely.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

KHALID: It's late.

KURTZLEBEN: It is. How late is it, Asma?

KHALID: It is 12:11 a.m. Woof (ph), we've moved into a new day - Wednesday, October 16, the day after the debate. And the fourth Democratic debate that was hosted by CNN and The New York Times in Ohio just wrapped up. I am here in the studio with Danielle and Domenico. And, Scott, you are out in Ohio. Tell us where you are.

DETROW: Mentally, I'd say my space is reveling in the world series coming to Washington, D.C., for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt was president. But physically...

KURTZLEBEN: Woo (ph) (clapping).

KHALID: Oh, wow.

DETROW: Yeah. It happened.

MONTANARO: Someone was Googling that in the third hour of the debate.

DETROW: That somebody's known that fact for several first-round losses of that team.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, man.

DETROW: Physically, I am in the very back row of the spin room here at Otterbein University just outside Columbus. Heads are spinning. Candidates are spinning. And the debate wrapped up after about three hours.

KHALID: And it was a big night. And I would say, rather literally, it was actually a rather large night. This was the largest debate stage that we've seen to date. There were 12 candidates all on the same stage at the same time. And, Danielle, why don't we just run through who actually spoke for the longest time tonight?

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, if you were watching, you may have guessed that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had, by far, the most speaking time tonight at 22 minutes, 52 seconds. That is a lot because the person with the second-most time, former Vice President Joe Biden, had 16 minutes, 30 seconds - so more than six minutes' difference between those two.

KHALID: That's a lot.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. After that, you had Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar at 13 minutes, 16 seconds. Then in descending order, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke, South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard and finally, businessman Tom Steyer at 7 minutes, 14 seconds.

KHALID: All right, guys. So why don't we start by just quickly going around and describing what the big takeaway was for each of us - the major moment of the night?

MONTANARO: Well, there's obviously a reason why Elizabeth Warren spoke the most tonight. And it's not because she likes to talk a lot. It's because she was under attack a whole lot, and she gets to respond to those attacks. I was wondering coming in how much she would get some of that scrutiny because last week, for the first time, she caught Joe Biden in the national average of the polls. She's been on the rise through the summer. And now she, I think we can say, is a co-front runner, and she certainly felt the heat tonight.

KURTZLEBEN: And jumping off of that, I'll just go in with my takeaway, which is, once again, health care. And yes, health care has dominated these debates. We may even be sick of it. I know, looking at Twitter, that plenty of people are. But tonight, I thought was - yes, once again, we heard all about "Medicare for All" versus public option. But to me, it was the most direct confrontation between those two ideas. And it was specifically embodied, especially, in Elizabeth Warren versus Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar versus Elizabeth Warren. Those two fights really kind of defined it for me.

KHALID: What about you, Scott?

DETROW: You know, we have talked so much about how you have a top tier of candidates in polling and fundraising. And it's really winnowed down to Warren, Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. And then you have a lot of people on the outside looking in. And of that group of candidates, I think that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg really had the best night of really being forceful on the debate stage, really having several moments not just a zinger here or there, you know, whereas Senator Kamala Harris and Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman, really had moments where they tried to get in and tried to make points. I think Buttigieg's moments really lasted.

KHALID: Well, I definitely agree with you, Scott, about Pete Buttigieg. I think this was a major night for him. To me, one of the things I was most curious about leading up to this debate was the degree to which we would actually hear the moderators ask questions about impeachment and also ask some of the other candidates to take a stand on whether there was any sort of notion or perception of impropriety on behalf of what, you know, Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, was doing in Ukraine, serving on the board of this gas company while his dad, Joe Biden, was the vice president. And, you know, really, we didn't hear the moderators push that point too much at all. Joe Biden was asked a question about this, and here's how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, I got to say on the points that you just brought up there - first, impeachment. I'm a little surprised they spent as much time on impeachment as they did.

MONTANARO: Right?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

KHALID: So they had a first question - right? - where they ask...

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

KHALID: Everybody had to expound on the...

