Democratic Candidates Spar at Last Debate Before Iowa Caucuses

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right greet each other as former Vice President Joe Biden looks on Tuesday before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Six Democratic presidential candidates took the stage at Drake University in Iowa Tuesday night in the final debate before the Iowa voters head to their precinct caucuses in February.

The debate touched upon a myriad of topics including public education, health care reform, climate change, the impeachment of President Donald Trump, whether a woman can be elected president, and the question of authorization for military action in the Middle East. 

When asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer about the authorization for military force in the Middle East following the 9/11 terrorist attack, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said, “I think my record speaks to that.”

“In 2002, when the Congress was debating whether or not we go into a war in Iraq, invade Iraq, I got up on the floor of the House and I said that would be a disaster, it would lead to unprecedented levels of chaos in the region. And I not only voted against the war, I helped lead the effort against that war,” Sanders said.

Biden was asked about his judgment in voting to authorize the war in Iraq. 

“I said 13 years ago it was a mistake to give the president the authority to go to war if, in fact, he couldn’t get inspectors into Iraq to stop what – thought to be the attempt to get a nuclear weapon. It was a mistake, and I acknowledged that.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was not in the Senate for that vote, but she said she opposed the war in Iraq from the start. 

“I think right now what we should be talking about, though, Wolf, is what is happening right now with Donald Trump,” she said. “Donald Trump is taking us pell-mell toward another war. We have a very important resolution. We just found out today that four Republicans are joining Democrats to go to him and say: You must have an authorization of military force if you’re going to go to war with Iran.”

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the only military veteran on the stage, said the lessons of the past are personal for him. 

“There are enlisted people that I served with barely old enough to remember those votes on the authorization after 9/11, on the war in Iraq. And there are people now old enough to enlist who were not alive for some of those debates … it’s going to take a view to the future, as well as the readiness, to learn from the lessons of the past.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she believes the principal job of the president is to keep the country safe. 

“And I think that’s about judgment. I think it starts with knowing our military. I sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I work with our generals, with our military leaders, with our intelligence, but I also visit our troops. I visit our troops around the world,” she said.

Billionaire Tom Steyer picked up on Warren’s point. 

“It isn’t so much about experience,” he said. “It’s about judgment. If you’ve been listening to this, what we are hearing is 20 years of mistakes by the American government in the Middle East, of failure, of mistakes … and if you look who had the judgment, it was a state senator from Illinois with no experience named Barack Obama who opposed the war. It is a congresswoman, Barbara Lee from Oakland, California, who stood up against the original vote, who was the only person in Congress.”

The candidates disagreed on a topic of interest to Iowans: the rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, now called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“The heart and soul of our disastrous trade agreements – and I’m the guy who voted against NAFTA and against permanent normal trade relations with China – is that we have forced American workers to compete against people in Mexico, in China, elsewhere, who earn starvation wages, $1 or $2 an hour,” Sanders said.

Warren said she supports the USMCA. 

“This new trade deal is a modest improvement. Senator Sanders himself has said so. It will give some relief to our farmers. It will give some relief to our workers. I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help, and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal,” she said. 

Biden said that, if he is elected, no trade agreements would be signed without environmentalists and labor representatives at the table. 

“And there will be no trade agreement until we invest more in American workers,” he said. “We should be putting our money and our effort and our time in preparing American workers to compete in the 21st century on the high-tech side, dealing with all artificial intelligence. We should be focusing on equipping American workers to do that.”

Tuesday’s debate, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register, was held in the historic Sheslow Auditorium on Drake University’s campus. CNN anchor Blitzer, CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip and the Register’s chief politics reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel moderated the debate.

There was a lively scene outside the auditorium before the debate commenced. 

As a drone buzzed overhead taking pictures, an airplane flew in circles pulling a banner that read: “President Trump Fights for Iowa Farmers.”

On the ground, a group of pro-immigration reform protestors carried lighted posters that read “Stop Deportations” and they chanted “undocumented, unafraid.”

Jose Munoz, national communications director for the group, United We Dream Action, based in Washington, D.C., wanted to be at the debate to challenge Joe Biden about his record on deportations during the Obama administration.

A man on a tractor with Trump and Pence posters and flags chugged past a rowdy group of Amy Kolbuchar supporters chanting, “It’s time, It’s time, It’s time for a woman in the White House.”

Standing across the street from the Klobuchar advocates was Bob Clough, 59, and his son, James, 26, from Woodinville, Washington. They came to Iowa just to witness the political circus taking place in the state.

They flew into Iowa, starting in Council Bluffs and working their way across the state. They saw Jill Biden in a small public library in Guthrie Center and Pete Buttigieg in Ames.

What do they make of the outsize role Iowa has in the presidential selection process?

“It’s a wacky way to pick a national candidate,” Bob Clough said. “But, I’ll take it over what the Republican Party is doing.”

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