On October 15, we witnessed the largest debate stage ever, filled with twelve candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Twelve people taking the debate stage in a single night is unprecedented, and yet strangely appropriate for modern day politics. It feels that we run into something new and unusual every day, fueled by the erratic and unpredictable nature of the current administration. Along with the size of the candidate pool, there was something key that jumped out in the three-hour debate, hosted by CNN and The New York Times: There was a common target among many of the candidates.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren received pushback throughout much of the night, an indicator of the fact that her opponents are well aware that she’s been surging. It appears the momentum is firmly in her corner, with early polling indicating that she’s leading the pack in early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. There was a common thread in the earlier debates: former Vice President Joe Biden received much of the heat, as he’d been leading the pack by a comfortable margin. You wouldn’t have guessed it by watching this debate, seeing as how scarcely anyone challenged Biden — a sign that their attention was focused elsewhere. Biden’s lead has slowly evaporated, while Warren’s been steadily gaining support with a mix of strong campaigning and a perception that she’s got a plan for just about everything.
The most trying moment of the night for Warren was during a debate on health care, where she has so far refused to say whether or not Medicare for All would raise taxes on the middle class. She walks a fine line on this issue, supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ plan (where Sanders has admitted taxes would go up, offset by the costs saved by premiums and deductibles being eliminated in a single-payer system), yet doesn’t answer with the same bluntness when pressed about the proposal. My personal theory is two-pronged: I believe Warren deflects when asked because she doesn’t want to give Republicans or skeptics the soundbite that would be easily used in attack ads against her if she were to become the Democratic nominee. I also wonder that if she is the nominee, she’ll have to pivot to a more moderate stance on healthcare — something including a public option (versus single-payer), either to satisfy independents and moderate Democrats, or to meet with reality on what Congress would be willing to pass into law. Ultimately, Warren is “the woman with a plan” yet is uncharacteristically nuanced on this issue.
The debate took place against the backdrop of an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives. Spurred by a whistleblower complaint about a phone call between President Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asks Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, House Democrats have been building a case against Trump. All twelve Democratic candidates agreed that Trump should be impeached or, at the very least, voiced support of the inquiry.
While there were contentious moments, such as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren’s back-and-forth on health care, or South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke on Beto’s comments at the previous debate about taking AK47s and AR15s, the candidates were mostly in alignment on the issues that need urgency. Healthcare, climate change, income inequality, criminal justice reform, and gun violence are all issues that have gotten significant coverage in the Democratic debates so far
Since the debates, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Bernie Sanders, a coveted endorsement from a figure who is widely popular with the progressive base of the Democratic party. We have yet to see the benefits that will be reaped from Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement, as Sanders is currently behind Warren and Biden, and faced a setback a few weeks ago when he had a heart attack (but you wouldn’t have known, as he had a strong showing). I’m left with a similar sentiment as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who cautioned that the candidates would be wise to think about the extent to which they attack each other. It’s understandable that candidates that haven’t broken through yet are trying to shift the tide of the race, but they must also think, “at what cost?” Because during the heated moments and attacks, they’re also helping Republicans by giving them fodder.