While most polls still show Joe Biden as the current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth Warren has been gaining momentum, and trend lines show that she’s likely to maintain a lead over the former Vice President in the following months. As such, many of the candidates in last night’s Democratic primary debate took the opportunity to attack Warren for her more progressive proposals, competing amongst one another to position themselves as a sensible and moderate alternative to the two leading progressives in the race, Warren and Sanders, as well as the leading moderate, Joe Biden. While this tactic among many members of the historically crowded debate stage was to be expected, it nonetheless poses a challenge for Warren, who must struggle to maintain her narrow lead amidst concerns about the electability of such a radically progressive candidate in the general election.
Perhaps the most notable takeaway from Warren’s performance last night was her steadfast refusal to answer a question about whether or not the middle class would see an increase in taxes to pay for her Medicare-for-all plan. Despite being asked the question multiple times by moderator Anderson Cooper, and thereafter by fellow contenders Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, Warren evaded a direct answer, instead insisting that her policies would not raise “costs” for the middle class and that she would not sign a bill that would make healthcare more expensive for working families.
Her failure to directly answer this question was made even more jarring by the fact that Bernie Sanders, who reiterated his famous quip that he “wrote the damn bill,” readily acknowledged that while premiums and deductibles would be eliminated under his plan, bringing down costs overall, taxes on the middle class would be increased to pay for it. Warren’s evasiveness on this issue, while strategic, stands in stark contrast to her normally thorough and detailed descriptions of her policy plans for which she has become well-known. Rivals Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden wasted no time in calling Warren out, commenting that this politician-like evasiveness was exactly what voters hated about Washington and opining that her Medicare-for-All plan is not convincing if she can’t explain how to pay for it.
Despite heated disagreements among the dozens candidates displayed during the three-hour debate, the competitors were in near-unanimous agreement on a number of issues. The moderators, forgoing opening statements due to time constraints, opened the debate by asking each candidate for their views on impeachment. All twelve Democrats on-stage voiced their support for impeaching Donald Trump, with Elizabeth Warren pointing out that she supported impeachment in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Mueller Report for its description of numerous instances of obstruction of justice.
Notably, none of the candidates took the opportunity to attack Joe Biden for his son’s business dealings in Ukraine, instead focusing on the impropriety of a sitting president asking a foreign power for election assistance. Most, if not all of the candidates described Trump in damning terms, describing him as some variant of “the most corrupt president ever.” Joe Biden responded to a question about whether it was appropriate for his son to conduct business overseas while he was the Vice President by asserting that neither he nor his son ever did anything wrong and claiming that his son’s statement on the matter speaks for itself. Though many of the candidates have voiced their support for Biden in this matter in other venues since news broke of the whistleblower’s complaint, none did so last night, instead choosing not to address the topic.
Last night’s debate was not only the first debate since the beginning of formal impeachment proceedings, but also the first since Bernie Sanders’ heart attack, for which he received emergency surgery and which amplified concerns about the impact of his age on his ability to effectively carry out the duties of the president. Sanders preempted a question about his health by saying he was feeling great, and last night the Vermont senator appeared as vigorous and energetic as ever. Whereas in previous debates, candidates like Julian Castro attacked their older competitors for age-related concerns, this line of attack was not on display last night. Joe Biden, facing questions about his age, promised he would release his medical records before the first votes would be cast. Notably, the three most popular candidates — Warren, Sanders, and Biden — are all in their 70’s, as is Donald Trump, whose unhealthy lifestyle Cory Booker criticised last night.
Overall, last night’s historically crowded three-hour debate offered few surprises, but instead reflected the realities of a hotly contested primary to choose who should run against a uniquely vicious and corrupt incumbent president. Buttigieg pointed out that, due to the extent of Trump’s corruption, the next President would have the unenviable and tremendous task of healing a historically divided populace, as well as rebuilding damaged governmental institutions and relationships with allies around the world. The enormity of this task, as well as the urgency of selecting a candidate with the widespread appeal necessary to defeat Trump, is surely on Democratic voters’ minds.