Those who expected last night’s Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines to explode into fight night between Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont were probably disappointed.

ABC News billed the seventh and final debate before next month’s Iowa caucus as “the clash between the liberal titans,” which is just the kind of foolishness that feeds 24-hour news cycles, but distracts from the most important goal for Democrats — defeating President Trump.

Probably recognizing that savaging each other in public would accomplish nothing, Sanders and Warren tacitly agreed to disagree on whether Sanders, in a private 2018 conversation with Warren, questioned the electability of a woman running for president. Still, Warren used the discussion to “attack head-on” the sexist notion that women have an electability problem.


Sanders, Warren address gender and the election
Elizabeth Warren turns feud with Bernie Sanders into debate argument for a woman president.

“Can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage,” she said, motioning toward Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden, and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Collectively, they’ve lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they have been in are the women: [Senator] Amy [Klobuchar of Minnesota] and me."

Sharp and factual, that was the crowd-pleasing line of the night. Yet this wasn’t a debate of well-rehearsed sound bites or barbed one-liners. Instead, it was more like a contest of teams trying to run out the clock without making any fatal mistakes, or giving their opponents any accidental advantages.

A substantial amount of time was spent on international affairs, mostly owing to Trump’s assassination earlier this month of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. These discussions, which included what to do about North Korea and whether to support the president’s North American trade deal, consumed nearly a quarter of the debate, as each candidate tried to make the case they would be the best next commander in chief. With zero foreign policy experience between them, billionaire businessman Tom Steyer and Buttigieg were the least convincing, especially during such a perilous time for this nation and the world.


Still, even with its fewest debate participants this primary season, there wasn’t a single question on immigration, gun violence, domestic terrorism, or student loan debt. Remarkably, no candidate (or moderator, for that matter) said anything about the earthquakes in Puerto Rico. Frankly, that casts them, if temporarily, in dubious league with Trump, who has been predictably and conspicuously silent about the latest disaster to hit the island. HUD will finally release more than $8 billion, part of $20 billion in Puerto Rico disaster aid funding authorized by Congress months ago, but held up by the Trump administration.

Might this have been different if the debate stage hadn’t been whiter than a January nor’easter? Perhaps. Since the last debate, both Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and former HUD secretary Julián Castro ended their campaigns, while businessman Andrew Yang, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii did not make the cut.

In a Democratic presidential field once touted as the most diverse in American political history, the optics on that stage were stark. As Patrick, consigned to the sidelines but not silent, said in a statement hours before the debate, “Tonight, America will not see herself in full.”


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.