Mehdi Hasan: “There Should Only Be Two Front-Runners Right Now: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren”

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Twelve candidates took to the stage for the fourth round of the Democratic presidential debate in Westerville, Ohio, Tuesday to spar over healthcare, foreign policy, impeachment, gun violence, economic inequality and more. Senator Elizabeth Warren — who is now leading some national polls — repeatedly came under attack from her rivals. In the first debate since Senator Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack two weeks ago, the Vermont senator advocated for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All and a wealth tax. Former Vice President Joe Biden attacked the proposals of both Sanders and Warren and faced scrutiny for his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine. We host a roundtable with Intercept senior contributor Mehdi Hasan, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston and journalist Kate Aronoff.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Twelve candidates took to the stage for the fourth round of the Democratic presidential debate in Westerville, Ohio, Tuesday to spar over healthcare, foreign policy, impeachment, gun violence, economic inequality and more. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is now leading some national polls, repeatedly came under attack from her rivals over how she plans to pay for some of her plans, including Medicare for All. It was the first debate since Senator Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack two weeks ago that forced him to temporarily cancel campaign events. On Tuesday night, CNN host Erin Burnett asked Senator Sanders about his health.

ERIN BURNETT: But there is a question on a lot of people’s minds, and I want to address it tonight. You’re 78 years old, and you just had a heart attack. How do you reassure Democratic voters that you’re up to the stress of the presidency?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, let me invite you all to a major rally we’re having in Queens, New York, BernieSanders.com. We’re going to have a special guest at that event, and we are going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country. That is how I think I can reassure the American people. But let me take this moment, if I might, to thank so many people from all over this country, including many of my colleagues up here, for their love, for their prayers, for their well-wishes. And I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I’m so happy to be back here with you this evening.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar announced she is endorsing Sanders in his bid for the presidency. Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are also expected to announce their support for the Vermont senator. AOC will be joining him at his rally in Queens this weekend.

At Tuesday’s debate, the Democratic candidates also took aim at President Trump’s recent move to withdraw support from the Kurds in northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey to invade the region. Former House Secretary Julián Castro criticized Trump for letting former ISIS fighters escape from Kurdish-controlled jails.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I also want people to think — the folks this week that saw those images of ISIS prisoners running free — to think about how absurd it is that this president is caging kids on the border and effectively letting ISIS prisoners run free.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden attacked the proposals of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This is CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

ANDERSON COOPER: Vice President Biden, just on either side of you, Senator Warren is calling for big structural change, Senator Sanders is calling for a political revolution. Will their visions attract the kind of voters that the Democrats need to beat Donald Trump?

JOE BIDEN: Well, I think their vision is attracting a lot of people. And I think a lot of what they have to say is really important. But, you know, Senator Warren said we can’t be running any vague campaigns. We’ve got to level with people. We’ve got to level with people and tell them exactly what we’re going to do, how we’re going to get it done, and if we can get it done. I’m going to say something that is probably going to offend some people here, but I’m the only one on this stage who’s gotten anything really big done, from the Violence Against Women Act to making sure that we pass the Affordable Care Act, to be in a position where we, in fact, took almost a $90 billion act that kept us from going into a depression, making us in a — putting us in a position where I was able to end Roe v. — excuse me, able to end the issue of gun sales in terms of assault weapons.

ANDERSON COOPER: Just to clarify, Vice President, who are you saying is being vague?

JOE BIDEN: Well, the senator said — she’s being vague on the issue of — actually, both of them are being vague on the issue of the Medicare for All. No, look, look, here’s the deal. It costs — come on. It costs $30 trillion. Guess what. That’s over $3 trillion a year. If we — it’s more than the entire federal budget. Let me finish, OK?

ANDERSON COOPER: You’ll both get in.

JOE BIDEN: If you eliminated the entire Pentagon, every single thing — plane, ship, troop, the buildings, everything, satellites — it would get you — it would pay for a total of four months. Four months. Where do you get the rest? Where does it come from?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Two things. Let me respond.

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Sanders, respond.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: In two ways. Joe, you talked about working with Republicans and getting things done. But you know what you also got done? And I say this as a good friend. You got the disastrous war in Iraq done. You got a bankruptcy bill which is hurting middle-class families all over this country. You got trade agreements like NAFTA and PNTR with China done, which have cost us 4 million jobs.

And let’s get to Medicare for All. Let’s be honest. We spend twice as much per person as do the people of any other major country on Earth. And the answer is, if we have the guts that I would like to see the Democratic Party have that guts, to stand up to the drug companies and the insurance companies and tell them that the function of healthcare is to guarantee care to all people, not to make $100 billion —

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator —

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: — in profit.

