Former vice president Joe Biden had the most to lose, and gain, Tuesday night. He has been under attack from President Trump, who employs his children and makes money off overseas properties, accusing him and his son Hunter over Hunter’s work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Joe Biden has struggled to aggressively respond. At Tuesday’s debate, he was able to do that, making clear he and his son did nothing wrong while calling out Trump as the most corrupt president in history. His answer was not as succinct as it might have been, highlighting that others in the race may have a sharper tongue, but to his great advantage, the first block of the debate saw every candidate attacking Trump.
More effectively, Biden also was able to take a shot at Trump’s foreign policy ignorance and showcase his success in beating the National Rifle Association. His strongest moment of the night might have been his defense of his age, arguing he has experience (“with it comes wisdom,” he said) and needs no on-the-job training. He said with much justification that he was the only one to get big things done in the past. He was also successful in piling on Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for being “vague” on taxes to pay for Medicare-for-all and zinging Sanders for supporting a hugely expensive health-care plan.
Aside from a few well-placed jabs from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Warren has faced no real criticism from her rivals despite her climb to the top of the polls. While she started by hitting a softball out of the park with an easy question about whether impeachment was necessary, she was on the receiving end of constant criticism from moderates who more than held their own.
Buttigieg laid into Warren most aggressively for refusing to say whether taxes will go up to pay for her Medicare-for-all plan and for ignoring how unwise it would be to attempt this in a country as divided as ours, especially when alternatives are available. The more times she refused to answer the question on taxes, the worse it got. Even more destructive than holding onto a plan that, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, gives Republicans a talking point (socialism!), she looked slippery, a bad image for someone saying she is the person to bring integrity into government. Even Andrew Yang got in a shot, explaining that Warren’s wealth tax idea has been tried and repealed in other countries when the plans didn’t work.
In the long run, Warren’s bigger problem might be her answer seemingly to agree with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) on Syria and arguing in favor of getting all U.S. troops out of the Middle East (“I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East,” Warren said). She actually got to Sanders’s left on foreign policy, obliterating a contrast with Trump that other candidates can exploit.
Finally, she awkwardly thanked President Barack Obama for helping to pass legislation for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, pointedly refusing to credit Biden, who had just explained his role in rounding up votes. It was not a classy moment, eliciting some negative murmurs from the crowd.
Overall, Buttigieg had his best debate, not only cutting Warren down to size on hiding her tax plan but giving a shoutout to the Midwest, where Democrats too often ignored deindustrialization. He also smartly stressed the need to look forward to the day after Trump leaves office when serious problems will persist. Buttigieg particularly shined on foreign policy, explaining that a small contingent of troops was keeping the Kurds from being slaughtered. He was impassioned and on the money when it came to U.S. leadership in the world. (“You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next. This president has betrayed American values. Our credibility is in tatters,” he said.) And on gun safety, he lit into former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) for taking attention off background checks with his plan to forcibly confiscate assault weapons, shoving back on his insinuation that Buttigieg lacked courage on guns. (“I don’t need lessons from you in courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said.) He wisely backed off a court-packing plan, supporting a review of a variety of reform ideas now circulating. He certainly showed that to be a moderate doesn’t mean to lack passion.
Sanders had a single job: Show he was the picture of health with the stamina to wage a vigorous campaign and then govern. He did that. He was feisty and slyly got in a dig at Warren for saying we should be honest about raising taxes. He was sincere and heartfelt in thanking Americans for their good wishes. Sanders even managed to get in a sound argument on foreign policy opposing Trump for cutting and running in Syria, making the United States an unreliable ally.
Along with Buttigieg, Klobuchar may be one of the best contestants to fill Biden’s moderate lane if the former vice president stumbles. She had her best debate to date as well. Recognizing that the primary is also a commander-in-chief test for the would-be nominees, she excoriated Trump for making “Russia great again,” and laid into Yang for suggesting there was some moral equivalence between Russia and the United States. She also hit Warren on Medicare-for-all, saying there is a difference between “a plan and a pipe dream.” She also pushed back on the Massachusetts senator for accusing others of defending billionaires. And she made a fine argument about championing antitrust legislation to aid in breaking up Big Tech and gave a preview of how she’d take on Trump on abortion. Her ending tribute to her friend, the late senator John McCain, was a moment of genuine emotion.
For Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and O’Rourke, the debate offered one more chance to distinguish themselves from their nonviable and in many cases unserious rivals. Harris had a mixed outing, beginning with a forceful statement about impeachment, denouncing Trump for “selling out” the country and getting a hearty round of applause for raising access to abortion. She floundered badly, however, when she kept insisting Twitter should kick Trump off its platform. O’Rourke had a rough debate, in particular getting knocked around for his plan to institute mandatory buybacks of assault weapons.
The debate vividly demonstrated just how fluid the race really is. Rather than a single front-runner, we now see four or five candidates who have the capacity to rise to the occasion on any given day. The winner may be the candidate of that bunch who peaks just as the voting begins.
Winners: Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Biden (although not for his rebuttal on Hunter), moderate Democrats, the New York Times and CNN moderators.
Losers: Warren, Medicare-for-all, kicking Trump off Twitter, O’Rourke.