The U.S. Democratic Party’s leading presidential candidates sparred over Iraq, war and foreign policy Tuesday night in the final debate showdown before primary voting begins.
Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders drew an immediate contrast with moderate opponent Joe Biden by noting that Sanders aggressively fought against a 2002 measure to authorize military action against Iraq.
Sanders called the Iraq invasion “the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country.”
“I did everything I could to prevent that war,” Sanders said. “Joe saw it differently.”
Biden acknowledged that his 2002 vote to authorize military action was “a mistake,” but highlighted his role in the Obama administration helping to draw down the U.S. military presence in the region.
Just six candidates gathered in Des Moines each eager to seize a dose of final-days momentum on national television before Iowa’s Feb. 3 caucuses. A sudden “he-said, she-said” dispute over gender involving two longtime allies, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, loomed over the event.
Sanders and Warren declined an opportunity to continue their recent campaign trail feud during the debate, but Warren still took on her progressive opponent.
Sanders again denied that he told Warren in a private 2018 meeting that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. He called it “incomprehensible” that he would believe such a thing and said he didn’t want to “waste a whole lot of time” on the issue “because this is what Donald Trump … wants.” He also committed to doing “everything in my power” to making sure the eventual nominee wins.
Warren has said Sanders did in fact tell her a woman can’t win, and on the debate stage, she took on the issue of whether a woman can win head-on. Warren told the crowd that the male candidates on the stage collectively lost 10 races while she and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar were “the only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in.”
She also argued that female candidates have outperformed men, noting that female candidates and voters were pivotal in taking back the House and flipping statehouses during the last midterms.
Warren pivoted to an implicit contrast with Sanders on electability, arguing that “the real danger” for Democrats “is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together.”
WATCH | Sanders responds to Warren over his alleged remarks:
The feuding was likely to expand to include nearly every candidate on stage by night’s end.
Sanders has recently stepped up his attacks on Biden over his past support of the Iraq War, broad free-trade agreements and entitlement reform, among other issues. Klobuchar, who has had several strong debates, was looking for another opportunity as she remains mired in the middle of the pack in polling. Billionaire Tom Steyer faced criticism that he’s trying to buy his way to the White House.
And with two surveys showing Pete Buttigieg losing support in Iowa, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, needed a breakout moment to regain strength before the caucuses.
Unified in opposition
Trump, campaigning in neighbouring Wisconsin just as Democrats took the debate stage, tried to encourage the feud between Sanders and Warren from afar.
“She said that Bernie stated strongly that a woman can’t win. I don’t believe that Bernie said that, I really don’t. It’s not the kind of thing Bernie would say,” Trump said.
The Democrats were unified in their opposition to Trump’s presidency and particularly his foreign policy. Several candidates condemned Trump’s recent move to kill Iran’s top general and his decision to keep U.S. troops in the region.
“We have to get combat troops out,” declared Warren, who also called for reducing the military budget.
Others, including Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar, said they favoured maintaining a small military presence in the Middle East.
“I bring a different perspective,” said Buttigeg, who was a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan. “We can continue to remain engaged without having an endless commitment to ground troops.”