November Democratic Debate in Atlanta: Five Fresh Moments - Rolling Stone
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5 Fresh Moments From the 5th Democratic Debate

The debate in Atlanta featured new issues, sharp critiques, and one memorable gaffe

Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang are among the 2020 Democratic primary candidates

Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang are among the 2020 Democratic primary candidates

ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Having reached the fifth Democratic debate of the 2020 primary cycle, habitual viewers risk coming away with that not-so-fresh feeling. They know that Bernie Sanders welcomes the rage of the billionaires, that Elizabeth Warren has big plans for the big ideas that Amy Klobuchar agrees with on principle but wants to execute on a smaller scale, and that Joe Biden wants us to quit moping and stand up straight because our future is bright and this is America dammit.

But in addition to the usual jousting about the virtues of “Medicare for All” versus “Medicare for All Who Want It” and the foreign policy fights between Tulsi Gabbard and whichever Democrat she’s targeting as the avatar of the Democratic establishment, the debate in Atlanta also offered fresh issues, sharp critiques, and a telltale gaffe.

Below we unpack five fresh moments from the fifth Democratic debate:

1) Candidates stand up for the Hong Kong protesters and the Uyghurs

After a humdrum first hour, the debate grew impassioned when the candidates turned to foreign policy. Kamala Harris got things rolling by declaring that “Donald Trump got punked” by Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea. And things got more entertaining as Andrew Yang imagined speaking with Vladimir Putin after winning the election, telling him “I’m sorry I beat your guy.”

But Yang turned that moment of levity into a vigorous defense of American values, talking about the need to stand up for human rights in China — addressing both Hong Kong, where the government is violently cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, and Xinjiang province, where the Beijing government has rounded up more than a million Uyghurs into “re-education” camps. Perhaps most striking, Biden picked up Yang’s critique and boldly advanced it, condemning the Uyghurs’ detention in what are “essentially concentration camps.”

2) Warren weighs in on abortion as a Democratic litmus test

Moderator Rachel Maddow posed Elizabeth Warren a tough question about whether an anti-abortion Democrat like Gov. John Bel Edwards, who just won re-election in deep-red Louisiana, has a place in the modern Democratic party. Warren used the question to deliver a soaring defense of abortion as health care, remarking how rich women will find a way to obtain an abortion regardless of the law, while those who are most vulnerable to big government prohibitions are poor women, women of color, and young victims of abuse. When Maddow pressed Warren on Gov. Edwards’ place in the party, the Massachusetts senator didn’t take the bait. “I’ve made it clear what I believe the Democratic party stands for,” she said. “I’m not here to try and drive anyone out of this party. I’m not here to try to build fences. But I am here to say this is what I’ll fight for as president of the United States. The women of America can count on me.”

3) Biden blanks on Harris in one of his most bone-headed gaffes yet

After a week in which Pete Buttigeig has been surging in the early-vote (and white-bastion) states of Iowa and New Hampshire — while registering yet another goose egg in a poll among African Americans in South Carolina — the Atlanta debate featured plenty of conversation about which candidate can inspire the African American community to engage with the 2020 election and who can best rebuild an Obama coalition that wants to know, as Harris put it, “Where ya been and what are you gonna do?”

Biden, who has very strong African American backing in most polls, touted his affinity in shaky terms out of the gate: “I come out of the black community,” he said, “in terms of my support.” He quickly clarified that: “I have more people supporting me in the black community, that have announced for me, because they know me, they know who I am.” Biden then enumerated prominent backers, including three former chairs of the Black Caucus and what he phrased as “the only black African American woman that ever got elected to the United States senate.”

Cory Booker piped up first: “That’s not true! That’s not true.” And Harris, an African American woman elected to the Senate, piped up: “The other one is here!” She then threw up her arms and laughed in a joyful gesture that roughly translated to “WTF?!”

4) Buttigieg makes a play for the cash-strapped millennial vote

Contrasting himself to a president in the White House who used to call a gilded New York penthouse home, Buttigieg proudly invoked his own modest finances, citing a recent magazine article on candidate net worth to declare himself “literally the least wealthy person on this stage.” Buttigieg then dissed Trump and his expensive boomer habits: “I don’t talk a big game about helping the working class while helicoptering between golf courses with my name on them,” Buttigieg said before flexing on his generation’s threat to tee times: “I don’t even golf.”

5) Yang warns the “kids are not all right”

In perhaps the strongest closing statement of the night, Yang hit the same theme of generational insecurity from a deeper place. “Our kids are not all right,” he warned. “We’re leaving them a future that is far darker than the lives that we have led as their parents.”  Warning that “the American dream that my parents came here to find is dying before our eyes,” Yang insisted that he’s running for president as “a parent and a patriot” who decided that darkness “is not something I am willing to accept.”

Without a trace of the irony that can sometimes mark his campaign, Yang touted his vision to remake a more secure economy, “so we can look our kids in the eye and say to them — and believe it: ‘Your country loves you. Your country values you. And you will be all right.'”

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