In the days leading up to the November Democratic debate in Atlanta, everyone seemed to agree that attacks on Pete Buttigieg would be the order of the night. The South Bend mayor had leaped to the top of the pack in the latest Iowa polls, and the conventional wisdom was that the other candidates hoping for a caucus victory there — Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden — would be directing their fire his way. But the rest of field was surprisingly cordial to Mayor Pete, with the real fireworks coming from a heated exchange between Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard. Cory Booker also earned some good reviews for his joke that Biden “might have been high” for opposing marijuana legalization. Intercept politics reporter Akela Lacy and Waleed Shahid of the activist group Justice Democrats join Mehdi Hasan to break down the debate.
Cory Booker: I have a lot of respect for the vice president. This week I hear him literally say that I don’t think we should legalize marijuana. I thought you might’ve been high when you said it.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.
Who won and who lost at the fifth Democratic presidential debate last night? And what were the really memorable on-stage clashes?
Kamala Harris: It’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who during the Obama administration spent four years full-time on Fox News criticizing President Obama.
MH: In a Deconstructed special, I’ll give my take and also talk to Waleed Shahid of the Justice Democrats and Akela Lacy of The Intercept’s DC bureau about who and what stood out on the night and what the moderators may have missed.
It was debate night on Wednesday night, again the fifth Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta Georgia. Ten candidates on stage. Which in my view is still six too many. And four moderators, an all-woman line up in fact, from MSNBC and the Washington Post.
Once again, frontrunner and former vice president, Joe Biden had a terrible night, a terrible night — incoherent, rambling, unable to finish sentences, mixing up his words, saying stuff that is wildly out of touch and even offensive. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted people to be able to choose or not choose their healthcare plans:
Joe Biden: We should build on ObamaCare, provide the plan I put forward before anybody in here adding a Medicare option in that plan and to make people choose — allow people to choose, I should say.
MH: He seemed to forget that Kamala Harris is a member of the United States senate.
JB: I have more people supporting me in the black community, that have announced for me because they know me. They know who I am. Three former chairs of the Black Caucus. The only African American woman that had ever been elected to the United States Senate. A whole range of people. My point is —
KH: That’s not true. The other one is here.
JB: I said the first. I said the first African American woman.
MH: He was very keen to point out that men should never hit women. Unless —
JB: No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger other than in self defense and that rarely ever occurs.
MH: And this is the phrase that he decided to use three times to stress the importance of ending domestic violence:
JB: We have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it.
MH: Punching at it. You can’t make this Biden shit up, you really can’t. So, I for one remain amazed that he’s still the frontrunner, that he still gets a pass from the DC media, despite all his gaffes, despite the clear incoherence, despite the clear sunsetting that we’re seeing in front of our eyes at each one of these debates.
I guess he should be thankful that most voters don’t watch these debates. Though if they did, they’d have seen Senator Cory Booker — who for once, had a great night, in terms of his interventions, his rhetoric, his passion — they’d have seen Booker give us the line of the night, at Biden’s expense:
CB: I have a lot of respect for the vice president. He swore me into my office, is a hero. This week I hear him literally say that I don’t think we should legalize marijuana. I thought you might’ve been high when you said it. And let me tell you because marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people and the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.
MH: But where, oh, where, were the attacks on Pete Buttigieg? This was supposed to the night, going into this debate, this was supposed to be the night that Mayor Peter was gonna get targeted by the other candidates on stage who now see him as a real threat, a possible future frontrunner, leading in Iowa, according to some of the polls. But it didn’t really happen. Most candidates, especially in the first hour or so of the debate, steered clear of the 37-year-old who runs Indiana’s fourth largest city but believes himself to be qualified to hold the most powerful job on earth. Senator Amy Klobuchar tried a little dig.
Amy Klobuchar: Mayor, I have all appreciation for your good work as a local official. I also have actually done this work. I think experience should matter.
MH: But Mayor Pete had a good comeback.
Pete Buttigieg: Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There’s more than a hundred years of Washington experience on this stage and where are we right now as a country?
MH: And then there was the remarkable clash between Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris. Gabbard went after Harris back in July in Detroit on the debate stage, lambasting Harris’s pretty awful record as a prosecutor in California, something we’ve examined on this show, too. But on Wednesday night, Harris took her revenge.
KH: It’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama.
Tulsi Gabbard: That’s ridiculous, Senator Harris. That’s ridiculous.
