Buttigieg, Warren square off on donors at Democratic debate
LOS ANGELES – Long-simmering tensions between South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came to a head at Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate as the two candidates clashed over the role of wealthy donors in politics.
The fight between the two candidates came in the midst of an otherwise staid policy debate among the candidates in which the only direct criticism was aimed at President Trump.
But for Warren and Buttigieg, tensions that brewed for months eventually burst out into the open — the culmination of weeks of feuding over transparency that had, until Thursday, unfolded mostly through statements to the media, proxies and thinly veiled jabs.
The exchange on Thursday began when Warren took a passing swipe at traditional high-dollar political fundraising, remarking that “people who put down $5,000 for a check” for their candidate of choice “drown out the voices of everyone else.”
That remark drew the attention of Buttigieg.
“I can’t help but feel that might have been directed at me,” Buttigieg said.
The veteran shrugged off the comment, underscoring how important it is that Democrats use every tool they can to beat Trump in 2020.
“We’re in the fight of our lives right now. Donald Trump and his allies have made is abundantly clear that they will stop at nothing,” he continued. “This is our chance, this is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump and we shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our backs.”
Warren pushed the exchange further, describing a recent fundraising event by Buttigieg in a “wine cave full of crystals.”
“We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States,” she said. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the president of the United States.”
Buttigieg shot back that he was the only candidate on stage who was neither a millionaire nor a billionaire before noting that, prior to launching her bid for the White House, Warren had raised money from wealthy donors for her Senate campaign. In fact, he said, much of that money was transferred into her presidential campaign account earlier this year.
“Senator, your presidential campaign right now as we speak is funded in part by money you transferred having raised it at those exact same big ticket fundraisers you denounce,” he said, addressing Warren. “Did it corrupt you, senator? Of course not.”
The back-and-forth was eventually interrupted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
“I did not come here to listen to this argument. I came here to make a case for progress,” Klobuchar said. “And I’ve never even been to a wine cave. I’ve been to the wind cave in South Dakota.”
The clash between Warren and Buttigieg comes less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, the first-in-the-nation nominating contest that both candidates are counting heavily on to propel their campaigns past the early phases of the presidential race. In the past, Democratic presidential candidates have gained significant momentum from wins in Iowa, propelling them to the nomination.
Iowa political operatives often cite Warren and Buttigieg as the candidates with the most impressive campaign operations in the Hawkeye State, and both have led polls there in recent months.
But unlike rivals Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden, who have consolidated swaths of the electorate in Iowa, Warren and Buttigieg are still vying for many of the state’s undecided voters, a reality that has put them on a collision course.
With only seven candidates on the stage — down from 10 candidates in the November debate — Thursday’s debate was the smallest yet, giving the candidates more time to speak, allowing for a more nuanced discussion of policy issues.
The first hour of the debate, held at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, was perhaps the most substantive to date. The candidates took turns painting Trump as an unstable and corrupt president who is well-deserving of impeachment before turning to policy issues. Unlike past debates, the topic of health care was largely passed over for discussions about foreign policy, economics and climate change.
But the spat between Warren and Buttigieg opened the floodgates for a more aggressive and confrontational debate. Sanders, one of the leading progressives in the race, took a shot at both Buttigieg and Biden, remarking that the former vice president was ahead of Buttigieg in the number of billionaires he had raised money from — 44 billionaires for Biden and only 39 for Buttigieg, according to Sanders’s count.
And Klobuchar, a moderate Midwestern senator who is also banking on a top finish in the Iowa caucuses, criticized Buttigieg for what she said were his frequent derisions of candidates with experience in Washington. Unlike the South Bend mayor, Klobuchar said, she has won statewide elections.
“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and has shown that they can gather the support you talked about of moderate Democrats and independents,” Klobuchar said, addressing Buttigieg.
Still, Biden and Sanders, who many recent polls show occupying the top two spots in the race nationally, emerged from the debate largely unscathed. Sanders was, for the most part, untouched by his rivals, allowing him to hammer many of his key talking points — economic inequality, “Medicare for All” and free college tuition.
And while he faced passing criticism from Sanders, Biden did not stumble as he has in past debates and seized on Trump’s recent impeachment in the House of Representatives to underscore the urgency of the political moment and his electability as a candidate.
Even amid the intra-party fighting on Thursday night, several candidates were intent on bringing the conversation back to Trump.
“Let me say this,” Tom Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist, said while interrupting the clash over wealthy donors and high-dollar fundraisers, “There’s someone that’s loving this conversation and his name is Donald Trump.”