Politics & Government

Warren takes fire from 2020 rivals: Takeaways from the fourth Democratic debate

Elizabeth Warren felt the heat. Pete Buttigieg stepped up. And Joe Biden was, surprisingly, mostly an afterthought.

That was the dynamic at play during Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, where a dozen candidates took the stage outside of Columbus, Ohio. The showdown occurred amid a renewed impeachment push among Democrats on Capitol Hill, a subject that has consumed the political conversation in Washington.

On stage, however, the candidates spent little time discussing the impeachment effort targeting President Donald Trump after an initial round of questions, focusing instead on their own platforms — and the emerging differences they have with some of their rivals.

The fourth debate featured the most candidates on one stage yet -- Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard.

The three-hour affair was filled with a greater sense of urgency than previous debates. Almost all the candidates displayed a willingness to go on the attack — with Warren being the most frequent target. It was a stark reflection that time is running out for those struggling in the polls and to raise money who are at risk of failing to qualify for the next debate in November.

Here are four takeaways from the fourth Democratic debate:

Warren gets the frontrunner treatment

After steadily rising to the top of the primary field, Warren faced some of her fiercest criticism as a presidential candidate yet Tuesday, as her Democratic opponents challenged her ideological worldview as unrealistic and vague.

All told, eight of Warren’s rivals launched some level of attack against her, focusing primarily on her health care and tax proposals. The Massachusetts senator repeatedly declined to say whether middle-class taxes would go up under Medicare for All plan.

“Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything -- except for this,” Buttigieg said.

Warren responded she would not sign a bill into law that doesn’t “lower costs.” But that didn’t stop some of the more moderate candidates on stage from piling on throughout the night.

Klobuchar accused Warren of “making Republican talking points” with her proposals. O’Rourke pressed Warren on the potential for tax increases. And Biden raised concerns about the price tag of her health care plan.

Even Sanders, who has been loathe to take on Warren, stated clearly that “taxes will go up” under Medicare for All.

Warren was also a target at other points. Yang questioned Warren on her plans to address job automation and break up big tech companies. Gabbard attempted to challenge Warren on foreign policy. And Harris, during the final hour, confronted Warren on why she wouldn’t support banning Trump from Twitter. Warren tried to hold back a smirk.

Booker, who often played the role of uniter, stepped in during the health care discussion to warn that intraparty attacks would only serve to aid Trump. But for Warren, it was clear that questions about her tax plans aren’t going away -- and that the race will be much different for her as a frontrunner.

Buttigieg makes his mark

More than in any previous debate, Buttigieg was central to the night’s biggest moments. He went toe-to-toe with Warren, abely fended off criticism from Gabbard, and even initiated a confrontation with O’Rourke on gun violence — a subject the former congressman needled Buttigieg over in the week leading up to the debate.

“I don’t need a lesson from you on courage, political or personal,” the mayor of South Bend, Ind., told O’Rourke.

Throughout, the 37-year-old seemed intent on distinguishing himself as the field’s most practical and electable candidate, chastising opponents for supporting liberal proposals like Medicare for All while time and time again labeling himself a midwestern candidate who’s different than the average congressman or senator.

But his most memorable moment may have come during an exchange with Gabbard, in which he defended the presence of some U.S. troops in the Middle East — and reminded the audience that he was a veteran who once served in Afghanistan.

“When we abandon the international stage, when we think our only choices are between endless war or total isolation, the consequence is that disappearance of U.S. leadership from the world stage,” Buttigieg said. “And that makes this entire world a more dangerous place.”

Some of Buttigieg’s answers have already upset many on the activist left who consider him far too moderate. But for a candidate who was struggling to gain momentum in the polls, the debate could vault him back into contention.

Back to basics for Bernie

Sanders bluntly condemned a corrupt political system, called for radical changes to the health care system, and promised working-class jobs even in the era of automation.

In other words, he sounded — and looked — like he always does. And that was critically important for the 78-year-old senator, who only weeks ago had a heart attack that forced him to take a break from the campaign trail. If he was still feeling the ill effects of that incident, Sanders didn’t show it over the course of the nearly three-hour debate — and likely reassured his supporters that his campaign is full steam ahead.

At one point, moderator Erin Burnett of CNN directly asked Sanders why voters should trust his health.

“We are going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all across this country,” he said, with a forcefulness characteristic of his responses on the night. “That is how I think we can reassure the American people.”

Biden avoids Ukraine trouble

The storyline that has most dominated the race in recent weeks -- Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine -- ended up being close to an afterthought. Moderators placed it at the forefront of the debate, directing a question to the former vice president about the alleged conflicts of interest only after all the candidates addressed impeachment.

Biden mostly evaded it.

When asked why it was ok for his son to serve on foreign boards while he was vice president when he’s now pledged his family members wouldn’t accept similar roles while he’s president, he simply stated, “My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”

He relied on his son’s interview with ABC News speaking for itself, but fact-checkers and Republicans were quick to seize on the inconsistencies between their accounts.

Still, Biden’s Democratic rivals were largely uninterested in picking up on what they largely say is a Republican storyline. Booker, in particular, came to Biden’s defense, calling him a statesman and called the inquiry deja vu and damaging.

“The only person sitting at home that was enjoying that was Donald Trump seeing that we are distracting from his malfeasance and selling out his office,” Booker.

Moderators moved on, leaving Biden largely unscathed.

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.
David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to dcatanese@mcclatchydc.com.
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