Trump’s war on Iran, health care loom large at Dem debate
Democratic presidential candidates listen Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. | AP

DES MOINES, Iowa – It was clear at the last Democratic debate before the Feb. 3 caucuses here that if any one of the six participating candidates were in the White House there would be a world of difference between what that president does and what we see today from Donald Trump.

Whether it was the war danger over Iran, availability of health care, pre-school or college education, the division of Americans along lines of race and religion, or a host of other issues, the policy differences with the current occupant of the White House were huge ones indeed.

This was the opinion of two undecided voters who watched the debate here last night at Papa Keno’s Pizzeria. “Anything advancing the future of children is important to me,” said Jeff Bakke, a school teacher from Urbandale, Iowa. While the watch party at the pizzeria, sponsored by the Drake College and Iowa Young Democrats, was underway he said, “I think all the candidates we are seeing on the stage would all do a better job on the issues that really matter to me and would take us in a much better direction.”

Bakke and his wife, a pre-school teacher, have two children.

The candidates on stage last night at Drake College were Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former financier Tom Steyer, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The next big faceoff in Iowa for all of them is on Feb. 3, caucus night itself.

The Des Moines debate opened with four candidates bunched at the top in the latest opinion polls – Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, and Biden, in that order  – trying to distinguish themselves without directly attacking their colleagues. Steyer continued to pound away on combating climate change.

Klobuchar tried to contrast herself with the two most progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren, by describing herself as the practical one who can “get things done.” She said that the people in “flyover country,” the Midwest, are her “friends and neighbors.”

Both Sanders and Warren took on the issue of whether women running for president can win when they answered questions about some of the recent spats between their campaigns. Sanders said, “No one in their right mind would say a woman can’t be elected, not when Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes.”

Warren noted that the men on the stage had collectively lost a total of 10 elections while the two women on the stage, “Amy and me,” had lost none. The crowd laughed and cheered.

A major cause championed by unions came up when the questioners turned to trade, particularly the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) Trump just negotiated to replace the controversial jobs-losing 26-year-old NAFTA. Sanders reiterated his opposition to the USMCA because it doesn’t stop U.S. firms from moving jobs to Mexico. Steyer opposed USMCA because it doesn’t deal with climate change. All the candidates agreed it’s an improvement on NAFTA, but Sanders said that’s not enough.

The other four support the USMCA, as does the AFL-CIO, though, as Sanders noted, the Machinists oppose it for the same reason – job losses — he does. “And PNTR (preferred normal trade relations) with China cost us four million jobs,” he asserted.

Biden pledged “there’ll be no trade agreements signed without labor and the environmentalists at the table” if he’s president. He did not mention trade pacts with Asia and Europe without worker or green input which President Obama had negotiated. They’ve been shelved.

Sanders, at the close of his remarks, said, “We haven’t talked about some major issues,” such as “How does it happen that half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck? How does it happen that 500,000 people are sleeping on the streets? And how does it happen that we have a criminal justice system that is both broken and racist?”

While all the candidates last night, as they have in the past, called for the rich and the corporations to pay their fair share of taxes and for the wealthy to kick in more to solve the country’s problems none of them pointed out how unions, for example, could be key fixing the whole economy. Only 10 percent of U.S. workers are now unionized. If that figure were raised only to 30 percent there would be a massive reduction in poverty and significant closing of the wealth gap, putting more money into the economy, thereby creating millions of jobs.

The debate featured all the candidates denouncing Trump’s war-mongering against Iran and his decisions to, first, dump the international deal that halted the Middle Eastern nation’s nuclear program, and then to assassinate a top Iranian general on the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 3.

Those actions, all six said, show Trump’s impulsiveness, failure to think through consequences of his decisions, alienation of U.S. allies and in general, making the country less safe internationally.

Warren predicted the coming Senate impeachment trial of Trump would expose his disastrous policies and conduct.

