War, Women, and That Handshake Left Hanging: 5 Things We Learned During the Democratic Debate

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DES MOINES — Yes, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had it out over whether Sanders told her in a private 2018 meeting that he doesn’t think a woman candidate can win, and yes, Democrats rehashed their views on Medicare for All.

But the final televised debate before the Iowa caucuses also brought substantive moments on foreign policy, trade, and climate change.

Here are some of the top moments from the seventh Democratic debate.

War powers

With President Donald Trump having taken the country to the brink of war with Iran, military action was top of mind, especially whether Democrats would use military force without Congressional approval.

Joe Biden was challenged by CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer about why the Obama administration took military action in the Middle East without Congressional approval when he was vice president.

“There was the authorization for the use of military force that was passed by the United States Congress, House, and Senate, and signed by the president. That was the authority,” Biden answered.

What was left unsaid was that authorization was passed during the Bush administration. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg jumped in right away, saying, “That authorization needs to be replaced.”

Sen. Warren said the only term under which she’d bring the nation into combat would be an “imminent threat” — the same justification Trump has used, which relies heavily on a president’s subjective idea of the words “imminent threat.”

Fireworks on trade

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowing to take up the U.S.-Mexico trade deal next week, trade policy made an early appearance on the debate stage. Three of the six people on the stage will have to go on the record when President Trump’s trade deal comes before the Senate.

Sanders touted his opposition to NAFTA and normalized relations with China, which he said resulted in outsourcing and job losses. He also tied together the issues of trade and climate change to explain why he’ll vote against the USMCA.

“It does not even have the phrase ‘climate change’ in it,” he said.

Biden, who supported both policies Sanders decried, tried to paint Sanders as too much of an absolutist on trade, claiming, “I don’t know that there’s any trade agreement that the senator would ever think made any sense.”

Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar both said they would vote for the USMCA. Warren said it makes “a modest improvement” and gives relief to farmers and workers. Klobuchar, meanwhile, said she wants to create a trade block in North America to take on China.


President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial is just days away from beginning. Yet somehow, it took a full 90 minutes before the issue came up at the debate. But the discussion didn’t exactly break new ground, even as it came one day before the Senate is expected to receive the articles of impeachment.

Klobuchar used the moment to warn the GOP not to rush through a trial without calling witnesses, describing the trial as a “decency check on our government.”

“If our Republican colleagues won’t allow those witnesses, they may as well give our president a crown and a scepter, they may as well make him king,” she said. Klobuchar followed up in the spin room after the debate, challenging Trump to allow witnesses.

The trial will destroy the senators’ hoped-for campaign schedules by forcing them to stick around D.C. for six days a week. Warren was asked if that was a problem.

“Some things are more important than politics,” she replied.

Um, climate?

Oh yeah, the world’s on fire.

Late in the debate, the candidates engaged on global warming. The field agreed on how dire a threat it was, though they varied in how aggressively they’d attack the problem.

“Climate change has come to America from coast to coast. We’re seeing it in Iowa, we’ve seen it in historic floods in my community. I had to activate our emergency operation center for a once-in-a-millennium flood, then two years later had to do the same thing. In Australia, there are literally tornadoes made of fire taking place. This is no longer theoretical, this is no longer off in the future,” Buttigieg warned.

Businessman Tom Steyer, in his sweet spot, promised to declare a state of emergency on the climate if he becomes president. Warren ticked off a litany of potential executive actions she’d take to try to curb global warming. Klobuchar, breaking with the pack (and most Democrats), defended fracking by saying natural gas is a “transition fuel” to getting to carbon neutrality. That led Sanders to warn that “the planet we are leaving our kids will be uninhabitable.”

That Warren vs. Sanders moment

Warren and Sanders had a few snippy moments, meeting face-to-face for the first time since news broke that Sanders’ team had been trashing Warren to prospective voters and Warren claimed Sanders told her he doesn’t think a woman could win the presidency.

The two senators could not agree on a similar version of the story. Warren re-confirmed Sanders said it, and Sanders flatly denied it. And Warren dug in.

The more interesting moment between the two may have been immediately after the debate, when Sanders and Warren appeared to have a pretty terse conversation. Sanders offered his hand for a handshake but Warren ignored it, initiating a tense-looking exchange. Steyer walked up to wish them well, freezing awkwardly as they ignored him.

Steyer told CNN after the debate it was an “awkward moment,” but other than saying they were talking about “getting together,” he didn’t shed any light on what they were saying.

“I was trying to get out of the way as fast as possible,” he told MSNBC after the debate.

Cover: Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (L) chats with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (L) alongside billionaire-philanthropist Tom Steyer (C) during a break of the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

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