WESTERVILLE, Ohio - U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was pummeled with more than a dozen distinct attacks from Democratic rivals who raced to stop her rise in the polls at Tuesday’s debate in Ohio, while former Vice President Joe Biden remained relatively unscathed.
The 12-candidate debate at Otterbein University in Westerville underscored the shifting dynamics in the race, as Warren confronted new scrutiny about her health care proposal and economic policies after largely avoiding sustained criticism from more moderate opponents.
The charge was led by Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who berated Warren for dodging a question about whether her “Medicare for all” plan would require a middle-class tax hike. He called her “evasive” after she didn’t directly answer the question.
“Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything – except this,” said Buttigieg.
Other Democrats hoping to present themselves as a mainstream alternative to Biden also piled on Warren, who has inched toward the top of several recent national surveys and polls of battleground states.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Warren owes it to the public “to tell them where we send the invoice.” Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said she her plan to impose a new tax on the richest Americans was “punitive.” And U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris took aim at Warren’s refusal to call for Twitter to suspend President Donald Trump’s account.
Warren ignored or scantly acknowledged some of the attacks, while trying to flip the script on others. She framed her policies as bold, visionary pursuits of liberal ideals, while mostly avoiding tangling with her rivals.
On her health care plan, she said she won’t sign a bill that “does not lower costs for middle-class families,” but left it to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to explain that her policy would, indeed, require a tax increase.
And after Biden tried to take some of the credit for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, saying he “went on the floor and got you votes” for her signature legislative achievement, Warren ducked a direct confrontation with the contest's other front-runner.
“I am deeply grateful to President Obama,” she responded tersely, “who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.”
A new phase
The debate opened with an accounting of the most significant political development since the candidates last met a month ago, as each unequivocally endorsed the Democratic drive to impeach Trump in sharp and unsparing terms while brushing aside concerns that it will serve as a distracting new divide.
“Sometimes there are issues that are bigger than politics, and I think that’s the case with this impeachment inquiry,” said Warren, who was quickly echoed by other candidates who framed impeachment as an imperative to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
It presented a sharp contrast from previous debates that opened with drier discussions on health care and other domestic policies, and it posed a new challenge for candidates wary of the possibility that a polarizing fight over impeachment could drown out their carefully crafted strategies and policy plans.
Still, each cast the Democratic march toward impeachment as inevitable after a whistleblower complaint revealed that Trump urged the leader of Ukraine to investigate Biden and his family.
It has also led to collateral damage to the former vice president’s campaign, as Trump and his allies have pummeled Biden with unfounded attacks claiming he acted improperly to benefit his son Hunter’s international business interests.
The younger Biden stepped down from the board of a Chinese company and said in an ABC News interview released Tuesday that he showed “poor judgment” in taking the position but that he had done nothing unethical or illegal.
The elder Biden sought to turn the argument against Trump, calling him “the most corrupt president in modern history — and I think all of our history.” He said Trump was targeting him because “he knows I will beat him like a drum.”
“My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine,” he said. “That’s what we should be focusing on.”
It was also the first debate since Trump decided to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, which triggered a swift Turkish assault on Kurdish forces that had been the nation’s most reliable bulwark in the fight against the Islamic State.
Biden called Trump’s decision “shameful,” and Buttigieg said the “betrayal” left hardened Pentagon officials ashamed of U.S. policies. Warren, too, used scathing terms to accuse Trump of orchestrating a foreign policy disaster.
“This president has sucked up to dictators. He’s made impulsive decisions that his own team often doesn’t understand,” she said. “And he’s cut and run on our allies.”
Warren’s recent rise in the polls has come as she begins to consolidate support from liberal voters, partly at the expense of Sanders, who suffered a heart attack two weeks ago.
Sanders’ hospitalization has sparked new questions about the 78-year-old’s health, and he tried to show that he was revitalized throughout the debate, calling on Democrats to confront Trump on other consequential policies.
“I’m healthy, I’m feeling great,” he said, before inviting supporters to a major rally that will feature an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The leading contenders jockeyed for time with second-tier candidates who are racing to emerge from the pack or risk becoming an also-ran. Their next best chance might be the Nov. 20 debate in Georgia, where Democrats are jubilant about the chance to showcase the state as a top 2020 battleground.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker took an aggressive stance, mocking the ongoing discussion of health care as “deja vu all over again” as he urged more discussion on abortion rights and other base-pleasing issues. And Buttigieg railed against a “nothing changes” system of political rhetoric that doesn’t pay off for American voters.
“We are paying attention to the wrong things,” he said. “We’re paying attention to who sounds better on the debate stage.”
When: The next (fifth) debate will be Wednesday, Nov. 20.
Where: It is expected to take place in metro Atlanta. The specific location will be announced later.