Democrats express alarm over debate's negative tone

Democratic lawmakers were left shaken and worried by Wednesday night’s bruising presidential debate, which left some fearing the fight will hurt the party and result in a damaged nominee.

Senate Democrats are frustrated that candidates are spending too much time and effort attacking each other for relatively small policy differences, while not focusing their ire on President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE.

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They worry the intraparty food fight is overshadowing what they see as the main goal: Drawing a clear contrast between the Democratic candidates and Trump on health care and other key issues.

“I’m of the view that we have always been a party of ideas,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCalifornia lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe House passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum MORE (Calif.). “I think everybody should sort of consider that.”

She said there is “concern” within the caucus of the increasingly vicious attacks, particularly against the front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Sanders nabs endorsement from Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Poll: Sanders holds 7-point lead in crucial California primary MORE.

“People take sides and then they become hypersensitive and that just makes divisions all over the party and we don’t want that,” she said. “I want every one of our candidates to do well.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyKerry responds to Trump accusation he violated Logan Act: 'Another presidential lie' Overnight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash Democratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response MORE (D-Conn.) blamed the debate moderators for much of the negativity.

“I think these debates are really silly,” he said. “Just the incessant focus on these relative minor divisions between candidates might make for good TV but I don’t think gives people an accurate portrayal of the stakes of this election.”

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response Barr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation MORE (N.Y.) also voiced concern about the tone of the debates, in what could have been a signal to the candidates.

“No circular firing squads,” he said during an interview Thursday with SiriusXM’s Joe Madison.

Schumer focused on the infighting over health care.

“If we get all focused on the differences between, say Bernie [Sanders] and Cory [Booker] and Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] and [John] Hickenlooper, we’ll lose sight of the fact that it’s Donald Trump who’s now trying to reduce health care, destroy health care, get it rid for everybody,” Schumer said, adding, “That’s a trap we shouldn’t fall into.”

Both the Tuesday and Wednesday night debates featured arguments between Democratic candidates, but the second night was much more personal, with Biden coming under fire for the crime bill he authored in the 1990s and an op-ed he wrote in 1981.

Harris came under fire from Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardBloomberg, Sanders, Biden beat Trump in head-to-heads in North Carolina: poll Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg to face off with rivals at Nevada debate MORE (D-Hawaii), who attacked her record as a prosecutor and attorney general.

Gabbard accused Harris of blocking evidence “that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so” and keeping convicts “in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinLawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Overnight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit MORE (D-W.Va.) called the attacks hurled back and forth among the presidential hopefuls “awful.”

“It’s not who I am, it’s not what I believe in, I don’t think it helps anybody — to attack each other and try to annihilate each other,” he said. “It’s just awful. The whole scenario is bad.”

“Run for something, don’t run against something,” he added.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandGinsburg, accepting lifetime achievement award, urges working fathers to take an active role in kids' lives Gillibrand PAC, End Citizens United launch effort to boost female candidates Clinton to honor Ginsburg at fashion designer's awards show MORE (D-N.Y.) accused Biden of being opposed to women in the workplace based on a 1981 op-ed he wrote.

“What did you mean when you said when a woman works outside the home, it’s resulting in ‘the deterioration of family?'” Gillibrand said, challenging Biden’s decades-old opposition to a bill that would have expanded the child tax credit to richer couples.

Biden defended himself by insisting that he wanted the economic aid to go to families earning less than $100,000.

Biden came under attack from Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe CNN signs Andrew Yang as contributor Bloomberg qualifies for South Carolina primary debate MORE (D-N.J.) for his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill, which critics said fueled mass incarceration across the United States.

“There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” Booker said during the debate.

Biden for his part criticized Booker’s crime-fighting record as Newark mayor and his use of controversial stop-and-frisk policing tactics.  

The battling could feel personal in the Senate, since so many of the people on stage are senators or former senators. Harris, Booker, Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren declines to disavow super PAC that supports her San Diego Union-Tribune endorses Buttigieg 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate MORE (Mass.)  Michael BennetMichael Farrand Bennet2020 race goes national in sprint to Super Tuesday Toward 'Super Tuesday' — momentum, money and delegates Trump seeks split-screen moments in early primary states MORE (Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWarren declines to disavow super PAC that supports her San Diego Union-Tribune endorses Buttigieg 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate MORE (Minn.) are the Senate contenders for the White House. Biden served in the Senate for more than three decades.

Feinstein said colleagues are concerned that the candidates are pulling out the long knives six months before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses. That leaves plenty of time for resentments and factions to become fixed.

“This is so unusual because it’s so far ahead of an election,” she said, noting that attack ads are often reserved for the final weeks of a campaign.

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThree lessons from BIPA for data privacy legislation Swing votes steal spotlight in marathon Trump impeachment Q&A Hillicon Valley: UK allows Huawei to build 5G in blow to Trump | Lawmakers warn decision threatens intel sharing | Work on privacy bill inches forward | Facebook restricts travel to China amid virus MORE (D-Wash.) said she wanted to hear more discussion about the candidates' plans for boosting the economy and creating jobs.

“I definitely want them to be more focused on job creation,” she said. “I thought there was more that could be said about our economic strategy.”

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Trump commutes sentence of ex-Illinois Gov. Blagojevich in rash of clemency orders The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (Ill.) said he’s concerned the party infighting over health care obscures what he sees as the more important topic of the 2020 election: the difference between Trump and the Democrats.

“I think we’re digging into this whole Medicare debate in such detail that we’re missing the obvious. What this president is trying to do with existing health care should be the issue,” he said.

“Getting lost in the minutia of this, I think, confuses voters and is a waste of time,” Durbin said of the Democrat-on-Democrat attacks on competing health care ideas.

Nathanial Weixel contributed.