MONTANARO: Because it's kind of like a duh. Like, of course these...

KHALID: Yep. All the candidates agree.

MONTANARO: They all agree. The polls show, like...

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

MONTANARO: ...Massive numbers of Democrats...

KURTZLEBEN: Well...

MONTANARO: ...Are in favor of impeaching and removing Trump.

KURTZLEBEN: Not only that but this is going to be over with by the time November 2020 rolls around.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Like, this is not going to be an issue for a terribly long time in this race.

DETROW: I don't know. I thought it was useful to hear all the senators who would be jurors in an impeachment trial...

MONTANARO: That is interesting.

DETROW: ...Give the different nuance on how they viewed this and whether they thought it was right, like Harris, to say, yes, I would vote to remove him from office or whether you had people like Booker saying, I really want to be fair here. I want to respect norms, especially because President Trump has blown up so many norms.

KHALID: Scott, you've covered Joe Biden quite a bit. Were you surprised that the moderators didn't really push and try to get the other candidates on record specifically about what the Bidens had been doing or even if there was any perception that maybe this was not totally OK ethically?

DETROW: I was surprised because to the point where it's been a criticism of a lot of these debates, so often, the moderators have said, you know, Senator, you've said X about so-and-so. You've said this about this person. Basically, say it to his face.

KHALID: Yeah.

DETROW: Right? But there wasn't one question to other candidates. Did you think that this was proper? I was surprised. That's something I really expected to see more of.

KHALID: So, you know, Domenico, you brought up another big theme of the night. And that is how some of the other candidates would attack Elizabeth Warren now that she's seen to be sort of a, quote-unquote, "frontrunner." And I would say we got a glimpse of that in a lot of ways. To me, perhaps, the most notable one was health care. She has said many times that she's with Bernie. She supports Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All plan. And this is something that some of her opponents were just not OK with. They felt like she needs to provide more clarity on her own position.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARC LACEY: Mayor Buttigieg, you say Senator Warren has been, quote, "evasive" about how she's going to pay for Medicare for All. What's your response?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, we heard it tonight - a yes or no question that didn't get a yes or no answer. Look; this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything except this. No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.

KURTZLEBEN: In response to that, she counterattacked Pete Buttigieg and his plan, which he calls Medicare for All Who Want It, which is a public option plan. It would allow people to choose to go on the government-run health care plan Medicare should they so choose or to stay on whatever private plan they would like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: So let's be clear. Whenever someone hears the term Medicare for All Who Want It, understand what that really means. It's Medicare for all who can afford it.

KURTZLEBEN: What the argument here tonight was this - was the moderators, once again, as has been asked at prior debates, said, Senator Warren - I'm paraphrasing here - Senator Warren, would you raise taxes on people to pay for Medicare for All? And she did not give a flat-out yes or no. She said, I will raise taxes on the wealthy, but overall, your average, middle-class Joe or Jane would pay less because they would not be paying premiums or co-pays. And what she did not say but sort of implied there is even if their taxes went up.

Now what Buttigieg was getting at was that Sanders' Medicare for All plan, which Warren backs - the bill itself does not spell out how it would be paid for. Rather, Sanders has laid out a list of possible options, one of which is a 4% tax on everyone making over $29,000. So...

KHALID: A deep increase.

KURTZLEBEN: So a lot of middle-class people. So the argument is that your cost would go down, middle class, so and so. That is quite possible, but not knowing the specifics - we don't know exactly how it would look for individuals.

KHALID: And health care was not the only issue that she was criticized for. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar also attacked her for supporting a wealth tax.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires. We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.

MONTANARO: Look; I think it's really interesting that she went there to say your idea is not the only idea because you saw it in previous debates where Elizabeth Warren sort of dismissed other candidates who did have ideas and plans. But she said, you know, look; just...

KURTZLEBEN: It's not big.

MONTANARO: It's not big. You know, I don't know why you run for president if you're not going to do something big.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARREN: But I think as Democrats, we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started.

KLOBUCHAR: I would like to respond to that.

