WESTERVILLE, OHIO — Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts faced a sustained barrage of criticism from her Democratic rivals at a presidential debate in Ohio on Tuesday, tangling with a group of underdog moderates who assailed her liberal economic proposals, while former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to fade from the fray after parrying President Donald Trump’s attacks on his family.
The debate confirmed that the primary race had entered a new phase, defined by Warren’s apparent strength and the increasing willingness of other Democrats to challenge her. She has risen toward the top of the polls while confronting limited resistance from her opponents, and in past debates she attracted a fraction of the hostility that Democrats trained on Biden.
That changed in a dramatic fashion Tuesday, when a group of her rivals voiced sharp skepticism of Warren’s agenda or accused her of taking impractical stances on issues like health care and taxation. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, insistently charged Warren with evading a “yes-or-no” question on how she would pay for a “Medicare for All” health care system, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota cast parts of Warren’s platform as a “pipe dream.” Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas branded Warren’s worldview as overly “punitive.”
Warren sought at every turn to dispense with her critics by casting them as lacking ambition or political grit. When she addressed criticism of her proposal to tax vast private fortunes, for instance, Warren suggested her opponents believed it was “more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation” but did not single out her rivals.
The debate unfolded in a drastically altered political landscape, with Trump facing impeachment and Biden in the center of a firestorm over his son’s overseas financial dealings. The candidates were prompted to cover a wide range of issues, including a number that had featured little or not at all in past debates — not just the impeachment of Trump, but the Turkish invasion of Syria and the details of gun control policy and the taxation of great wealth.
The moderators began with a series of questions about impeachment to each of the 12 candidates — the largest field ever for a primary debate — affording them an opportunity to denounce Trump. And Biden was quickly asked about his son Hunter Biden’s overseas financial work, delivering a narrow, repetitive answer in which he said neither he nor his son had done anything wrong.
Foreign policy played a greater role Tuesday evening than in any other debate, pushed to the political foreground by the renewed outbreak of war and humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. The Democrats chiefly trained their attention on Trump’s role in instigating the crisis there: For instance, Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, condemned Trump for “caging kids on the border and letting ISIS prisoners run free” in Syria.
With Biden a diminished force, Buttigieg and Klobuchar appeared determined to present themselves as strong alternatives for voters in the middle. Both emphasized their Midwestern credentials, and Buttigieg invoked his experience as a military veteran in several wide-ranging answers on foreign policy.
Their new aggressiveness represented a shorter-term calculation about halting Warren’s increasing strength in Iowa. With Warren gaining there, Klobuchar and Buttigieg plainly decided to target her in an effort to appeal to the state’s moderate voters, who so far have lined up with Biden.
With a powerfully funded campaign and an expanding field operation in Iowa, Buttigieg may be uniquely well positioned to assert himself there.
In an intense argument that reflected their changing fortunes in the race, Biden briefly went on the offensive against Warren toward the end of the debate, describing her health care plans as “vague” and demanding in a raised voice that she give him some credit for her signature accomplishment, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 financial crisis. Warren expressed gratitude for the help she had received — not from Biden but from former President Barack Obama.
But Warren was on the defensive for much of the evening and most of all on the issue of single-payer health care, when she again declined to specify precisely how she would fund a sweeping system of government-backed insurance. Unlike Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Warren has not acknowledged in plain terms that a Medicare for All plan would quite likely have to substitute broad-based taxes for private insurance premiums and other costs.
“I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families,” Warren said, declining to elaborate.
Klobuchar, in her most assertive debate performance yet, chided Warren for not explaining to voters “where we’re going to send the invoice” for single-payer care.
“At least Bernie’s being honest here,” Klobuchar said.
Warren was squeezed, at times, from the left as well: While Sanders never broke their informal nonaggression pact, he agreed with several of the moderates that it was “appropriate” to enumerate the financial trade-offs involved in single-payer health care, including taxes on Americans that would be “substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.”
And while Sanders, who had a heart attack this month, was forced to address new concerns about his health, his campaign aides confirmed during the debate that he had secured an endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York that could inject new energy into his candidacy.
But there were also the germs of a broader discussion of the role of the United States in the Middle East: In an intense exchange between the two military veterans onstage, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said that it was not only Trump who had “the blood of the Kurds on his hands,” but also politicians in both parties and news media organizations that had cheered for “regime change war.”
