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Analyzing this week’s 2020 Democratic debate | Washington Week | PBS


ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa. Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Atlanta this week for another debate, this one hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post. Joining me tonight to discuss the state of the 2020 race: John Bresnahan, congressional bureau chief for POLITICO; Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR; Carol Leonnig, investigative reporter for The Washington Post; and Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN. From the start, candidates knocked President Trump just hours after impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill. SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) 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 is on the ballot. SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) We have to establish the principle no one is above the law. We have a constitutional responsibility, and we need to meet it. ROBERT COSTA: Another flashpoint was diversity. Candidates sparred over the Democratic coalition and who is best-positioned to rally black voters and other key blocs inside the party. SENATOR CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): (From video.) I have a lifetime of experience with black voters; I’ve been once since I was 18. (Laughter.) SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me. ROBERT COSTA: Abby, you’ve been covering this 2020 presidential race. It’s a scrum, still so many candidates in the field. Who broke out or had a big night, and why did it matter, in your reporter’s view? ABBY PHILLIP: Well, you know, I don’t think many people had a huge night, but all eyes were on Pete Buttigieg because after many, many months of a really stable top tier he has broken into it, finally. He’s leading in Iowa comfortably in a recent poll, one of the best Iowa polls that’s out there, and he’s rising in New Hampshire. And so the question was, would he get piled on? And the truth is he didn’t, and he largely held his own, and for a lot of frontrunners that’s been an important factor as they look to whether they can keep the momentum. But he has some real problems that he has to address and you just played one of them, which is that he is currently polling at zero with black voters in South Carolina, and that’s an issue that I think many of the candidates on the stage were eager to go after him on because it is a matter of electability. You cannot, in this Democratic Party, become the nominee without doing well with voters of color, particularly black voters. ROBERT COSTA: What about suburban voters? You look at Senator Warren backing a bit away from her position on Medicare for All, acknowledging that they – that may not happen if she wins the White House. What did you make of Senator Warren? Is she still the – one of the key people in this race? And has her position on healthcare encouraged Democrats on Capitol Hill who may not want a nominee who’s a full-throated supporter of Medicare for All? SUSAN DAVIS: I mean, it certainly seems to be an acknowledgement of political reality for Warren in some ways to not continue down Medicare for All as in intense a way. I mean, you’ve even seen former President Barack Obama making statements warning the party about moving too far to the left. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said publicly that Medicare for All is a nonstarter for her, that she wants to expand the Affordable Care Act. So at some point you kind of have to acknowledge the reality. I think it was the first time Warren’s kind of – you know, she doesn’t tend to reel it back in or overexplain, and I think she did feel some need to explain it. She’s still a strong, obviously, contender in this race. I still think there is – there is a Democratic electorate out there who is really happy to have women in this race. I still think just the nature of being a top-tier female candidate is very compelling. You still look at elections happening in the – in the midterms and the offseason; there is something about having female candidates on the ballot that voters really respond to, especially in the suburbs. And in the elections we’ve had recently in November in the states, one thing that Democrats took for a lesson they can take from that is not even that the suburbs are in play, the suburbs are theirs to win if they don’t screw it up. ROBERT COSTA: John, you’ve covered Vice President Biden for years. He remains steady in this race. He’s had some ups and downs. His son, his own exchanges with Ukrainians over the years have been under scrutiny for weeks if not months. What do you make of his ability to hold onto his position in the race and, to Abby’s point, his popularity with black voters? JOHN BRESNAHAN: Well, actually, on the Ukraine issue, when this whole scandal broke the Republicans were going to say, oh, this is – saying this is going to hurt Biden because we’re going to be talking about Biden and his son Hunter and this scandal in terms of scandal for months, and it’s been a couple months and it really hasn’t hurt Biden that much – though the Republicans are clearly stepping up their efforts to pull Hunter Biden into it; Senator Graham today saying he wants information from the State Department on Hunter Biden and his role in this Ukrainian national – natural gas company. So, so far he’s – you know, he’s proved very durable in terms of that scandal. Now, with black voters, he still remains the most popular figure in the race. And I talked to Jim Clyburn, the House minority whip who’s – ROBERT COSTA: Majority. JOHN BRESNAHAN: I’m sorry, majority whip – who’s from South Carolina, which is a key state. And he – you know, he likes Biden. He’s not – you know, I asked him is he going to endorse Biden; he’s not there yet. But Biden remains very strong, and Clyburn talked about his popularity with African American voters there. They see him in a lot of ways as the legacy of Barack Obama and the friendship they formed. And so I think they’re very comfortable in terms of – Clyburn saying they’re very comfortable supporting Biden. So right now he seems to be very strong with African American voters, and that’s actually propping him up in this race in a large measure. ROBERT COSTA: Carol, turning back to impeachment, when you look at Vice President Biden, should he be worried that he could be called as a witness in a Senate trial? Is that a variable for someone like him or Hunter Biden? How do you see his role, if any, as this impeachment process unfolds in the Judiciary Committee and then possibly in the Senate? CAROL LEONNIG: I think it’s possible that he could be called, and that would be a problem for him for sure to be on a stage. I would quibble a little bit with the conclusion that he hasn’t been impacted by the investigation because remember – and actually, Bob, I have to give you credit; you pointed this out to me in the newsroom at the time. July 25th is when the president makes this call to Zelensky, and Biden is the number-one candidate at that time on the Democratic side. Look where he is now. His name is in stories all the time for two reasons: one, criticism that he’s maybe too old for this. SUSAN DAVIS: Gaffes. CAROL LEONNIG: Exactly, gaffes. And second, his son and this energy company in Ukraine and why he was getting so much money during the time that Obama and Biden were in the White House. So I don’t think it’s hurt him in the sense of, like, wow, there’s a scandal around him; I think that his name is dominantly mentioned for these two unpleasant reasons. ROBERT COSTA: Well, maybe both can be true, that it’s a testament to his strength politically that the White House is so interested in attacking him, but it’s not great if you’re any political figure and you’re in the news all the time and there are conspiracy theories out there about you. ABBY PHILLIP: I think there’s always been a sense among a certain element of the electorate that they believe that Biden can do it, but they’re not sure – they’re not 100 percent sure that he’s the best one, and it’s created this opening for other candidates who are in the same moderate lane that he is in to start to rise, so – ROBERT COSTA: What about Senator Klobuchar? Is she going to pick up traction at any point? ABBY PHILLIP: I think what – I do think that she is. She had a really good night on the debate stage this week. She really broke through in a way that she hasn’t been able to break through, getting some time to speak and getting some moments to shine. And in Iowa, when I’m on the ground in Iowa, I hear a lot of Iowans bring up Amy Klobuchar. She is a neighboring-state senator, Minnesota. They feel like they know her. And when they talk about Pete Buttigieg, who is right now leading in Iowa, the person that they also talk about in almost the same breath is Amy Klobuchar. So I wouldn’t rule her out yet, but that moderate lane is becoming a little bit more open, I think in part because of some of these doubts about whether or not this Ukraine thing is going to be, like, you know, a lodestone around his neck as he goes into a potential general. ROBERT COSTA: And look at Mayor Bloomberg jumping in possibly. SUSAN DAVIS: Yeah, Deval Patrick. ROBERT COSTA: Or at least inching toward it. Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor. SUSAN DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, it does seem to be that there’s a real conflict in the Democratic Party right now between the elites and the voters because the voters don’t seem to be frustrated by the field. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm among Democratic voters, but the party machine looks at a field and feels kind of nervous. They don’t look at anyone and say you’re the sure shot against Donald Trump. So is it a really strong field or is it a really weak field? I mean, this is like kind of the ongoing debate inside the Democratic Party right now. It’s the – it’s still 20 people and there’s still a lot of people in the Democratic Party are looking at this field and thinking, I don’t know who the winner is. ROBERT COSTA: Well, when you talk to House Democrats, John, do they want – a lot of these House Democrats won in suburban districts in 2018. What do they want? Do they want – we know the base voters like Senator Warren, there are a lot of young people, and others like Mayor Buttigieg. What do House Democrats want in a nominee? JOHN BRESNAHAN: They don’t want Bernie Sanders, for one. (Laughter.) ROBERT COSTA: Why not? Why not? JOHN BRESNAHAN: Because Sanders scares them in terms of because they’re not sure he could carry these suburban voters in a general, and can he win – SUSAN DAVIS: Independents. JOHN BRESNAHAN: Can he win the independents that he needs to win? Now, Warren they’re looking at. Warren, I think they were – you know, she got off to a rough start but she’s running a terrific campaign. She’s run probably the best campaign of anybody. SUSAN DAVIS: And one of the best campaigners. JOHN BRESNAHAN: And she’s – and surprisingly good. And then I think they’ve taken a second look at Warren. The Medicare for All scares them, and I think in some sense, you know, especially moderate Democrats on the Hill, how do they pay for it, you know, Pelosi doesn’t like it. So I think they’re open to her. I think right now they’re open to whoever can win. I mean, I don’t – I don’t feel like they sense that they’re going to lose their majority in the House at this point. There’s too many Republican retirements in the House. I don’t think they get the sense that Trump is going to be, you know, a tidal wave or anything. So I think they’re – you know, they are nervous a little bit about Warren, I think less so, but you know, Biden makes them nervous, you know, for exactly the reasons everybody was talking. Does he have the staying power? I think, you know, they wanted – before Biden got in they were, you know, Biden was going to be this juggernaut or would maybe roll and get – you know, does he get an endorsement from Obama, and he hasn’t been it. So you know, there’s lots of room for, you know, someone to make a decision. SUSAN DAVIS: Or we could always have a contested convention. (Laughter.) JOHN BRESNAHAN: The ultimate reporter. ROBERT COSTA: Sue, we’ve had enough of a busy week: campaign, impeachment process, now talk of a contested convention. (Laughter.) CAROL LEONNIG: And the movies. JOHN BRESNAHAN: The movies and the audiobook. CAROL LEONNIG: And the audiobook, yeah. ROBERT COSTA: OK. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.

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