LAS VEGAS — The issue of health care — specifically, the issue of why the richest country in the world has not figured out a way for every citizen to be covered — has commanded significant airtime during previous Democratic presidential debates. Wednesday night’s debate at Paris Las Vegas was no different.
The debate before Nevada’s caucuses Saturday featured U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg.
(More on that last guy later.)
Buttigieg, who has the most delegates heading into the Nevada caucus on Saturday, took an early jab at current frontrunner Sanders, jumping in on a question about whether the self-described democratic socialist and unapologetic champion of a single-payer Medicare For All program is too divisive a figure to be put forth as the presidential nominee and Democratic standard bearer.
“You’re at war with the Culinary union right here in Las Vegas,” said Buttigieg.
The Culinary union, often referred to as a political powerhouse in Nevada, has not endorsed any specific Democratic candidate. But in the weeks leading up to the announcement of their non-endorsement, the union has distributed to members flyers harshly criticizing Medicare For All. The message of those flyers is crystal clear: The union fought hard for their medical benefits and they don’t want politicians to take it away from them.
In response to Buttigieg, Sanders pointed to his 30-year career record of supporting unions and jabbed back at the former mayor: “I have more union support than you could ever dream of.”
Sanders later addressed the Culinary directly, saying, “I will never sign a bill that will reduce the health care benefits they have. We will only expand it for them, for every union in America, and for the working class of this country.”
As the candidate with the second most delegates and the highest polling numbers, Sanders was unsurprisingly the target of many attacks from his fellow candidates. But Warren, who has the third-most delegates in the overall race and has been battling a narrative that she is fading fast, also called out Buttigieg and Klobuchar for their health care policies — or lack thereof.
“Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants,” she said, referring to his Medicare For All Who Want It. “It’s not a plan. It’s a PowerPoint. And Amy [Klobuchar]’s plan is even less. It’s like a Post-It note. Insert Plan Here.”
As for Sanders, Warren called his plan “a good start” but suggested it is derailed by a campaign that “relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work.”
Buttigieg similarly criticized Sanders for a campaign seen as divisive rather than unifying, arguing it was the opposite of what the country needs in order to defeat Donald Trump.
“At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: Why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters that this happens?”
After their anti-Medicare For All fliers garnered national attention, the Culinary union released a statement saying their leadership and spokesperson had been subjected to harassment from Sanders supporters. They told the Nevada Independent that the harassment included explicit language and involved the union head’s home address and phone number being posted, a practice known as “doxxing.”
In response to the statements from Culinary and again on the debate stage Wednesday, Sanders rejected the characterization of his campaign and supporters as negative and divisive.
“There are 10.6 million people on Twitter and 99.9% of them are decent human beings, are working people who believe in justice, compassion and love. If there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown them. They are not part of our movement.”
‘Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?’
For the country as a whole, Wednesday’s debate served as an introduction of sorts to Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and former New York City mayor. For Nevadans, the inclusion of the new candidate is a bit more complicated as Bloomberg opted not to register to be on the Nevada caucus ballot. Instead, he has been focusing his efforts on Super Tuesday states and beyond, including spending millions in Michigan.
At the debate, all the non-Bloomberg candidates found common ground in attacking Bloomberg.
Bloomberg took heat for spending $400 million — and counting — of his own money on his campaign, for his record on his stop and frisk policy that overwhelming targeted and punished Black and brown people in New York City, and for the numerous sexual harassment accusations against him.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against — a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” Warren said.
“We are giving a voice to people who are saying we are sick and tired of billionaires like Mr. Bloomberg seeing huge expansions of their wealth while a half-a-million people sleep out on the street tonight,” Sanders said.
Notably absent from the stage was Tom Steyer, a less billion-y billionaire who has been filling Nevada’s airwaves with commercials and campaigning heavily across the state. He failed to meet the delegate or polling requirements set by the Democratic National Committee to participate in the debate.
Prior to the debate, Steyer’s campaign released a statement criticizing the national party and Chair Tom Perez for their polling requirement, noting the “staggering dearth of qualifying polling in Nevada or South Carolina. … This is unconscionable in an election where major shifts happen in short periods of time.”
In a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll released last week, Steyer polled at 8%.
Steyer — and several other candidates — had previously criticized the DNC for changing its debate rules to benefit Bloomberg. Previous debates had donor requirements that simply don’t apply to the self-funded billionaire.
Despite the debate being located in Southern Nevada, the personal stories of Las Vegans, the people candidates have been wooing for months, were overwhelmingly absent from the stage.
Warren, who spoke about her time in Las Vegas in 2008 following the housing crash, referenced a Las Vegas resident who lost his house during the housing crisis — she mentioned his story on her first campaign visit last year.
“They took away his house in a matter of weeks. This man stood there and cried while he talked about what it was like to tell his two little daughters that they might not be in their elementary school, that they might be living out of their van,” she said. “I spent the next years making sure that would never happen again. Wall Street fought us every inch of the way on a consumer agency. They lost, and I won. We need a candidate with unshakable values and a candidate who can actually get something done for working people.”
While the majority of the candidates have released housing plans that would tackle the country’s lack of affordable housing — the National Low Income Housing Coalition names Clark County as one of the worst when it comes to this crisis — there weren’t any questions about those proposals.
Nevada’s claim-to-fame in the presidential nomination process — if you can call it that — is that the state mirrors the demographics of the United States as a whole far better than Iowa and New Hampshire. One-third Nevada’s population is Hispanic, and the state has the fastest growing Asian American Pacific Islander population.
But one of the most important issues to many Latinos — immigration — got scant airtime during the debate and the discussion was cut short by moderator Chuck Todd in favor of a question about delegates.
Candidates did take jabs at each other’s records on immigration.
In his closing statement, Biden, who was interrupted by protestors, accused Sanders of having a bad record on immigration for voting against a 2007 immigration overhaul bill citing at the time it would “bring low-wage workers into this country in order to depress the already declining wages of American workers.”
“LULAC, among other groups, Latino groups, saw that bill having provisions akin to slavery, Joe.” Sanders countered.
Klobuchar, who said the best way to protect DREAMers was by having a new president, was challenged by Buttigieg for voting to confirm judges appointed by Trump.
“If you’re going to run based on your record of voting in Washington, then you have to own those votes, especially when it comes to immigration,” he said. “You voted to confirm the head of Customs and Border Protection under Trump, who is one of the architects of the family separation policy. You voted to make English the national language. Do you know the message that sends in as multilingual a state as Nevada to immigrants?”
How much will any of this matter?
The debate served as one of the final opportunities to woo Nevadans, though just how many caucus-goers remain is questionable.
According to Nevada Democrats, almost 75,000 people participated in the four-day early voting period, which ran from Saturday through Tuesday. Nevada is the first caucus state to offer an early-voting option, in which participants filled out preference cards ranking the Democratic candidates.
For comparison, approximately 84,000 people participated during the one-day caucus in 2016 and 117,599 participated in 2008.
In Nevada’s state-run elections, more than half of voters historically have chosen to cast ballots during the expansive early-voting period. Whether the same holds for caucus day — a far more public and often more time consuming process — remains to be seen.
Nevada Democrats reported that 56% of the 26,000 people who participated on the first day of early voting were first-time caucus-goers, meaning they did not participate in 2008 or 2016.
An updated figure for the entire early voting period has not been released by the party, though a statement released Wednesday did state that “the majority of early vote participants were first-time caucus-goers.”
This story first ran in the Advance‘s sister outlet, the Nevada Current.