Going into the fourth Democratic primary debate at at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, former Vice President Joe Biden was still leading in most polls, and up by six points in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Anyone who tuned into the debate Tuesday night, however, would think that Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the frontrunner. After multiple debates where other candidates laid off the Massachusetts senator, Warren finally started drawing fire from more centrist candidates eager to paint her as mad for raising taxes. And Biden, who has been the main target in previous debates, was left far more alone than he was before.
The result, interestingly enough, was that both poll leaders — Warren and Biden — managed to walk away the winners of the debate. While Warren sometimes got visibly frustrated, overall the level of conflict gave her more opportunities to talk about her ideas than everyone else on stage. And because she drew all the fire, Biden — who has faltered under pressure in the past debates — had fewer chances to trip over his feet, and managed, for the first time, to mostly get through a debate without sounding like a tired old man who is in over his head.
A number of candidates — including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Andrew Yang — took shots at Warren, drawing her into debates, often about small and, frankly, not that relevant differences of policy. But things got most heated when, as happened in roughly the first 3,000 Democratic debates, moderators kicked off a lengthy health care discussion rooted deeply in the Republican framing about how much we'll have to raise taxes to pay for Medicare for All. And, as happened in the infinite number of earlier debates, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders continued to insist that people don't care whether the money goes to an insurance company or a government program, so long as the overall price of health care goes down.
This time, there was more feistiness from the low-polling middle-way candidates — particularly Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — in picking up this but-the-taxes line about Medicare for All and running with it. Interestingly, they focused their attention entirely on Warren even though, as Sanders was eager to remind everyone, he wrote the damn bill.
While Klobuchar showed flashes of that staff-berating energy in her tiff with Warren, Buttigieg, in a surprising move, was the real jerk of the evening. He ripped into Warren, claiming she wasn't giving a straight answer. Which in fact she is, but it isn't an answer that pleases Beltway types who believe paying taxes is somehow more offensive than paying insurance premiums. Warren retorted that Buttigieg only wants "Medicare for all who can afford it."
Not only did Buttigieg go after Warren with distressingly conservative talking points, he seemed generally ready to rumble with anyone on stage. It was fun when he was ripping into Gabbard for her weirdly robotic and Bashar Assad-friendly sloganeering, but it started to get ugly when he launched a weirdly personal attack on former Rep. Beto O'Rourke on the issue of gun control, despite the still-open wounds from the summer's mass shooting in O'Rourke's hometown of El Paso. Buttigieg clearly thought it was wise to go big, but considering that his already meager base of support consists of people who think he seems like a nice young man, it could backfire.
Warren held up well over the course of the night, leaning far more heavily on her expertise and experience in bankruptcy law than she has in the past — a maneuver that made her male critics, like Buttigieg and Yang, look like tedious mansplainers. So far, her biggest problem has been getting her message out to voters, and by getting the lion's share of the attention, she got a chance to do just that. Overall, the night will probably be a big win for her, even as pundits hyper-analyze every moment when she showed unfeminine glimpses of annoyance.
While it came late in the evening, the expanded time for Warren meant she finally had a chance to really describe her work building the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she accomplished before entering politics. It's an important foundation for Warren's argument that she has the mojo to accomplish big things, despite the current political morass, and is willing to take on not just Republicans, but Democrats who get in the way. If she can pull that trick out again in future debates, especially earlier in the night, it will help her.
Biden tearing into Warren and, in a frankly sexist manner, demanding her gratitude for helping her realize the bureau was his lowest point of the night. That said, all Biden had to do Tuesday night to maintain his lead was to lay low and not, as he has in the past, get flustered and descend into babbling incoherence. This he managed to do, low as that bar sadly is. It helped significantly that most of the other candidates mostly ignored him, except for a minor three-way argument towards the end between Biden, Sanders and Warren over health care financing, in which Biden managed to keep his talking points straight and avoid getting confused.
The biggest concern for Biden was how he would handle the inevitable question about his son Hunter Biden's spot on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, which has indirectly led to Donald Trump's possible impeachment over Trump's efforts to gin up false evidence for a conspiracy theory accusing Biden of impropriety. On that front, Biden did fine, emphasizing that he was in the right here and turning the tables by focusing on Trump's corruption, an easy enough sell to anyone still living in the real world. Biden was helped by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who chose journalistic responsibility over sensationalism and emphasized repeatedly in his question that Trump's accusations were false.
Sanders had a very good night, landing some solid lines, but mostly by looking energetic, healthy, and like his old self, despite suffering a heart attack earlier this month. Still, after months in the race, it appears that Sanders is having a hard time building on his base of roughly 20% of the Democratic electorate. This debate, where he showed consistency but had little new to say, isn't going to help him.
As usual, the takeaway is that there need to be fewer candidates, especially of the Gabbard/Yang caliber who are on the stage because of the crank vote but have no chance of building any real support. (That goes double for billionaire Tom Steyer, whose progressive rhetoric couldn't erase the fact that he basically bought his spot on stage.) So far, Democratic National Committee standards have only narrowed down the roster for the next debate to eight candidates, which is still too many, as evidenced by Yang continuing to make the cut. With the Iowa caucuses not much more than three months away, it's critical to start having debates with less noise and more substance, and limited to candidates who actually have a shot to win.