In the weeks since the last Democratic primary debates, it’s become apparent that Elizabeth Warren is gaining momentum and establishing herself as a clear frontrunner. She’s rising in the polls, expanding her base of support while polling numbers for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the other two leading candidates, have largely remained stagnant or dipped. Second-tier candidates like Pete Buttigieg have struggled to break out from their middling status; non-starters like Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke are even more desperate to shore up their flaccid campaigns. Which is why it was no surprise that during Tuesday’s night debate, Warren and her ideas were the focus of their attacks.
There was Joe Biden, largely an afterthought for much of the debate, who practically foamed at the mouth while trying to take outsized credit for creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency that Warren built from the ground up. There was Beto O’Rourke, who described her popular wealth tax and general campaign posture as “punitive” and “pitting some part of the country against the other.” Klobuchar, who’s polling under two percent nationwide and used the debate as a last-ditch effort to revive a campaign that was pretty much dead on arrival, got in her jabs, too. “I want to give a reality check to Elizabeth. No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires,” Klobuchar said, adding: “We have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.”
Warren responded nimbly. “The rich are not like you and me,” she said:
[Billionaires] are making their money off their accumulated wealth and it just keeps growing. We need a wealth tax in order to make investments in the next generation. Look, I understand that this is hard, but I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started.
And then there was Pete Buttigieg, the good-natured Midwestern boy now turned attack dog, who is clearly hoping to peel off centrist voters from Biden’ base of support in an effort to boost his own flagging campaign. Buttigieg had all but announced he would use the debate as an opportunity to criticize Warren in the days leading up to Tuesday night, sniping that “We’re not going to beat Trump with pocket change” and releasing ads that contrast what he calls his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan with Bernie Sanders’ and Warren’s support for Medicare for All.
Warren has, curiously, left an opening for criticism by declining to speak candidly about how the system would work: that with Medicare for All, taxes for many would go up, but costs would go down as people are no longer paying premiums and incredibly high deductibles. (The question of “cost” and Medicare for All, as Warren pointed out in the last debate, is also more than just a question of funding. We pay pretty steep costs in this country by failing to provide healthcare for everyone who needs it.)
But on Tuesday night, Warren again dodged the question of whether her plan would require taxes to go up by repeating her standard line, that she would “not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families.” This created an opening for Buttigieg, who responded: “A yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer.” He continued: “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 rebutted Buttigieg by criticizing his plan: “Understand what that really means: It’s ‘Medicare for all who can afford it,’” she responded.
But Warren, now a frontrunner, will have to come up with a better answer to the question of how to pay for Medicare for All. Repeatedly insisting that costs will go down while evading the question of taxes will not work for much longer, as the lines of attack against her on Tuesday night demonstrated. She could, as Sanders has done, freely acknowledge that yes, taxes will go up, but the cost out-of-pocket expenses and premiums will shoot down dramatically or cease to exist entirely. Warren could also, and probably should, make a moral argument that chips away at the Republican talking point-turned-consensus position that “taxes are bad”—an idea that has much to our detriment held sway for decades.
What sharpened into focus Tuesday night were the fundamental disagreements between the left and moderate flanks of the Democratic Party. The race for the nomination is, for now, Warren’s to lose. But it’s clear that it’s not quite yet her Party. The highest-polling moderate men on stage, clearly positioning themselves to be an alternative to Warren and Sanders’s “unrealistic” proposals, will try to remind her of that any chance they get.