KH: Who has spent full time — who has spent full time criticizing people on this stage as affiliated with the Democratic Party, when Donald Trump was elected, not even sworn in, buddied up to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump in the Trump Tower, fails to call a war criminal by what he is as a war criminal, and then spends full time during the course of this campaign, again, criticizing the Democratic Party.
MH: Gabbard responded by accusing Harris of lying about her, of smearing her. But whether or not you like Kamala Harris, she’s right about Gabbard. Here is Representative Tulsi Gabbard on Fox News in 2015 echoing a racist Islamophobic Republican talking point about how then president Obama was refusing to say the words “Islamic terrorism.”
Interviewer: Do you think when the president won’t say Islamic extremism that he doesn’t really know who the enemy is, is that it? I don’t get this one.
TG: I think, in my opinion, it really is not recognizing that Islamic extremism is the enemy and we can see that through their actions, through the decisions that this administration has made and Libya is a perfect example.
MH: By the way, on the subject of foreign policy: there were no questions at all at this debate on Israel-Palestine, despite the big news this week that the Trump administration no longer considers Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be a violation of international law. No questions about U.S. policy in Latin America where Bolivian president Evo Morales was recently deposed in what only Bernie Sanders, among the 10 candidates on stage, has called a “coup”.
But there were finally — finally! — questions on climate change and on voter suppression, both huge issues, neither of which have been raised at previous debates. So, who were the winners, who were the losers? What did we learn from the debate tonight?
I’m joined to discuss all this by Waleed Shahid, who worked on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign and is now communications director for the left-wing grassroots group, Justice Democrats; and by our very own Akela Lacy, politics reporter for The Intercept here at our DC bureau. Akela, Waleed, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
Akela Lacy: Hello, thanks for having me.
Waleed Shahid: Hey, Mehdi, thanks for having me.
MH: Quick question to kick off: the debate just finished. Winners, losers off the top of your head. Waleed, go.
WS: I thought Sanders started off a little slow but his closing was very, very strong. One of the strongest I’ve seen him yet. And yeah, I think losers I did not think that, I think Kamala Harris really missed a big opportunity for herself. I did not think Warren had her strongest night either.
MH: Yeah, Elizabeth Warren was very quiet, I think, which was interesting given in the last debate everyone was coming for her. Akela.
AL: I would say, I don’t want to say this, but I think Booker actually had a pretty strong closing, and was able to get in some good points. I would also say I think Warren kind of fell off at the end, and we kind of forgot that she was there for a couple of moments.
MH: So, one of the things I came to this debate for tonight was because I was told that this was going to be the debate where everyone went after Pete Buttigieg. We were told that you know, the first couple of debates were Biden, then it was Warren. Now it’s going to be Buttigieg because he had these polls with him leading in Iowa and all this money that he’s getting and “momentum.” And yet, he had a pretty okay night in terms of no one really laid a glove on him.
AL: Yeah, I mean, the moderators didn’t necessarily go after him on a couple of clear points, I think, that they could have attacked but —
MH: Eg.? You’ve done some reporting on Mayor Pete this week that’s not been good for him.
AL: There’s been a lot of reporting. So yeah, Ryan Grim, our bureau chief covered the Douglass plan last week and the campaign basically saying that a bunch of people had endorsed the plan who hadn’t.
MH: His anti-racism plan.
AL: Right. Then the stock photo debacle came out after that, and then we had to —
MH: It was a stock photo from Kenya illustrating what’s supposed to be a black American woman.
AL: Yes, and what was listed as her son. It’s actually her little brother. Her name is Faith. She’s been in touch with Ryan.
MH: It got a passing reference tonight from Kamala Harris but Kamala didn’t really go for it.
AL: Yeah, she had a wide open shot to really go after the mayor there and ended up kind of talking about how Democratic candidates over time have systematically excluded or I guess done a bad job of reaching out to black voters. She didn’t specifically say black voters, but I think it’s clear that that’s what she was referring to, yeah.
MH: And Mayor Pete, Waleed. I mean, he got away with it tonight, in a sense. The first one hour no one even said a word. No one said boo to a goose in terms of going after him. And then in the second hour, a few people tried, but he had a pretty good night in that sense, didn’t he?
