For 48 hours, the Democratic primary field appeared on the cusp of tipping into a proper intra-party war—to the terror of progressives fearful of a destructive Democrat-on-Democrat pile-on and to the delight of President Donald Trump.
But in the final presidential debate before primary voting begins in Iowa in three weeks, the six candidates on stage for the seventh primary debate made it clear that the only fight they’re interested in is the one against Trump himself.
Not that there wasn’t ample opportunity. In addition to a high-profile slugfest between the two top progressives, the debate weaved from topics from the war in Iraq to trade to health care—all places where disagreement between the candidates had festered over the long campaign.
But each topic was met with calm discussion rather than pointed criticism, even in the most potentially volatile instances.
For example, after days of increasingly acrimonious statements between Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) their heavily anticipated title match never materialized, with Warren choosing to move on instead of hitting Sanders for lying about his past skepticism of the prospects of a female nominee.
“Bernie is my friend, and I’m not here to try to fight with Bernie,” Warren said, declaring that the only fight that matters is the looming general election battle with Trump—and her fears that Democrats might nominate a candidate “who can’t pull our party together, or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, whose place at the top of national polls has remained, depending on your outlook, stubbornly flat or resiliently high, continued his tried-and-true strategy of running a general election campaign in a primary, returning again and again to how his policies compare to Trump’s, rather than those of his Democratic rivals.
“The American character is on the ballot,” Biden said at one point. “We in the United States can survive four years of Donald Trump, but eight years of Donald Trump will be an absolute disaster.”
The relatively defanged debate is indicative of a race where state and national polls are largely static and the field’s top tier is all within striking distance of victory. No candidate—at least, none on stage on Tuesday—appeared willing to chance going negative, a high-risk proposition in a field where the few presidential hopefuls who have gone scorched-earth have seen their prospects evaporate.
That wariness to risk upending the field of play reflects the must-win status of Iowa for all six Democratic contenders on stage. Score big, or even by a small margin there, decades of conventional campaign wisdom dictates, and a potent mix of momentum and media hype will likely follow to the next contest just days later. But for a few candidates in particular, the first caucus state is an absolute must-score.
Sanders is solidly in that camp. The Daily Beast recently reported that a win in Iowa could catapult him to what could be a hard-to-break succession of victories. Surging, albeit tepidly, in the past few weeks, the independent senator could theoretically take that win directly to his neighboring state of New Hampshire for a repeat resembling his 2016 success there against Hillary Clinton.
But after a recent news cycle which Sanders, along with his fellow New England senator Warren, was in the thick of—primarily involving a private conversation about gender and electability in 2020—Tuesday night’s debate in Des Moines did little to clear the fault lines between the two progressive rivals.
It did, however, tease out some differences. In a rare moment of hard disagreement—for scale, one of the zestier moments of the debate was when Warren and Sanders debated whether 1990 was actually 30 years ago—Sanders broke with the rest of the field by refusing to support Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, calling its “modest” improvements not worth the potential damage to American workers.
“This deal,” Sanders said, “will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs as a result of outsourcing.”
Warren, in response, criticized the deal and highlighted her past opposition to trade deals with Europe and Asia, but said farmers in Iowa had fallen victims to Trump’s trade wars.
“This new trade deal is a modest improvement. Sen. Sanders himself has said so,” Warren said. “We have farmers here in Iowa that are hurting and they are hurting because of Donald Trump-initiated trade wars.”
Biden, too, didn’t escape completely unchallenged. At the debate’s outset, the former vice president, who has built much of his campaign’s message promoting his foreign policy credentials and experience previously leading the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, faced criticism from Warren that his proposal to leave some combat troops in the Middle East would continue the “forever wars” that have lasted for a generation.
“On the Senate Armed Services Committee, we have one general after another in Afghanistan who comes in and says, you know, we’ve just turned the corner. And now it’s all going to be different. And then what happens? It’s all the same for another year,” Warren said. “This has got to stop. It’s not enough to say some day, we’re going to get out. No one on the ground, none of our military can describe what the conditions are for getting out. It’s time to get our combat troops home.”
For former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the greatest challenge actually came from the moderator’s table, when CNN reporter Abby Phillip asked whether his longtime defense of his well-documented issues with black voters—that they will like him once they get to know him—was running thin.
“Is it possible that black voters have gotten to know you and have chosen another candidate?” Phillip asked.
“The black voters who know me best are supporting me,” Buttigieg responded. “It’s why I have the most support in South Bend. It’s why among elected black officials in my community who have gotten into this race, by far most of them are supporting me. Now, nationally I’m proud that my campaign is co-chaired by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. And to have support right here in Iowa from some of the most recognizable black elected leaders.”
But as Democrats were playing nice, Trump was 375 miles away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sharpening his attacks largely on Sanders and Warren, triumphant in the face of a Senate impeachment trial and contemptuous of his would-be opponents one state away.
“Our last election was so important, I don’t know, maybe the most important ever,” Trump said. “I have a feeling this election, in its own way, will be just as important. We must devote everything we have toward victory in 2020. We have to do it.”