ERIN BURNETT: Senator Klobuchar, respond, please.

KLOBUCHAR: I think simply because you have different ideas doesn't mean you're fighting for regular people.

MONTANARO: It's, you know, a little bit sort of a three-card monte because these other people do have plans and ideas. And Amy Klobuchar has been really interesting about this because she has sort of dismissed Warren at times as being sort of an Ivy League professor who's, you know, posing these ideas that work great in the Harvard faculty lounge but not necessarily for all Americans.

And I have to say that that really plays into a couple of the biggest vulnerabilities that Elizabeth Warren has - one, that she's not electable. And under that is the idea that her policies are too liberal and too progressive and that she's too elitist.

DETROW: Increasingly, the more Warren rises in the polls, the more a lot of Democrats all across the party say that they're worried about the vulnerabilities of a nominee who supports single-payer health care. And I do think we've talked about this before, but it's really worth emphasizing when you talk about the big, bold plan and the incremental plan. The, quote-unquote, "incremental plan" on this stage of a public option for health care was the wildly liberal unattainable plan 10 years ago when Obamacare was passed.

KURTZLEBEN: Not only that, but a really important thing from tonight - everybody will focus on the Warren cost thing, but I thought one of the sharper points that a candidate made was Pete Buttigieg. He said something to the effect of, when Americans say they want a choice in their health care, I don't think the American people are wrong because a public option does poll better than Medicare for All right now. So Pete Buttigieg sort of seemed to be twisting it to almost say, you're insulting people by insisting on this plan.

MONTANARO: I thought the language was really interesting, to Danielle's point, because the idea of something being a choice - right? - an option, as opposed to something being a replacement, is exactly what we polled back in July with the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll. And when we asked people, is it a good idea or a bad idea, a replacement for insurance only polled at about 41% as a good idea. As an option, it was 70% of Americans who said they were in favor of it. So Pete Buttigieg feels like he's on pretty solid ground being able to make that argument.

KHALID: All right. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about the candidates debating President Trump's decision to pull troops out of Syria.

And we're back. And you could say tonight was, in some ways, a debate about recent headlines. We already talked about impeachment, but the other major story that has been brewing in the news was President Trump's decision to pull his support from Kurds in Syria, essentially allowing Turkey to move into the region through a military incursion.

And, you know, we haven't heard that much about foreign policy in any of the previous debates, so this was just notable in that we actually had an opportunity to see how the candidates would handle a current foreign policy moment.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And not only that, but, yes, it was a big foreign policy moment. It was also one where you saw people get very, very passionate. In particular, you saw this exchange between Pete Buttigieg, a veteran, with Tulsi Gabbard, also a veteran.

DETROW: Gabbard has really staked out a position who's someone who is against almost all foreign intervention, repeatedly arguing that the United States should not be committing military force or using foreign policy pressure for regime change wars - is the phrase that she has used repeatedly, including, like, a dozen or so times tonight. So she was making that point, and Buttigieg pushed back on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTTIGIEG: Well, respectfully, Congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong. The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence. It's a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.

KHALID: And this moment, to me, was bigger than just the foreign policy conversation at hand. It was an opportunity for Pete Buttigieg, who is known to many folks as just the mayor of a fairly small town in Indiana, showing his statesmanship and showing his own foreign policy chops, just his ability. And I would say he sort of rather passionately argued and made his point here effectively.

DETROW: And one reason I was so interested to watch this exchange is that foreign policy - there are a lot of different directions that the Democratic Party is going right now. It's not the clear shift in one particular place, like the health care conversation is. There are debates about whether you end the Afghanistan war as quickly as possible. If you try to draw it down over a gradual period of time, what is the U.S.' role in terms of supporting Israel or pressuring Israel to change a lot of its policies? There's a whole different range of issues that the next president would have to deal with where there's not a clear democratic consensus. And I think that really showed tonight.