WS: I think, yeah, I don’t think there was any moment or big blows against Mayor Pete and I think, you know, it’s one of the strengths and weaknesses of the two progressive candidates in the race is that they often participate in debates in good faith and participate in them and as an exchange of ideas rather than what they actually are, which is a place to generate media that, you know, clips and zingers that go viral for the next couple days, for weeks, for months. And, you know, Bernie and Warren are very consistent. They bring up similar themes every time. They don’t go for the, you know, in the way that Kamala did against Joe Biden, the way you know, she does often, and —
MH: They’re so nice, aren’t they? They’re just so friendly, and nice even when he goes after Joe Biden and Bernie did mention the line tonight that you know, you supported the Iraq War, I opposed the Iraq war. And even that he does as a kind of as two old friends disagreeing. Let’s talk about Biden. Every time there’s a Democratic debate, am I the only person who thinks, what the hell is this guy doing on stage? How is he the front runner? He can barely finish a single sentence without making a flub, without making a gaffe, without getting a sentence wrong. Tonight, he offended Kamala Harris by suggesting that Carol Moseley Braun was the only woman elected to the Senate who was an African American woman. The whole thing was bizarre. Akela, what do you think when you see Biden speaking on stage what comes into your mind?
AL: I’m confused, a lot of —
MH: He’s confused!
AL: He’s confused. I think we’re all confused about why he’s given — I mean, it’s understandable. You know, he’s leading the polls. He has the name recognition. That’s why he’s getting enough time or all this time to talk but over and over again, as you said he’s not making coherent statements. He consistently trails off and talks about things that aren’t part of the questions that he’s being asked. And he rarely actually answers the question. He was asked what he would do differently than Obama —
MH: On North Korea.
AL: — On North Korea. He didn’t answer the question. He talked about rebuilding relationships with allies, you know, from before Trump came into office, and then went on to something completely different. And yeah, it’s frustrating, but the moderators don’t really keep them in line at all.
MH: No, it’s almost like, I feel like when I watch Biden, it’s kind of like the Emperor’s New Clothes story comes back. Where’s the kid who’s gonna shout out “There’s something wrong with you? This is not normal.” Waleed, what do you think when you see Biden on stage?
WS: I mean, he clearly was the weakest performer in the debate, and I did not mention him as the person who had the weakest performance because he’s always been the weakest performer at the debate. You know, I think he has steadily decreased in a lot of the ways that Warren has steadily increased. He’s also seen a steady decrease since launching his campaign. It’s partly why the campaign doesn’t let him do many media appearances or public appearances, because he always says something weird.
MH: Yeah, I saw someone tweeting earlier that the one of the best things for Biden is that no one watches these debates.
WS: Yeah, and I think that one of the things that the media unfortunately does is give him a pass not just on that stuff. But on his record, he has an actual record that he doesn’t actually get asked about. And there was a clear moment where Bernie brought up one of his biggest blunders in his political career where he actually, he can’t use Obama for shield for that, where he was one of the Democrats who led the charge on going to war in Iraq, and the moderators didn’t follow up on that at all, which is one of the biggest, you know, one of the biggest decisions ever made in American politics in the past 50 years was that decision and something he’s rarely been asked about.
MH: And the format is so frustrating for me, as you know, in my other interviewing gig, I do a TV show where I try and kind of, ask tough questions to politicians. And it’s so frustrating for me to watch these TV debates and see no follow up questions. No putting pressure on the candidates on stage, you mentioned Biden, the Iraq War, there was also Biden and Saudi Arabia where he was asked about Crown Prince MBS and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Yemen. And he went on this long rant about how bad the Saudis are, and about how he would not, you know, give MBS the pass that Trump gave, even talked about Yemen. And no mention of the fact that he was vice president to Obama when the Yemen War kicked off. He was vice president to Obama who sold more weapons to Saudi Arabia than any American president in modern history. Akela.
AL: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of what we’re seeing is that the other candidates are the people that are jumping in to say when Biden says something incorrect, and then the conversation gets diverted to allowing them to respond to each other and the moderators don’t have time to follow up. Not that the, you know, the onus shouldn’t be on them. But they’re not doing —
MH: So, on the one hand, he doesn’t really get dented. He comes out of every debate, his polling, you know, he’s still the kind of “front runner,” doesn’t take a hit from the debate. On the other hand, it does provide us with some entertainment value from some of the debates when they are when they do get a bit dull, you know, there’s going to be some kind of Biden moment where he says something ridiculous. Tonight Waleed he talked about the importance of defeating domestic violence by punching away at it. Three times, he said, let’s punch away at it. And he also said that you shouldn’t raise your hand on a woman unless it’s in self defense. I shouldn’t laugh, but I was laughing. It was ridiculous. And then there was also the moment when Cory Booker went for him. Waleed, what did you make of the Booker attack?
