Elizabeth Warren made her debut as a Democratic front-runner at Tuesday’s debate, and it wasn’t her best performance. She wore a target, and many of her competitors came right at it. Warren needs some better answers—on Medicare for All, especially—but some of her thirsty rivals made themselves look bad, too, so she survived.
Call me a nitpicker, but I continue to believe Warren has to acknowledge that her Medicare for All plan will raise taxes even on middle-class people. She can quickly explain that away by showing how much less such folks will pay, overall, in medical expenses. Warren backers I respect love to see her thumb her nose at MSM nostrums like this—and they could be right. But her refusal to admit the tax increase that even Senator Bernie Sanders acknowledges—and hell, she’s supporting Bernie’s bill!—is starting to make her look dodgy.
Warren began her explanation of Medicare for All by saying, “Let me be clear.” So far, so good: “Let me be clear on this: Costs will go up on the wealthy, they will go up for corporations, and costs on the middle class will go down.”
I know all of that is true, but she was asked about taxes.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg came after the Massachusetts senator for dodging the raising-taxes issue, which he called “a yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.”
Warren got a break there, given that Mayor Pete, who’s raising Warren-size money without garnering Warren-size support in the polls, or delivering Warren-size ideas to solve our problems, did a smarmy job of coming after her. He’s the purveyor of “Medicare for all who want it,” which Warren correctly lambastes as “for all who can afford it.”
Then Senator Bernie Sanders, who arguably had the best night, came in to change the focus: “At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health care bills.” Whew, if you’re Warren. Or maybe not.
“But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They’re going to go up significantly for the wealthy. And for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less—substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket [expenses].”
Hmm. Maybe that didn’t help Warren so much.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who also saw this debate as her chance to hit Warren, did it more smoothly, on Warren’s wealth tax. “No one wants to protect billionaires—not even the billionaire!” she said, referencing the newest Democrat on the debate stage, billionaire impeachment backer Tom Steyer. “We have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea!”
Even Beto O’Rourke, whose lane is clearly marked “the nice guy—and thanks, Amy, for taking care of the kids,” came at Warren, calling her “punitive” and insisting she’s “pitting some part of the country against each other, instead of lifting people up.” I wasn’t sure what land masses Warren is pitting against one another, and Beto didn’t take the time to say. I just caught the word “punitive,” which to me, given the context, felt a little gendered.
Speaking of which, Politico’s Ryan Lizza suggests that Buttigieg’s attack on Warren’s honesty might come from the fact that he employs the same advisers who urged that strategy when Barack Obama faced Hillary Clinton on health care 12 years ago: You won’t rattle her on facts, so go after her on character. So if it felt familiar, you weren’t imagining things.
Meanwhile, California Senator Kamala Harris seems to be moving into the lane recently departed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, to be the stalwart advocate of choice and reproductive rights—which, shockingly, none of the other three women on stage even mentioned. Harris was also the best prepared on the impeachment question, quipping about Trump, “I know a confession when I see it.” She otherwise didn’t do anything huge to advance herself—except stay out of the way of Buttigieg’s hammering Warren, which could ultimately help her. Harris also tweeted after the debate that there hadn’t been a single question on climate change, LGBTQ issues, or immigration. But hey, we did end with a question about Ellen DeGeneres’s “friendship” with George W. Bush, which might be as important. Kidding.
The fourth woman on stage, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, disqualified herself, in my opinion, by demagoguing the issue of third-trimester abortion (there actually are limits; odd she wouldn’t know that) and denigrating impeachment as driven by “hyperpartisan interests.”
I am seriously looking forward to the next debate, when the DNC raises the threshold for candidates to participate—amazingly, it did not do that between September and October, which is how we went from 10 to 12 candidates, most of them unelectable, at a time when we should have been descending into single digits, and serious discussion. I assume Warren will bring her front-runner game by then—or else she won’t be the front-runner anymore.