Yes, it was definitely a kids’ table debate, a thirst-off of manufactured energy among nine candidates trying to elevate themselves in the conversation. And then there was Elizabeth Warren.
The nine mostly needed to do the things they did. Julián Castro needed to pick a fight on an issue where he could distinguish himself—immigration policy—and so he picked one with Beto O’Rourke, who was at the debate but wasn’t really at the debate. It worked, and he’s already getting some coverage for it. Cory Booker was big-energy Cory Booker, a political commodity that Democrats have appreciated for a decade but seem to have forgotten about lately. He had a good night. Amy Klobuchar was steady. John Delaney, one of the thirstiest, took some large swigs, but was mostly drinking saltwater. Tim Ryan and Tulsi Gabbard debated Afghanistan policy in a void.
Rising above this debate between nine lower- or middle-tier candidates needing something to happen was Warren, who doesn’t need anything to happen except to continue gaining a point or two each week, as she’s already doing. While her night wasn’t perfect, in part because she was unlucky to land at a different debate than the front-runners, she adequately pounced on her opportunities and, more importantly, got the hell out of the way when the lesser candidates forced themselves to get frisky with each other. While I think she got robbed by not landing on a stage with her equals in the first tier, she did the best she could with the card she had been dealt: She rose above the thirst.
Warren, as Gabbard’s sister observed on Twitter, earned most of the coverage early in the debate—i.e., when more viewers might be tuning in. In the first question of the season, Warren was asked about whether her big-government plans might destabilize a healthy economy. She flipped the premise on its head, pointing out that the economy is still organized, structurally, as a rip-off.
“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” she said. “We need to call it out, we need to attack it head on, and we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.”
One of Warren’s great strengths is the certainty, and righteousness, with which she answers questions that beg for a dodge, like when she was asked whether she was picking “winners and losers” by singling out individual companies like Facebook to be broken up. Nope, she threw back, insisting that what’s been missing in Washington is the “courage to take on the giants.”
“I want to return government to the people, and that means calling out the names of the monopolists and saying I have the courage to go after them,” she said. When moderator Lester Holt asked the candidates, by show of hands, whether they would abolish private health coverage in favor of a government plan, Warren’s hand shot up right away. There’s been some debate among progressives about how committed Warren is to single-payer health care. Had she wobbled there, it could have created the daylight between her and Sanders that the latter wants to expose. She did not wobble. Yes, the position of abolishing private insurance might cost her in the long run, but her co-sponsorship of Sanders’ legislation already ensured that Republicans would use that particular attack against her.
Not all of Warren’s answers were so assured. When she was asked how she would handle gun safety when there are already hundreds of millions of guns out there, she gave a hazy answer about “researching” gun violence to “find out what really works.” In another instance, when she was asked what her plan would be to get legislation past Mitch McConnell if Republicans controlled the Senate when she was president—a question to which there isn’t really a good answer—she made a Sanders-esque argument about taking the “fight” to Washington. Both answers, though, were delivered with enough force to ensure that no one tried to pick a fight with her over them.
She didn’t try to pick any fights with the others, either. Indeed, she had two rather long stretches of silence during the debate. Maybe it would have been fun to see Elizabeth Warren demand 30 seconds to challenge John Delaney or Tim Ryan, or to join in the field-wide dunking on O’Rourke. But it also wouldn’t have served any purpose to challenge those whose campaigns are on life support. She escaped the night unscathed by her fellow debaters, and wisely avoided the temptation to scathe one of them.
If there’s any justice, Warren will spend her next debate onstage with Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris, so then we might draw clear contrasts among the dominant forces in this race, even if it’s not fair to the lesser-polling duplicates beneath them. It would be useful to see whether she’s capable of blowing her true competitors out of the water.