WS: That was Booker’s best performance he’s had at a debate and I think that you know, again, these debates are — There’s a debate that happens live and there’s what people remember and what they play on the media afterwards and so that clip will be played many times and I think it’s what Booker is saying is he’s making a genuine point there that you know, marijuana use is basically legal, if you’re white and middle class or upper class in this country that basically the only people who are criminalized for marijuana use are the poor and people of color. And so, holding Biden accountable, it worked for Kamala Harris. What happened with her, with the busing stuff is that she backed off from her position within a week. I think that if you hold them accountable publicly and continue to stay strong on you position, it actually can enhance your chances. And so Booker right now is already seeing a huge number of donations go into his campaign. His campaign is tweeting about it right now.
MH: He made this rather kind of sad and desperate plea at the end in his closing statement in what was otherwise a very strong closing statement about race and racism in the civil rights struggle, and John Lewis, and then he said, I’m haven’t qualified for the next debate. Please give me some money so I can qualify. Akela, that was kind of sad.
AL: Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like Booker at this point has kind of resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to be more of like a moral force in this election. And like he knows that he’s not going to get anywhere but like we saw tonight like he redirected the conversation with Biden. He redirected several other points —
MH: On race, he talked about being you know, a young black man and a black voter who had been excluded from the conversation.
AL: Yeah, and he actually — I mean him doing that allowed Biden to kind of confirm Booker’s own point, which is that — I mean, Biden’s answer was inherently racist. He didn’t answer Booker’s point. He basically said, I have always been a friend of the black community.
MH: I come from the black community then he qualified himself saying, in terms of my support.
AL: Yeah, how could I have done anything wrong on pot or criminal justice when this is the track, like they love me.
MH: And the only black woman ever elected to the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun endorsed me ignoring the black woman to his left Kamala Harris who pointed out that she was still there. Waleed, we finally had a question on climate change. We finally had a question on voter suppression. Why do you think it’s taken so long for these two hugely important issues to to rear their heads at a Democratic television debate?
WS: I think it’s because they’re not the sexiest issue for the media. I think that it’s strange because in most polling, climate change usually comes as the number two issue after healthcare for Democratic primary voters. But, you know, there’s lots of studies that show that the media actually underreports climate change all the time. And so there’s been a lot of pressure from organizations like the Sunrise Movement to get moderators to ask about climate change. I still think it was, you know, the whole idea of transitioning the entire economy based on fossil fuels to a fossil fuel free economy is not going to be figured out in two minutes soundbites. That’s why people are doing a climate debate. It’s a very serious issue. And so, yeah, and it seems like since Jay Inslee has left, Bernie Sanders has really tried to take the lane of being the person who’s taking climate most seriously on the stage.
MH: He had a very powerful answer on climate change and talking specifically about fossil fuel industries and criminal liability.
Bernie Sanders: The fossil fuel industry is probably criminally liable because they have lied and lied and lied when they had the evidence that their carbon products were destroying the planet and maybe we should think about prosecuting them as well.
Rachel Maddow: Thank you, Senator Sanders.
MH: It’s weird that when they did ask the climate change question, they asked Tulsi Gabbard first and then Tom Steyer. Just on that note, what I find so frustrating is, you know, we’re less than, I think, less than 80 days away from Iowa and the caucuses and you’ve still got Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, who I just don’t believe is going to be the candidate, sucking up so much oxygen and taking up so much time when I want to see the “top tier” candidates, the realistic candidates actually be able to go at each other. I would love to see an exchange between Biden and Buttigieg. We didn’t see it.
AL: Yeah, I think I mean, that’s what people want. Also, that’s why people are frustrated and you’ve mentioned already like viewership for this is pretty low as it stands, I think because people, like many of the points you’ve already made there’s no follow up. It doesn’t make sense.
MH: There’s too many people on bloody stage.
AL: It’s too many people and it doesn’t leave space for substantive conversations.
WS: And the biggest debate over the past month has been over Medicare for All of which there was like, Bernie got to speak on it for a little bit and that was basically it. There wasn’t really a return to the discussion.