KHALID: And one of the major themes we've seen throughout these debates has been, essentially, should the country move toward sort of big, structural change or incremental change? And one of the ways I would say this came up is that Joe Biden has often talked about his record and him being this person on stage who has done a lot, whether it's the Affordable Care Act or other pieces of legislation. And Elizabeth Warren, at one point - and this, to me, was really sort of one of the most awkward, tense moments of the night - said that, you know, she's had a record of doing something. And she pointed to her success in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the recession. And it was just this really awkward, tense exchange between her and the former vice president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I agreed with the great job she did. And I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it. So let's get those things straight, too.

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Warren, do you want to respond?

WARREN: I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, this, in part, is a bit of a debate between, you know, Warren who - again, the CFPB was her idea, but it was part of the Dodd-Frank Bill, which got passed under the Obama administration. And Joe Biden did do the Obama administration's - he was sort of their operator on Capitol Hill for a lot of things. So it was a sort of, like, activist versus operator debate going on there. But in addition, that exchange went on to have Biden say something to the effect of, well, you did a great job, and she gave a sort of - a kind of chilly thank you to what he was saying.

MONTANARO: I think this exchange was a real Rorschach test. I mean, I think that the way people seem to be interpreting this exchange is really interesting. You know, you have half of people maybe saying that they didn't like that Biden was yelling at Elizabeth Warren. He does tend to get kind of over-exerted...

KHALID: Heated but yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Sometimes in ways that you're confused why he's yelling, right? And then Warren - the other half of people were saying they felt she was petty and seemed ungracious in that moment.

DETROW: It's a good reminder that Warren had a complicated relationship with the Obama administration. She worked with them to get the bureau into that bill. But then remember. President Obama did not nominate her to be the permanent head of the bureau because he didn't think she would be approved by the Senate. And there were also internal debates about how aggressively to go after Wall Street, how much to bail out, things like that. So Warren was an Obama ally, but especially if she continues to be a front-runner, I think there's going to be a lot more focus on the complexities of that relationship.

KHALID: I was intrigued that, to date, we actually haven't seen so many of these heated arguments between Biden and Warren on economic issues because given the fact that the two of them really are seen to be head-to-head in a lot of these polls, I would have thought by now - these two have a long history on economic issues, disagreements on a whole host of financial issues - that we would have seen some more of that. To me, tonight was kind of a glimpse of what we might see in months to come. There's one last topic I want to talk about, and that is Bernie Sanders' health. Scott, you've reported on the fact that Bernie Sanders had a heart attack in recent weeks. He was largely not on the campaign trail at all actually, right? This was kind of the first moment for a lot of folks to just - to see him. He had not been holding campaign events since he had that heart attack.

DETROW: Yeah, and he looked like himself. I don't think there was any indication other than the fact that he was asked about this - that this is someone who had a blocked artery, had a heart attack and had two stents put in. And he was Bernie Sanders. And in fact, he actually - he got one of the lighter, more memorable moments when he was first asked about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURNETT: Now to the issue of candidates and their health. Senator Sanders, I want to start with you. I want to start - we're moving on, Senator, I'm sorry.

BERNIE SANDERS: I'm healthy. I'm feeling great. But I would like to...

BURNETT: Well...

SANDERS: ...Respond to that question.

BURNETT: I want to start by saying...

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: That's so classic Bernie Sanders.

DETROW: And Bernie Sanders actually had a really good night, not because of anything that happened on the debate stage but because of something that The Washington Post first reported. And we were able to quickly confirm it. He got a huge endorsement tonight. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City congresswoman, and probably the most high-profile Democrat who's not running for president, is going to endorse him this weekend at Sanders' first rally returning to the campaign trail in New York City - so huge endorsement. She was definitely going to endorse either Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. I think that is something the campaign is very excited to tout as they show he did not slow down at all because of this heart attack. And he's going to pick up right where he left off.

KHALID: All right. Well that is a wrap for now, but we will be back later today because Congress is back from recess, and the conversation about impeachment continues, not to mention there will be a lot to talk about in regard to the response to President Trump's decision to pull troops from Syria.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the campaign.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I, too, cover the campaign.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.