NPR Analysis Of Democratic Debate & Buttigieg's Performance

Jan 14, 2020


Credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 On Keeping American Troops Out Of The Middle East


Here’s what the candidates asked about troops said about pulling troops from the region:

Sanders: Sen. Sanders did not directly answer tonight, despite saying in the past he supported removing troops. Sanders did call for the creation of an “international coalition” of foreign nations to help create a plan to block Iran from creating nuclear weapons. Sanders also denounced the Iraq War and the Vietnam war saying, “both of those wars were based on lies.”

Biden: The vice president said he does support keeping troops in the Persian Gulf region and a small number in the region to keep countering ISIS. He also expressed his support for reinstating the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator says she would keep a small number of counter-terrorism and training forces in Afghanistan as well as leave troops in Iraq. She also opposed the Trump administration’s decision to remove troops from the Syrian border with Turkey.


Warren: The Massachusetts senator says she wants to pull all combat troops out of the region and stressed the need to instead rely on foreign alliances and diplomacy.

Buttigieg: The former mayor and veteran did not directly say if he supported removing troops in the region but did say he opposes sending additional troops to the Middle East.

Climate Change As Security Threat, Trade Issue

Several candidates have raised climate change — an issue that many Democratic voters describe as a high priority — in the context of questions about foreign policy and trade.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who often highlights both his relative youth and his military service, answered a question about his foreign policy qualifications by raising climate change as a national security threat. Buttigieg said that the next president will face challenges “different in scope and kind than anything we’ve seen before” — specifically cybersecurity and climate — and suggested that a vision for addressing those challenges is as important as experience.

Health Care System ‘Insane’ But Intractable

Once again, as in several previous debates, a discussion about health care revealed a major dividing line between the progressives and moderates on the stage.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have sought to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, are among those who’ve pushed for a public option that would give Americans the opportunity to choose a government health plan.

The progressives, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have called for a single-payer plan known as “Medicare for All.”

Warren suggested that Buttigieg’s $1.5 trillion plan isn’t expansive — or expensive — enough to reform the nation’s health system.

NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben has reported, Warren supports a $20.5 trillion plan that would phase in a single-payer system over a few years. Kurtzleben also reported on criticism that Warren has faced for being seen as slow to explain how she’d pay for her plan.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has also supported a public option, defended a more gradual approach to health reform: “I don’t buy that it’s not enough. It is a big, big step to say to people making $100,000 a year” to substantially reduce health insurance premiums, as she says her plan would do.

Buttigieg, who has called for balancing concerns about the national debt with the desire to improve the health care system, said the “bigness” of a health plan shouldn’t be measured by its cost.

Meanwhile, several candidates expressed frustration that the national conversation about health reform hasn’t progressed more quickly.

Sen. Bernie Sanders called the cost of the current system “insane” and said a single-payer system is “long overdue.”

“We’ve talked about health care for all in this country for over 100 years,” Sanders said. “Now is the time to take on the greed and corruption” of health care companies.

Billionaire Tom Steyer, who backs a public option as well, noted that the conversation is starting to feel repetitive: “We’ve had this conversation on this stage so many times. Everybody on this stage believes affordable health care is a right for every single American.”

Steyer added that the system “makes no sense and the government has to step in.”

According to an NPR/Marist/PBS NewsHour poll, a majority of Democrats support Medicare for All, while most Republicans and independents do not.

The Politics Of ‘Free College’

Pete Buttigieg has focused mostly on health care, as he’s tried to distinguish himself from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to appeal to more moderate Democrats. But he also regularly talks about not wanting to pay for “free college” for “the kids of millionaires.” The line has appeared in Buttigieg’s ads, as well as his regular stump speech, and came up just now on the Des Moines debate stage.

It’s something that progressives have pushed back on, arguing that framing for universal college access amounts to a “Republican talking point.”

NPR dove into the politics of the issue last month and you can learn more here.

Steyer Tries To Jab At Buttigieg

Billionaire Tom Steyer has caught heat for trying to buy his way into the debate and is the only candidate on stage tonight who hasn’t served in elected office. As the debate drew to a close tonight, he did try to lob some hits at Pete Buttigieg by contrasting their business careers.

"Mayor Pete has three years as an analyst at McKinsey. I have 30 years of international business experience,” Steyer said.

Buttigieg laughed it off, joking that, "You actually demoted me, I was an associate, but that's OK."

Steyer has spent millions in the early states to try to make the debate stages although he’s still polling in the single digits. He faces a tough path forward, especially without memorable breakout moments.

In his closing statement, Steyer took a more optimistic tone, telling viewers, “Together we can save the world.”

Buttigieg Touts New Endorsements From Black Elected Officials

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been subject to blistering criticism about his lack of support from Democrats of color, and particularly black Democrats, who are reliable Democratic voters. He’s said previously that black voters are still getting to know him and his record, but tonight was asked whether it was simply the case that voters had assessed his campaign and didn’t like what they saw.

Buttigieg made clear that the black voters who know him best — those in South Bend — can speak to his record while he served as mayor, saying that he’s faced some of the toughest issues communities can face. He also pledged that he would never take black voters for granted.

Buttigieg also took the opportunity to tout a number of high-profile endorsements from black leaders he’s received recently, including that of Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who is now a co-chair of his campaign. And he also pointed to an endorsement that his campaign announced earlier in the day, Waterloo, Iowa, Mayor Quentin Hart. Waterloo is one of Iowa’s most diverse cities, and as NPR reported last year the concentration of black voters has made it an important place for candidates to campaign. Buttigieg’s campaign says to expect to see Hart out on the trail stumping for Buttigieg, which could be key in his Iowa campaign.