MH: There was no question, Waleed, to Elizabeth Warren about perhaps the most major “U-turn” of her campaign where she now says she’s not going to pitch a Medicare for All bill in her first year or first hundred days in office. She’s going to pitch a public option and Medicare for All is going to come in a separate bill in year three. There was a pushing of her on that. There was no challenging really on that. She kind of talked about the plan herself. But there was no question about well, how come you didn’t mention this before? How’s it going to work after midterms in 2022? I just found that astonishing.
WS: I think the thing that I felt when Senator Warren did describe her plan what happened was the thing that I was feared which is that it was a very long description that was very complicated. And it you know, reminded me of somewhat of, you know, the Labour Party’s problem over their position on Brexit. It’s hard to explain to people in more than two sentences. And I think that, you know, at least Bernie’s plan and Buttigieg’s plan, they’re very easy to understand and I think that she’s going to have to get better at explaining her plan, and not go the way that Kamala Harris has gone on health care where nobody can describe Kamala Harris’ plan in a simple, succinct way.
MH: One advantage to having so many people on stage as much as I don’t like it, is you do get the kind of random moments and the random rows. In one of the earlier debates, Tulsi Gabbard went after Kamala Harris and her criminal justice record which I actually thought Tulsi Gabbard was accurate about. We did a whole show on Kamala Harris’ criminal justice record earlier this year. Tonight, Kamala Harris kind of got revenge, Akela, when she went after Tulsi? There was a quite a good moment when she went after her saying you spent eight years of the Obama presidency on Fox News attacking the president. You were sitting down with Steve Bannon. You were meeting with Assad. All accurate comments.
AL: Yeah, and Tulsi kind of embraced that which I thought was interesting. She clearly had rehearsed her answer for this time around. I don’t think she’s had as much of a coherent response when this has surfaced in other debates. And I think you made the point, she could have come back and said that Obama has, you know, made the same point when he ran that he would sit down with all leaders and have the same conversations, but she didn’t make that point. And instead, I think she went on to talk about military service.
MH: She always talks about her brothers and sisters in uniform. Waleed, there hasn’t really been — There’s some people on the left, I’m sure many people listening to the show. I get emails from them, who think Tulsi Gabbard is this great anti-war, left-wing progressive candidate. My view is there hasn’t been enough sustained interrogation of her alliances with some pretty dodgy people, including Narendra Modi. Her praise for people like Sisi in Egypt. What do you make of Tulsi Gabbard? You work for Justice Democrats. Where does she fit in to the progressive conversation?
WS: I don’t know. I think it’s very confusing and if she was genuinely trying to push the party in a progressive direction on foreign policy. The person with the worst views on that stage regarding foreign policy is Joe Biden, who she doesn’t go after, which is very perplexing to me given, you know, the first Iraq War and the second Iraq War. So I don’t know what, what Tulsi Gabbard is about.
MH: In fact, she’s spoken in the past, not in the debate, very positively about Biden and saying he’s apologized about Iraq, and we welcome it. She hasn’t spoken the same way about Hillary Clinton, interestingly, but Biden, she gives a weird pass to on Iraq.
WS: Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me. And, you know, the Trump campaign was tweeting out videos of her speaking at the debate today. And I think that, you know, it’s troubling. I think her appearances on Fox News are troubling. I don’t get her to be honest.
MH: I think a lot of people feel the same way. Foreign policy, they tried to do a kind of foreign policy, like do a tour of the globe. And they opened with North Korea. They asked about Afghanistan. They asked about China. They asked about Russia. They asked about Saudi Arabia, and I waited and I waited. This was the week when Mike Pompeo overturned 40 years of U.S. policy, went against international law and UN Security Council resolutions and said, in the eyes of the U.S. government settlements, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are no longer in violation of international law. You think this would be the week the fifth debate, we might get one mention of Israel. We got it from Bernie Sanders, who brought it up on his own, but not from the moderators, not from any other candidate.
AL: Considering Israel is our “strongest ally” in the region and also I will note that Bernie didn’t really actually specify the policy change. He brought up Israel and then ended with I’m pro-Israel which of course we, you know — I won’t say I expected that. But I think that just sets the tone for you know, us managing our expectations.