Her remarks drew forceful pushback from Buttigieg, who said Gabbard was “dead wrong,” arguing that “the slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence — it is a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.”
While Biden and Warren did not clash directly over foreign policy, they diverged in a stark fashion over the situation in Syria. Biden said he would want to keep U.S. troops there and convey to the Turkish government that it would pay a “heavy price” for its invasion. Warren said she opposed Trump’s handling of the situation but believed the United States should “get out of the Middle East.” (Aides to Warren said she was referring to the withdrawal of troops from combat.)
Throughout the debate, which was sponsored by CNN and The New York Times, Biden played a far less central role than he had in the past, stepping to the foreground for exchanges over foreign policy but otherwise taking a more passive approach. His most important moment of the night may have come early on, when he was pressed by a moderator to explain why his son had not crossed any ethical lines by doing business in Ukraine while his father was overseeing diplomacy there for the Obama administration.
Biden said several times that he and his son had done “nothing wrong,” and alluded repeatedly to an interview Hunter Biden gave to ABC News, in which he said it had been an error in judgment to sit on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while the elder Biden was vice president. Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption, often in false or exaggerated terms, and his efforts to enlist the government of Ukraine in tarring Biden instigated an impeachment inquiry.
“This is about Trump’s corruption,” Biden said. “That’s what we should be focusing on.”
None of Biden’s Democratic rivals chose to press the subject, reflecting both the political sensitivity of issues touching on Biden’s family and also a calculation, by his most immediate rivals, that Biden is likely to continue sinking in the race without a further onslaught from fellow Democrats. While a number of candidates are hoping to peel away moderate voters from Biden, they tried to do so Tuesday by challenging the left rather than by blasting the leading candidate of the center.
Defending his political stature, Biden at one point described himself as “the only one on this stage who has gotten anything really big done,” and cited his work on the Violence Against Women Act and the Obama administration’s health care law.
That argument drew a fierce response from Sanders, who said Biden had also achieved far less laudable feats, like the passage of the NAFTA trade deal and a law tightening the federal bankruptcy code. “You got the disastrous war in Iraq done,” Sanders said.
And Warren, too, took issue with Biden’s claim, pointing to her role as the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — an agency, she said, that represented “structural change in our economy.” In a moment of crackling tension, Biden raised his voice and urged Warren to give him credit, too, for the birth of the agency.
“I went onto the floor and got you votes,” he said.
Warren retorted by saying she was “deeply grateful for President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law,” as well as for others in the administration who did the same.
Just as striking as the offensives by Klobuchar and Buttigieg were the more passive showings by Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris — both of whom were counting on a strong outing.
Booker repeatedly said the focus of the debate should be on Trump. He denounced the moderators’ questions about Biden’s son. “The only person sitting at home enjoying that was Donald Trump,” Booker said.
And he even defended the fitness of the septuagenarian candidates onstage — Biden, Sanders and Warren — by noting that Trump would be the least healthy candidate running in 2020. Harris also mostly trained her fire on the president, at one point using her new catch line: “Dude gotta go.”
The only moment when Harris showed any appetite for tangling with the other candidates was when she demanded to know why Warren would not join her in urging Twitter to remove the president’s account.
Harris seemed more focused on trying to build support with women, as she spoke most forcefully about the importance of defending abortion rights. “It is her body, it is her right, it is her decision,” she said.
After presenting her message at the previous three debates with only intermittent challenges from her rivals, Warren was met with cutting criticism of her signature populist flourishes.
“I want to give a reality check to Elizabeth,” said Klobuchar, before alluding to another candidate onstage, hedge fund executive Tom Steyer. “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires. We just have different approaches.”
Buttigieg was just as pointed, repeatedly casting Warren as a “Washington politician,” but he and Klobuchar were not alone. Even lagging candidates such as O’Rourke and Andrew Yang, a former tech entrepreneur, took on Warren, all but confirming her front-runner status.
And while she was eager to articulate her progressive vision here, Warren seemed just as cognizant that she must broaden her coalition beyond her core base of upscale liberal whites. She repeatedly cited her support for adding funding to historically black colleges and mentioned her brothers, who still live in her native and Oklahoma and two of whom are Republicans.
Sanders was not as ubiquitous a presence as he had been at past debates, but he drew applause by preempting a question about his health. “I’m healthy, I’m feeling great,” he said before vowing “a vigorous campaign.”
That, Sanders said, “is how I think I can reassure the American people.”