WESTERVILLE, Ohio—The fourth Democratic presidential debate was not, in fact, the first one where the two front-runners weathered criticism from all of those polling beneath them. It played out, instead, as the fourth example where a single front-runner took most of the incoming fire from the field. It’s just that the front-runner wasn’t Joe Biden this time.
Instead, the designated target was Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The pile-on came early and on a predictable topic. It was the same question—would middle-class taxes go up under your health plan, yes or no?—that moderators and a stray candidate here or there had chosen to weaponize against Warren in previous debates, so once again the early part of the discussion revolved around the framing language about the financing of “Medicare for All.”
The reason this question keeps coming up is that Warren refuses to utter the words yes or no. The answer, according to the health care plan she supports—Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill—is “Yes.” But Warren doesn’t accept the framing, noting that the changeover from private to public coverage means that overall health care costs will go down for the vast majority of people. She emphasized multiple times Tuesday night that she “will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families.” But her unwillingness to say “Yes” offers an opportunity for those beneath her to accuse her of dodging the question. And this time, it was an ambush.
“Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who’s been targeting Warren for being “evasive” on the issue, said. “Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has not yet qualified for the November debate, also joined in. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”
Though Sanders, defending the “damn bill” he wrote, appeared to be assisting Warren by jumping in to defend single-payer health care, his response was really a deft criticism of Warren. After listing the benefits of his plan, Sanders acknowledged what Warren, perhaps too worried about a TV clip that would haunt her in the general election, could not.
“At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health care bills,” Sanders said. “But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up.”
Before the moderators would turn to Sen. Kamala Harris, who shifted the debate away from health care financing by urging everyone to consider the threat to reproductive rights, they asked Biden if he, too, would like to weigh in. He added his talking point about how “Medicare for All” is too expensive and a public option is better.
But wait … Joe Biden? Who? Was he participating in this debate? For the most part, he was an afterthought. He jumped in with his usual occasionally on-topic, occasionally tangential surveys of foreign policy.
The most pressing Biden action came in the beginning, when moderators asked him to talk about his son Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. None of the other candidates bothered pushing him further when he claimed everything was aboveboard. Sen. Cory Booker, when he was called on later, even criticized the moderators for the line of questioning, saying: “The second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman. That was so offensive.”
As Biden mostly sat back, undisturbed, the attacks on Warren kept coming. They also lost their sharpness. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke seemed to jumble Warren’s wealth tax, which he deemed “punitive,” with her refusal to answer whether taxes would go up under “Medicare for All.” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard twice tried addressing questions directly to Warren, the first of which went nowhere and the second of which was cut off for a commercial break. Kamala Harris challenged Warren to explain why she disagreed with Harris’ letter to Twitter calling on it to suspend Donald Trump’s account, a move that was widely recognized as a gimmick from a candidate who’d collapsed in the polls.
The attention added up. By CNN’s count, Warren ended up speaking for 22 minutes and 58 seconds of the three-hour debate—6½ minutes more than the runner-up, Biden, and nearly 10 minutes more than anyone in the rest of the field. Sanders’ reward for his forthrightness about raising taxes was a mere 13:04 of speaking time, behind Klobuchar and O’Rourke.
When Biden did dare to peek his head out near the end—assailing Warren and Sanders for “vague,” unachievable plans—he was clobbered. Sanders noted that the big things Biden has “gotten done” in the past include the Iraq war and the abhorrent 2005 bankruptcy bill. Biden then noted that he corralled votes to establish Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren responded by pointedly saying she was thankful for the help she’d gotten from President Barack Obama.
The focus on Warren, and not Biden, for most of the debate could have been a temporary thing: a read from the field that Warren needed the majority of the scrutiny, in this moment, before she lifted off any further. But it also could be a sign that the field views Warren as the singular threat as the race develops. With Bernie anchoring the left pole, and Biden anchoring the moderates, Warren is drawing support from each side with plenty of room to grow. Though she has probably had more enjoyable nights than she had Tuesday in Ohio, you’d rather be the front-runner the other candidates deem most worthy of attacks than the one they allow to go silent.