MH: I think he said I’m pro-Israel because he said that line just before he invoked Palestinian rights, which to be fair, got a massive applause, something you didn’t hear in the past Democratic debate, people applauding Palestinian rights, but a, he felt he had to give the qualifier first. B, as you say, he didn’t talk about these interesting policies. You know, he’s talked about leveraging aid against the Israeli government to try and get them to deal with the humanitarian situation in Gaza. And c, he brought it up. Again, the moderators didn’t feel.
AL: Yeah, I was gonna say, I mean, this was also if the moderators had planned to ask about that question, that would have been a perfect opportunity for them to redirect and ask specific questions on any of the candidates records.
MH: Joe Biden, you were vice president eight years. Obama tried to get a two-state solution, failed miserably. What makes you think you’re going to succeed the next eight years if you’re president?
AL: Yeah, several senators on the stage voted on the BDS bill you know, this past session. That’s easy, easy target for them. Yeah, it clearly wasn’t a priority.
MH: A simple question: do you agree with Mike Pompeo? And what are you going to do about it when you’re president, if you’re president? Waleed another interesting issue that didn’t rear its head. I’d love to have had a question on who is the rightful president of Bolivia?
WS: I mean, one of the biggest things that happened in this debate is that Bernie Sanders in 2015 and 2016 was hit constantly by Hillary Clinton for not being experienced enough to handle foreign affairs. And now, he is probably the most well spoken on foreign affairs on that stage. It’s a huge development for Bernie. It’s a huge development for the progressive movement. And you know, when he brings up Israel-Palestine, I think what he’s trying to bring up is like the distinct, the contrast between him and the other Democrats on the stage, and that he’s actually comfortable talking about that issue when many democrats on that stage are probably very uncomfortable talking about foreign affairs, because it’s not a priority for them, or they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
MH: And in fact, that’s one of the problems for Bernie Sanders when you see a lot of the chatter on Twitter about who’s the winner or loser his name doesn’t come up in either list partly because — I’m talking about you know, in terms of some of the kind of mainstream commentators and activists — I think it’s partly because the issues as you say, which is very strong and distinct on just don’t get asked about. So, if you don’t talk about climate change very often, you don’t see that he’s got the most radical position on climate change with Jay Inslee out of the race. If you don’t talk about Israel-Palestine, you don’t see that he’s the only candidate, really the only candidate who’s taking a very, very distinct and tough line on Israel-Palestine, on Saudi Arabia, he spoke about tonight. He was strong on Saudi Arabia. But you’re right. Bolivia, he’s come out and said it was a coup. I don’t think any of the other nine people on stage, Akela, I don’t think that any of them said it’s a coup.
AL: I don’t think so. Warren said something that was not very strong on Twitter yesterday. Yeah, don’t quote me. I’m not exactly sure what she said. But she didn’t say —
MH: But nobody said coup so far.
WS: There’s also just a debate within the debate which is that there are candidates who want to talk about policy, namely Bernie and Warren and then there’s candidates who will do absolutely everything to try to move away from policy which are Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, try to bring it back to a message around, you know, that they’re going to take on Trump. And so I think there are candidates who benefit from not talking about policy which include the ones who just want to, you know, hide their policy positions by just making a referendum on Trump. That came up in the very first question around impeachment where Bernie, you know, was like, he kind of wanted to talk about things besides impeachment, it seemed in that debate given that, you know, if you turn on CNN or MSNBC anytime this week, it’ll just be wall to wall coverage about impeachment. I think that Bernie is trying to appeal to people who are getting a little fatigued by it.
MH: And do we think that it’s a scandal? Do we all agree that it’s a scandal that Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang were on the debate stage, but Julian Castro, who has said so many important things about race in this campaign, so far wasn’t?
AL: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, it’s funny, we were talking about how the Castro campaign is, you know, was tweeting about what they would have said when they were on the stage, but I think he has served as a really important counterpoint, especially to some of the other candidates who we would have hoped what might have had a little bit better content on the race issue. He has kind of come after Harris for that. I think he’s come after Booker as well.
MH: He’s come after Biden on other issues.
AL: Yeah, and as you mentioned, like Steyer and Yang, I think fall into the category of people who aren’t really well versed in those topics and go out of their way to pivot issues when they’re asked about them and so I think it’s a loss to not have him there.
MH: And just picking up on Waleed’s point earlier about people who avoid policy, you mentioned Buttigieg. You and I were watching the debate together. One thing we noticed, when he gives answers, describe how he gives answers to questions, Akela.