ANDERSON COOPER: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: If we stood together, we could create the greatest healthcare system in the world.

ANDERSON COOPER: Vice President Biden, you can respond, and then Senator Warren.

JOE BIDEN: We can do that without Medicare for All. We can do that by adding —

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No.

JOE BIDEN: — a public option. We can.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No, you can’t.

JOE BIDEN: And we can afford to do it.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: You’ve got to take on the greed and the profiteering of the healthcare industry.

JOE BIDEN: By the way, the greed and profiteering…

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Warren, your response?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, you started this question with how you got something done. You know, following the financial crash of 2008, I had an idea for a consumer agency that would keep giant banks from cheating people. And all of the Washington insiders and strategic geniuses said, “Don’t even try, because you will never get it passed.” And, sure enough, the big banks fought us. The Republicans fought us. Some of the Democrats fought us. But we got that agency passed into law. It has now forced big banks to return more than $12 billion directly to people they cheated. I served in the Obama administration. I know what we can do by executive authority, and I will use it. In Congress, on the first day, I will pass my anti-corruption bill, which will beat back the influence —

ANDERSON COOPER: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: — of money and repeal the filibuster. And the third — 

ANDERSON COOPER: Thank you.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: — if we want to get something done in America, we have to get out there and fight —

ANDERSON COOPER: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: — for the things that touch people’s lives.

JOE BIDEN: I agreed with —

ANDERSON COOPER: Mayor — Mayor —

JOE BIDEN: Let me — she referenced me.

ANDERSON COOPER: OK.

JOE BIDEN: I agreed with the great job she did, and I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight, too.

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Warren, do you want to respond?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law, and I am deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it and who helped pass it into law. But understand —

JOE BIDEN: You did a hell of a job in your job.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders.

Well, for more, we host a roundtable. In New York City, we’re joined by journalist Kate Aronoff and Steffie Woolhandler, professor at CUNY-Hunter College and a primary care physician. In Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Intercept senior contributor Mehdi Hasan, host of Deconstructed podcast. In Rochester, New York, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, founder and editor of DCReport.org.

Mehdi Hasan, let’s begin with you. Your overall impression of the debate, what you felt was most important, talked about and not?

MEHDI HASAN: Well, let’s start with not, Amy. A three-hour debate involving 12 candidates, and we didn’t get a single question on the climate crisis, which threatens our future on this planet. We didn’t get a single question on racist voter suppression, which threatens democracy in this country. We didn’t get a single question on kids being abused and caged at the border, which is perhaps the single biggest human rights crisis in this country right now. We didn’t get a single question on the war in Yemen, where the U.S. is directly involved in the killing of children, not indirectly as it is in Syria, which was talked about a lot. But we did get a question about Ellen and George W. Bush. So, there was a lot missing from the debate.

But what you just played there, just now, I think, was the most important part of the debate for me, because I’ve been astounded that Joe Biden has been considered a front-runner in this Democratic presidential race so far. I hope, after last night, we can end this idea that he is a front-runner. Elizabeth Warren went in as the new front-runner. I think Biden has to be taken out of the top three. My colleague Ryan Grim has talked about his “sunsetting incoherence” that we see on nights like this. Normally he spends the first hour, at least, strongish and then fades over the course of the night in the previous three debates. Last night he was weak from the get-go. He couldn’t even answer a basic question about his son, which is the most important or biggest story in American politics right now. He rambled. He stuttered. He stumbled. He confused “thirdly” with “secondly.” He confused Iraq with Syria. He talked about abolishing the capital gains tax, when he meant he wanted to raise it. And as you saw in that cringeworthy clip a moment ago, he shouted at and patronized Elizabeth Warren. I think it was a disastrous night for Biden. We saw Pete Buttigieg come out swinging, trying to take the Biden, quote-unquote, “moderate mantle.” But really there should only be two front-runners right now: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom were very strong last night. And it was a very good night for Bernie Sanders. Who can believe that he had a heart attack only two weeks ago?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Kate Aronoff, what’s your biggest takeaway from this debate?

