Fourth Democratic Debate: moderates go after Warren, the front-runner
October 17, 2019
Even before each of the 12 Democratic candidates for president stepped onto the debate stage in Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on Tuesday night, it was clear that the October debate was going to be far different from any of the previous debates.
A less apparent change on the debate stage was the now looming impeachment inquiry into President Trump. In late September, House Democrats opened a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump following the revelation that he encouraged the recently elected president of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Hunter Biden and his dealings with Ukranian business people. The debate began with the moderators, two from CNN and one from the New York Times, asking the candidates about their opinions of the impeachment inquiry.
Several candidates, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have been publicly calling for Trump’s impeachment since the release of the Mueller Report earlier this year; however, not all candidates have gone as far as Warren. Now more candidates are calling for Trump’s impeachment, or at the very least, are in support of the impeachment inquiry being pursued in the House.
However, the most noticeable change to the debate was the way in which former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Warren were treated by the candidates.
In the September debate, Warren was a dominant figure in the healthcare debate, but for much of the rest of the debate, didn’t have nearly as much involvement and wasn’t attacked for much other than her support for fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) Medicare for All plan. However, it’s necessary to understand that in September, Biden had a significant edge over the then tied second place of Senators Warren and Sanders. Now, with Warren polling at a either a close second or beating Biden, and Sanders’s subsequent drop in the polls, the other candidates saw this as an opportunity to attack a high polling candidate. In their doing so also solidified a new political reality in this race: Elizabeth Warren is now a frontrunner.
In this debate, Warren was under constant fire from her more centrist political rivals, most notably from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Nearly all of the candidates grilled her on not only Medicare for All but on her proposed wealth tax, her positions on breaking up big tech companies and her opinions on the causes of job loss. While her answers, or absence of an answer, to some questions displayed a slightly weaker performance in comparison to the previous debates, her position as a frontrunner was solidified by the fact that her rivals went after her instead of Biden. She should leave the debate feeling some mixed emotions. Yes, she held her ground when it came to her signature issues, and she never appeared to be lost with the barrage of criticism, but her refusal to directly say whether the Medicare for All plan will increase taxes on the middle class will continue to haunt her. She clearly won in how she is now perceived as the frontrunner, but this new status will now increase pressure and scrutiny of her which could make or break her campaign.
As for the other higher tier campaigns, Tuesday was unlikely to change the nature of the campaign. Biden, while avoiding a very poor debate performance like the one he had back in June, did not come out a major winner. He stumbled on some answers and was treated as an afterthought by his rivals, therefore he shouldn’t expect any major poll movement. Sanders’ performance would have been categorized as uneventful if it were not for the fact that he has spent the past two weeks recovering from a heart attack. Tuesday, although he proved that he was still his old fighting and yelling self, it’s hard to imagine that his performance alone will qualm fears about not only his age and health but also that of Warren and Biden, both of whom are at least 70 years old.
The other candidates spent much of Tuesday’s debate attacking Warren on her different policy proposals, her main foils being Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Both hit Warren on the economic and electoral feasibility of some of her progressive proposals. This debate counts as a victory for both as they proved their debating skills, and were the ones that got at Warren’s true Achilles heel, Medicare for All. However, despite their good performances, this debate is unlikely to dramatically shift the race or their poll numbers. They are fishing in the same pool of moderate voters as Biden is, and as long as he doesn’t completely collapse, they are going to have a hard time gaining significant traction as the moderate counterparts to Warren and Sanders. They need to start gaining traction or they risk not being asked to the debate in November due to higher cutoffs.
So, after Tuesday, what does this race look like? It’s a two-person race between Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, with Biden holding a slight edge over Warren.