AL: Buttigieg is very well spoken and articulate and he knows how to use buzzwords to make people think that he’s making substantive points about things when really he’s not actually saying anything. There’s one question that he was asked where I think it was about voting rights or voter disenfranchisement. And what he said was, I believe that we should have strong federal leadership on this and talked about unity in the federal government which I don’t think anyone is disputing, like, I don’t think that has anything to do with, you know, we know where the issues are with voter disenfranchisement. But anyway to illustrate that he doesn’t have specific policy ideas, like he just likes to talk about solutions and process, which I think gives people hope that he can solve issues. But, you know, as we’ve seen —
MH: But he is good in terms of kind of the slick answers and it helps him get out of trouble. Waleed, there was one moment where Amy Klobuchar referred to him as a local official. He’s obviously the mayor of South Bend, Indiana the fourth biggest city in Indiana, not the third, not the fifth, the fourth biggest city in Indiana. You might think, oh, good line, but he actually had a good response. He said, you know, there’s 100 years of Washington experience on the stage. What has that achieved?
WS: I worked for Senator Sanders in 2016 and then people said he had no experience to be president despite being a member of the House and then later the Senate. But I think the thing with Pete Buttigieg is you know, especially the past two weeks, there’s been a lot of sniping within progressives from the Warren camp, and the Sanders camp at each other but I do think Pete Buttigieg’s message especially for voters in the first two states, Iowa, New Hampshire, is very seductive and people should be very for the reasons Akela just mentioned. And also he’s trying to do this thing where he’s like, I’m not a progressive but I’m also not a moderate. I’m trying to bring unite these coalition’s together and I think that —
MH: As a Brit, let me say very Tony Blair-esque, triangulation.
WS: Yeah and there are voters who I think are don’t consider him too far left but also don’t like Joe Biden. And I think that Buttigieg is going to become a thorn in the side of progressives and people should focus a little bit more on this emerging threat in the first two states.
MH: It’s amazing how they didn’t tonight. I think it was a two and a half hour missed opportunity. Last question to you both: There’s a lot of discussion about electability always. Who’s the most electable candidate? We heard it on stage tonight. We heard it from the pundits on MSNBC. Who’s the person who can beat Trump? There were 10 people on stage tonight. How many of those 10 could beat Trump in your view in a head to head matchup?
AL: Oh, this is a tough question. Am I allowed to answer this question?
MH: Yeah, just from an analytical standpoint.
AL: From an analytical standpoint, how many people on that stage could be Trump? I think two, maybe.
MH: Two? Who are the two?
AL: I’m gonna say Bernie and I don’t want to say Tulsi but I do want to say —
MH: Tulsi? You think Tulsi Gabbard could beat Trump?
MH: But not Biden? That’s got to be the most controversial statement made on Deconstructed in 2019. What a debut from Akela Lacy on Deconstructed.
AL: I’m going to regret saying that.
MH: Two out of the 10 and one of them’s Tulsi. Alright. Waleed, what about you?
WS: I think the majority of the candidates on that stage could defeat Trump. The person I have the most concerns about is Joe Biden and that’s because he has vulnerabilities with major constituencies in the Democratic party that need to turn out young people, people of color, and working class voters in union households because of his vote on the crime bill, the vote on the war in Iraq, you know, talking all about how he works with segregationists, Anita Hill, you know, NAFTA, all this stuff is going to come up. And you know —
MH: When you say most concerns, and I agree with you, you mean in terms of kind of the mainstream candidates. Surely, you don’t have more concerns about Biden than you do about Andrew Yang being the candidate.
WS: Well, I’m just trying to focus on the front runners and the more realistic ones.
MH: I said of the 10 on stage who can beat Trump?
WS: I don’t even remember some of the other ones that you’ve mentioned.
MH: Fair enough. We need to whittle this down. I think that’s a common view. The DNC need to make the rules stricter. We need to have fewer candidate so the next time we have a chat like this, we can focus. We don’t have to get distracted by the Gabbards and the Yangs. And we can have more focus on Joe Biden, who gets away with a lot of stuff, because there are so many people on stage. Waleed Shahid, Akela Lacy, thank you both for joining me on this very special episode of Deconstructed.
WS: Thank you.
AL: Thanks for having me.
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!
Next week’s Thanksgiving, so Deconstructed will be back the week after next. Take care.