Sanders spars with Biden over war, Warren over women in Democratic debate

  • 15 Jan 2020

Bernie Sanders drew a contrast with establishment favourite Joe Biden by noting Sanders fought a 2002 measure to authorise military action against Iraq. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders locked horns over his alleged statement "a woman can't defeat Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (L) speaks to candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (R) as former vice president Joe Biden watches on January 14, 2020 during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. ( Patrick Semansky / AP )

The 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 Senator Bernie Sanders drew an immediate contrast with establishment favourite Joe Biden by noting that Sanders aggressively fought against a 2002 measure to authorise military action against Iraq.

Sanders called the Iraqi invasion “the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country."

Biden acknowledged that his 2002 vote was “a mistake,” but highlighted his role in the Obama administration helping to draw down the US military presence in the region.

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. 

Just six candidates gathered in Des Moines, each eager to seize a dose of final-days momentum on national television before Iowa's February 3 caucuses. It was not the focus in the debate's earliest moments, but a sudden “he-said, she-said” dispute over gender involving two longtime allies, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, loomed over the event.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (L) speaks as candidate Senator Bernie Sanders listens on January 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.(AP)

'A woman can't win'

Specifically, Warren charged publicly on the eve of the debate that Sanders told her during a private 2018 meeting that he didn't think a woman could defeat President Donald Trump, a claim tinged with sexism that Sanders vigorously denied.

Amid an immediate uproar on the left, there were signs that both candidates wanted to deescalate the situation.

The feuding was likely to expand to include nearly every candidate on stage by night's end.

Warren made a forceful case for a female president and stood behind her accusation suggesting sexism by progressive rival Bernie Sanders Tuesday night in a Democratic debate that raised gender as a key issue in the sprint to Iowa’s presidential caucuses.

Sanders vehemently denied Warren's accusation, which threatened to split the Democratic Party’s left flank –– as well as the senators' longtime liberal alliance –– at a critical moment less than three weeks before voting begins.

“Look at the men on this stage. Collectively they have lost 10 elections,” Warren exclaimed.

"The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.”

Sanders responded: “Does anybody in their right mind think a woman can’t be elected president?” he asked. “Of course a woman can win."

There was a final moment of tension between Sanders and Warren after the debate ended. Having shaken the hands of her other competitors, Warren was shown in video declining to shake Sanders' extended hand.

From left, Democratic presidential candidates businessman Tom Steyer speaks as Senator Elizabeth Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar listen on January 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.(AP)

Centred on calm

Despite such heated discussions, the debate stage drama was far from the explosion some Democrats feared. Candidates moved with ease through a variety of topics, disagreeing with each other but generally avoiding personal attacks.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who was mired in the middle of the pack, seized on Warren's shifting positions on health care. 

Billionaire Tom Steyer acknowledged making money from investments in the fossil fuel industry but highlighted his decade-long fight to combat climate change, an issue that came up repeatedly throughout the night.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, sometimes struggled for attention in a debate that often featured points of conflict between his rivals. Perhaps his strongest moment came when he described how, as a military veteran who is vocal about his faith, he could stand up to Trump in a general election.

“I'm ready to take on Donald Trump because when he gets to the tough talk and the chest-thumping, he'll have to stand next to an American war veteran and explain how he pretended bone spurs made him ineligible to serve," Buttigieg said. “And if a guy like Donald Trump keeps trying to use religion to somehow recruit Christianity into the GOP, I will be standing there not afraid to talk about a different way to answer the call of faith and insist that God does not belong to a political party."

Can the final debate reshape the race?

With the Democratic field tightly bunched among four leading candidates, the debate offered an opportunity for separation.

But none of the six candidates on stage had the kind of moment likely to reshape the race in the final weeks before voting starts. Instead, the debate was generally marked by a focus on weighty issues of foreign policy, climate change and how to provide health care for all Americans. Even when disputes emerged, most candidates quickly pivoted to note their larger differences with Trump.

For his part, Trump spent Tuesday night campaigning in Wisconsin, a state that is critical to his reelection effort. He tried to encourage the feud between Sanders and Warren from afar.

“She said that Bernie stated strongly that a woman can’t win," Trump said. “I don’t believe that Bernie said that, I really don’t. It’s not the kind of thing Bernie would say."

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 US 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 Buttigieg, who was a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan. "We can continue to remain engaged without having an endless commitment to ground troops.”