KATE ARONOFF: I mean, I think Mehdi really said it, right? There was no discussion about the climate crisis. Candidates, especially Bernie Sanders, kept trying to bring it up, reliably, in every question and work it into questions that, you know, kept sort of ignoring this huge issue. And it’s irresponsible. I mean, The New York Times and CNN should be ashamed of themselves, frankly, for doing this. You know, we have — we saw a few weeks ago climate strikers, or grade school children, who are giving up their recesses, their lunches, everything, to plan climate strikes, because they know the Earth will be a very different place within their lifetimes. And the Earth already is a very different place for very many people. And the fact is that the climate crisis is not an issue neatly defined; it is the terrain on which all politics in the 21st century will play out. And to ignore that fact, when we have, you know, discussion of such interrelated things as foreign policy, is obscene. It’s obscene. And the fact that CNN, all of the major networks reliably run ad content from fossil fuel companies, including last night, or from climate-denying organizations, is just unconscionable, and they should really sort of take stock of —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of Hunter Biden, which the vice president was asked about early on in the debate, and he kept saying, “I’m proud of my son,” but at the same time referring to his son’s interview that same day where he was actually apologizing, saying he may have made some mistakes.

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah, I mean, I think, on the one hand, this is sort of classic Biden not being able to keep a thought straight for 15 seconds. I think, on the other hand, you know, this is a real issue, right? Hunter Biden worked for a natural gas company in the Ukraine. And I think we can hold two things at once, right? You can believe that the impeachment process needs to go forward, that this is a valuable thing to be investigated and that the president stepped out of line. You can also say that this is a shady thing and an electoral liability for Joe Biden, in a world in which, just four years ago, the right sort of wielded Hillary Clinton’s sort consummate insider status, her position as being the sort of continuation of the Obama era, against her so effectively.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to CNN’s Anderson Cooper questioning Joe Biden about his son Hunter.

ANDERSON COOPER: If it’s not OK for a president’s family to be involved in foreign businesses, why was it OK for your son when you were vice president, Vice President Biden?

JOE BIDEN: Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in — in Ukraine. And that’s what we should be focusing on. And what I wanted to make a point about — and my son’s statement speaks for itself. He spoke about it today. My son’s statement speaks for itself. What I think is important is we focus on why it’s so important to remove this man from office.

ANDERSON COOPER: Just a follow-up. Mr. Vice President, as you said, your son Hunter today gave an interview, admitted that he made a mistake and showed poor judgment by serving on that board in Ukraine. Did you make a mistake by letting him? You were the point person on Ukraine at the time. If you can answer?

JOE BIDEN: Look, my son’s statement speaks for itself. I did my job. I never discussed a single thing with my son about anything having do with Ukraine. No one has indicated I have. We’ve always kept everything separate. Even when my son was the attorney general of the state of Delaware, we never discussed anything, so there would be no potential conflict. My son made a judgment. I’m proud of the judgment he made. I’m proud of what he had to say. And let’s focus on this. The fact of the matter is that this is about Trump’s corruption.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Joe Biden defending his son Hunter. And, Kate, you wrote a piece in The Guardian, “We need to talk about Hunter Biden.”

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah, I mean, I think you heard it right there, I mean, the fact that Biden is sort of walking over himself to defend the conduct of his son, who was working for a natural gas company, and because his last name is Biden, right? There’s no reason that he would have that job if he weren’t related to Joe Biden. And, you know, the fact is that U.S. foreign policy has — and including in the Ukraine, has spent years and decades propping up fossil fuel interests and supporting fossil fuel interests. And that is a problem. And I think, actually, you know, it’s a missed opportunity for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to raise that, the fact that the reason Joe Biden was in the Ukraine, in large part, was to support the fossil fuel industry there, that his son was actively profiting off of.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I suppose they think it was — it would get in the way of the impeachment message, which they all seemed to agree with last night. But, David Cay Johnston, if you can talk about that issue of impeachment? There, they didn’t disagree. Yes, Hunter Biden, but also Trump’s children and how they’re benefiting today?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, I think all of last night’s debate showed that the Democrats, all 12 of them, have not thought well about how do you market to people. You know, Donald Trump, the most corrupt president, the most incompetent president, a lifetime criminal, has persuaded tens of millions of Americans that he loves them and that he is working for them, while he’s actively working against them. The Democrats didn’t reach out to those people and say, “Here’s what we can do for you.”

And in the impeachment process, Congress has to impeach him. He has publicly declared that he’s committed criminal acts. Whether he’s convicted, we have yet to see. The Democrats should have been trying to move Republican senators, if anything, so that they have to vote to remove Donald Trump, which we know many of them want to do, except they’re afraid they will be voted out in a primary.

But in the arguments that were made last night in this debate, the Democrats on that panel did not very much talk about what we will do for you: “Put us in office. You will no longer go broke if you get sick. We will raise wages for people in the bottom half in this country. We are going to improve your lot by building an economy that works for everybody.” They talked, in many cases, in very abstract terms. Elizabeth Warren, who is highly qualified, in some cases went all professorial, and to many Americans, I’m sure her points came across as “blah blah blah blah blah,” because she wasn’t thinking in simple marketing terms.

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