Senator Elizabeth Warren went into the Democratic presidential debate as a candidate on the upswing, with some polls showing her steadily rising to the point where she surpassed Bernie Sanders for second place. Given the ridiculously large number of candidates running in the Democratic primaries, with the debates this week divided into two large fields of 10 candidates a night, Warren was expected to dominate over her rivals like a giant, a Gulliver who could easily stamp out such Lilliputian ant-men like Congressman Tim Ryan and former congressman John Delaney, both political figures so obscure that even the most devoted political junkie might have a hard time picking them out of a police line-up. But as in Jonathan Swift’s novel, the Lilliputians achieved a temporary victory over Gulliver, tying her down in a confusing and hurried debate environment that allowed everyone to have a few moments to shine but gave no one a chance to stand out.
Warren had a few good moments in the beginning, and excelled with her closing remarks where she deftly summed up her populist philosophy. But she was also surprisingly silent for much of the debate, with almost all the actual fireworks coming in arguments involving other candidates. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro landed some sharp jabs at former congressman Beto O’Rourke on immigration. Tim Ryan and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard sparred over Middle Eastern policy, with Gabbard rejecting Ryan’s assertion that the United States needs to continue fighting in Afghanistan. Ryan was clearly stung by Gabbard’s sharp comments, so much so that after the debate he issued a statement oozing with wounded pride contesting her words.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Warren spoke less than fellow Senator Cory Booker or O’Rourke, and barely got in four more words than chatty moderator Chuck Todd.
Yet a word count doesn’t fully measure Warren’s undeniable impact. The striking fact of the night was the degree to which Warren’s aggressive progressivism was accepted by almost all her rivals as a baseline for the party. Everyone on stage was eager to associate themselves with Warren’s progressivism, except for Delaney, who cautioned against politicians making “impossible” promises. Even Senator Amy Klobuchar, who given her track record might have been expected to cast herself as a moderate, was very careful to sound as much like Warren as possible, even when making demurrals about the specifics of policies like Medicare for All.
Early in the debate, NBC journalist Savannah Guthrie tried to create a wedge between Warren and Klobuchar, quoting back Klobuchar’s warning that some politicians were promising a “magic genie.” Guthrie tried the same tactic on O’Rourke, asking him if he thought that the proposed 70 percent marginal individual tax rate was too high. Both Klobuchar and O’Rourke refused the bait that was offered them. They could have used the questions to attack Warren, but didn’t. Instead, they, and all the other candidates except Delaney, accepted Warren’s general framework that American society was riven by inequality and the task of the Democrats is to fight back against entrenched economic interests.
Within this shared consensus on domestic politics, the individual candidates were able to emphasize different aspects of their agendas and political identities. Cory Booker, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Castro all had moments of eloquence. It could be that these figures were competing for the role of being running mate to an eventual presidential nominee; if so, they achieved their mission of presenting themselves as credible candidates.
Foreign policy, by contrast, was an area of actual dispute. Booker showed himself to be the hawk of the group, refusing to promise to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. De Blasio, surprisingly, listed Russia as America’s main foreign policy threat. Gabbard distinguished herself as the uncompromising voice of the anti-war left.
Elizabeth Warren didn’t dominate the debate stage. But sometimes the silence at a political event is as telling as the words spoken. What was largely silent in the debate, aside from the occasional growl from Delaney, was the voice of Democratic centrism, the voice warning against taking strong stances or making large promises or offending Republicans. Warren, along with Bernie Sanders, has already won a big victory in the party by getting other candidates to echo her ideas.