Elizabeth Warren got a taste of the front-runner life during a heated debate on Tuesday in Ohio, as the moderate candidates onstage bombarded her throughout the night and, during an especially pointed exchange, assailed the Massachusetts senator over her refusal to directly explain how she would fund “Medicare for All.”
The question during the CNN/New York Times debate that set off the onslaught was a familiar one: Would Warren raise taxes on middle class Americans to pay for a single-payer health care program? Warren’s response, too, was consistent with what she’s said in the past – but didn’t provide a clear answer.
“My view on this and what I have committed to is, costs will go down for hard-working middle-class families,” Warren said, again stressing that taxes on “the wealth and big corporations” would fulfill the bulk of the financing before pledging that she would “not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle class families.”
But the stage was not satisfied. And with that, a nearly three-hour storm began – and it was Warren most often standing under the angriest clouds.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was aggressive throughout the night, called Warren “evasive” and, addressing her directly, said: “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who repeatedly pivoted to Warren when asked a question, also took direct aim at her Senate colleague’s murky explanation.
“We owe it to the American people,” she said, “to tell them where we will send the invoice.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been careful not directly criticize his progressive ally, defended Medicare for All after Buttigieg zeroed in on the policy itself – but added, as he’s stated before, that taxes would go up nearly across the board in order to pay for the plan.
“As somebody who wrote the damn bill, let’s be clear: Under the Medicare for All bill I wrote, premiums are gone, copayments are gone, deductibles are gone. All out-of-pocket expenses are gone,” Sanders said, before adding, “But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up” mostly for the wealthy, but also for some middle class Americans.
Sanders, as he’s done on the trail, argued that the implementation of Medicare for All would, despite those tax hikes, mean that most Americans would be paying significantly less overall. Warren makes the same point, but her consistent demurrals when faced with the tax question – on the campaign trail, when it’s been posed by voters at rallies, and on the debate stage – set up Medicare for All critics for a predictable pile-on.
But the scrap over health care was only a modest preview of what was coming for Warren, who has topped the field in a number of recent polls of early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Lower-performing rivals like former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala Harris gave the debate a feeling, at times, of being a referendum on Warren.
After the debate, Warren’s campaign described the incoming volleys as more evidence of the candidate’s growing stature and prospects.
“Elizabeth Warren has built momentum by running a campaign of substance, identifying problems facing the country and laying out her plans for big structural change to fix them,” communications director Kristen Orthman said. “She took heat tonight as a result of that momentum, but she stayed focused on what’s broken and how she plans to fix it with a government and an economy that works for the people.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden was more tempered than some others in his language, but he also accused Warren of being “vague” in her discussion of Medicare for All and, as he livened up as the debate pushed into its third hour, claimed to the be the only one the stage who had accomplished anything “big.”
Warren answered that suggestion with a sharply confident reminder of her work in crafting and establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“Following the financial crash of 2008, I had an idea for a consumer agency that would keep giant banks from cheating people,” Warren recalled. “And all of the Washington insiders and strategic geniuses said, don’t even try because you will never get it passed.”
Biden jumped in after Warren finished to talk about his role in seeing that it did, telling her: “I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it, so let’s get those things straight, too.”
Warren answered his aggressive claims with a deadpan: “I am deeply grateful to President Obama,” she said, “who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.”
Harris picked a more narrow line of attack, pushing Warren – who has been critical of Facebook’s ad policy, which doesn’t vet candidate’s claims – to follow her lead and demand Twitter suspend President Donald Trump’s account.
“Sen. Warren, I just want to say that I was surprised to hear that you did not agree with me that, on this subject of what should be the rules around corporate responsibility for these big tech companies,” Harris said.
Warren responded by implicitly belittling the ambition of Harris’ demand: “I don’t just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter,” she said. “I want to push him out of the White House. That’s our job.”
When Harris continued pushing, asking Warren to “join me in saying that his Twitter account should be shut down,” Warren turned her down with a flat “no.”
In a Democratic primary campaign that has yet to see a candidate rewarded for explicitly attacking a particular rival, the attempts to wallop Warren are as likely to backfire as cut her down.
O’Rourke zeroed in after the wealth tax plans by Warren and Sanders became a point of contention, with businessman Andrew Yang saying the policy “makes a lot of sense in principle,” but questioned whether and how it would work in practice.
“Sometimes I think that Sen. Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting some part of the country against the other,” O’Rourke said, “instead of lifting people up and making sure this country comes together around those solutions.”
“I’m really shocked at the notion that anyone thinks I’m punitive,” Warren said. “Look, I don’t have a beef with billionaires,” before reprising an argument that she’s been making for years: that the wealthiest Americans owed a financial – and moral – debt to the country that helped facilitate their success.
Ultimately, it was Sen. Cory Booker who sought to pull Warren out of the barrel and tsk-tsk his rivals over both the tone and text of their criticisms.
“I have seen this script before. It didn’t work in 2016 and it will be a disaster for us in 2020,” Booker said, warning Democrats against “tearing each other down because we have different plans.”