LOS ANGELES — The Democratic debate Thursday night was held on a college campus steps from the beach, but the candidates couldn’t get their minds out of a wine cave.
At the last debate before the start of the election year, the fancy venue became shorthand for high-dollar fundraisers — the kind Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have sworn off and that former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have attended.
“The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and filled with $900-a-bottle wine,” said Warren, the first candidate to bring up the phrase. “Think about who comes to that.”
While “wine cave” is sure to become the barb of the night, a serious debate was brewing underneath the silliness of it all. The question is: Who should the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee work for, and does fraternizing with the wealthy compromise his or her position?
If voters decide yes on the latter, the image of Buttigieg, who's often claimed to be a political outsider, schmoozing in a subterranean Napa Valley wine cellar under a chandelier gilded with 1,500 Swarovski crystals won’t play well.
“It epitomizes the problem of money in politics,” Jeff Weaver, senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, told VICE News after the debate, while wearing a peteswinecave.com T-shirt (the campaign bought the URL to troll Buttigieg, and it links to a Sanders fundraising page). “People are disgusted with wealthy people buying elections, and the wine cave with the crystals and china really epitomized that for a lot of people.”
The debate was the most substantive yet, in part because a mere seven candidates, rather than 10 or more, stood on the stage, and they had ample time to make their cases. That means candidates from the varying wings of the party had real time to debate their visions for the party’s future.
Early in the night, Buttigieg touched on his inclusive vision for the party — including the wealthy in the decision-making — when he implied that Warren and Sanders were alienating much of the country with a proposed wealth tax. But the skirmish heated up when Warren lit into Buttigieg and intimated that he was making promises to the rich by taking money from them.
“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said. “I've said to anyone who wants to donate to me, 'If you want to donate to me, that's fine, but don't come around later expecting to be named ambassador,' because that's what goes on in these high-dollar fundraisers.”
Buttigieg, who’s been attacked as “Wall Street Pete” by protesters, shot back that anything that can be done to beat President Trump’s overwhelming fundraising machine should be done — even if it means courting the rich for more campaign cash or welcoming the help of disaffected Republicans.
“This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump, and we shouldn't try to do it with one hand tied behind our back,” he said. “We're going to win if we bring everybody to our side in this fight.”
But to defend himself, Buttigieg emphasized that his net worth is lower than that of his opponents, partly because, at 37, he’s also the youngest person in the race. Buttigieg also said, as he has in the past, that Warren courted larger donors earlier in her career and even transferred millions of dollars from those Senate fundraisers into her presidential coffer.
"Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine,” Buttigieg said to Warren. “These purity tests shrink the stakes of the most important election.”
“I don’t know if this is healthy”
Though the discussion was pointed and lengthy, some Democrats said after the debate that it was little more than a distraction that many Americans wouldn’t pay attention to.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a wine entrepreneur, told reporters after the debate that he found the discussion unproductive and would rather see the candidates focus on super PAC spending if they want to go after big money in campaigns.
“I don’t know if this is healthy. Democrats are good at begrudging people,” he said. “As long as you have [fundraising] caps and transparency, the most anyone can give you is $2,800 [per election]. It’s the big money outside of those limits that’s the real issue.”
Candidate Tom Steyer agreed. The billionaire businessman stayed pretty quiet during this part of the debate because he found it confusing.
“The most important question in front of Americans tonight was who can beat Donald Trump,” he told reporters after the debate. “I think that is what people should be talking about, not about whether they were, you know, pouring wine in a cave someplace. I didn't even understand that."
Still, the Buttigieg attack was just the latest among many during several debates where progressive candidates have painted moderates as inattentive to working people. Sanders mentioned that he has not raised a single donation from a billionaire. He has raised more individual donations than anyone in the race and was eager to note that he's working on behalf of those small donors.
To that end, Sanders tussled with Biden over whether Democrats should pursue a public option or Medicare for All, terrain the two sides of the party have fought on before.
Biden said his plan would be more realistically achievable: an expansion of Obamacare with the provision of a public option and lowering drug prices and deductibles by investing more public money into it without raising individual taxes.
Sanders, however, slammed Biden’s plan as the “status quo.” Biden shot back that Sanders would raise taxes.
“We are going to increase personal taxes,” Sanders answered, explaining that overall costs would go down under Medicare for All. “We're eliminating the profiteering of the drug companies, and the insurance companies, and ending this byzantine and complex administration of thousands of separate health care plans.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has cast her lot with the more moderate wing of the party, jumped into the conversation to chastise Sanders for proposing a policy that many congressional Democrats wouldn't even support.
“I just don't think anyone has a monopoly on bold ideas. Your fight, Bernie, is not with me, or with Vice President Biden. It is with all those new House members,” she said. “They got elected in that last election in the Democratic Party. It is with the new Democratic governor of Kentucky, that wants to build on Obamacare.”
Meanwhile, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s contribution to the discussion was, characteristically, more punchy. He said the biggest issues affecting elections are campaign finance reform and the lack of disposable income working people can use to donate. His proposal for a universal basic income could achieve that, he said.
If people had money to spend on influencing elections, he said, candidates wouldn’t “have to go shake the money tree in the wine cave.”
Emma Ockerman and Griffin Baumberger contributed to this report.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg listens during a Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)