The three senators will sit as “jurors” for impeachment, as will Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who failed to meet the party’s standards, in money or poll numbers, to join the group onstage. All the senators on stage said they will not allow the campaign to detract from their duty to participate in the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Warren pointed out weapons makers get money and profits from crafting guns, ships, planes, bombs and other armaments from Trump’s bloated military budgets. That’s a symptom of the corporate takeover of government, wresting it away from the people – her prime campaign theme.

“We have problems with the revolving door between defense industries, the military, and the Pentagon. We have to close it,” she declared. She later expanded her corporate criticism to explain inaction on issues ranging from gun control to climate change to criminal justice reform.

The others, except Steyer and Sanders, did not touch the issue of corporate control of government. “This is the moment when we have to have the courage to take on the 1%,” Sanders declared.

Sanders reminded the TV audience that Washington insiders and their mindset got the U.S. into endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Steyer said dissenters, who were proven right, were outsiders like himself, plus “a state senator from Illinois” and “a congresswoman from Oakland, Calif.”

The state senator was Barack Obama before he became president. The congresswoman is Democrat Barbara Lee, the sole lawmaker to oppose the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing use of military force in Afghanistan. She’s still pushing for its repeal as well as repeal of its 2002 follow-up resolution. The Democratic-run House will vote the week of Jan. 27 on repeal measures.

Meanwhile, the panelists did not ask Biden about his votes for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Sanders, however, reminded the crowd of his own anti-war stands.

“The two great foreign policy disasters of our lifetime were the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq,” the Vermonter said. While attending the University of Chicago in the 1960s, Sanders was arrested during an anti-Vietnam War protest, and he led the congressional opposition to the Iraq War. He did not mention his vote, as a House member, for the Afghanistan resolution. He has since called that his greatest congressional mistake.

Vietnam and Iraq “both were based on lies and we have a president who is lying again – and who could drag us into another war,” Sanders declared. “The American people are sick and tired of these endless wars that cost us trillions of dollars,” which Sanders said could be better spent at home.

The group generally said there are too many U.S. troops in the Middle East. But they split over their duties. Trump has increased the numbers by 14,000-15,000.

The hopefuls all said that’s too many, adding U.S. troops should be, as Biden put it, in “small numbers to patrol the (Persian) Gulf and to combat ISIS,” the so-called Islamic State. Left unsaid: All the troops are sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers of workers, not of Trump and others of the corporate/GOP elite.

The Democrats also said Trump’s increase of troops in the Middle East shows his lack of a policy, or even of thinking about consequences. That “lack of thought” criticism was a common debate theme. Another common theme was that the Dems would not go to war without public OK, through Congress.

“I asked them” – top Trump officials – “about what their alternatives were” to sending more military, Klobuchar said, referring to a secret senators-only briefing from Trump Cabinet officials the week before. “They gave very very vague answers.”

The hopefuls also reiterated their differences over Medicare For All, authored by Sanders and supported by Warren, versus other expansions of health care. Medicare For All has been a top cause of National Nurses United, with around a dozen other unions signing on. So have 16 other senators and a majority of U.S. House Democrats.

Biden and Buttigieg touted “Medicare for all who want it,” as both said. Biden once again challenged Sanders on how he would pay for the government-run single-payer system. Both also touted a “public option,” a milder form of single-payer that Obama quickly dropped when Congress worked on the Affordable Care Act a decade ago.

That led Sanders to retort that while his plan would mean a 4% tax increase, workers and their families – and businesses – would save far more by elimination of the health insurers and their overhead, high co-pays and deductibles, and denial of care which leaves 87 million people uninsured or underinsured.

Warren also struck back by saying her version of Medicare For All would not need a tax increase on the middle class. She’d pay for it by taxing the rich and corporations – taking away the money they gained from the 2017 Trump-GOP tax cut – and by cracking down on tax cheats, implying they were the rich.

But unlike in prior debates, nobody – not even Biden — challenged her numbers. Biden challenged Sanders’ figures because Sanders leads the opinion polls, and the Iowa caucuses are three weeks away.

John Bachtell contributed to this article.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. John Wojcik es editor en jefe de People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.