WESTERVILLE, Ohio — It was the endless, repeating image of Tuesday night’s three-hour Democratic debate: Elizabeth Warren on one side of a split screen, waiting in silence, hand raised, for a chance to respond.
Eleven candidates stood to Warren’s left and right on stage in Ohio, attacking her wealth tax, questioning her approach to Medicare for All and taxes, and dragging her into an array of policy issues, without prompting from the moderators.
Amy Klobuchar said Warren wasn’t being “honest” about raising taxes to pay for Medicare for All. Pete Buttigieg said she wanted to “obliterate” private health insurance. Kamala Harris asked Warren, and only Warren, why she wasn’t supporting her proposal to suspend Donald Trump from Twitter. Twice, Tulsi Gabbard lobbed Warren a question from the other side of the stage. And Biden, still the leading candidate in most early primary polls, engaged Warren in a hot exchange about who deserves credit for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the consumer protection agenda she spearheaded during the Obama administration.
“I went on the floor and GOT YOU VOTES,” Biden said near the close of the debate, his voice raised. He turned toward Warren and chopped his hand in the air. “I GOT VOTES for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight, too.”
Warren paused for three full seconds.
“I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law,” she said, leaving Biden, Obama’s vice president, out of it entirely. A hushed “ooooh” sounded from the crowd.
“And I am deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it and who helped pass it into law,” she went on, “but understand—”
The fourth Democratic debate, hosted by CNN and the New York Times at Otterbein University, marked a new stage in Warren’s steady rise over the last eight months from a campaign at the bottom of the polls to the very center of a crowded primary contest: Her rivals, the big ones and the small ones, are now training their attacks, and their plays for attention, on Elizabeth Warren.
The exchange with Biden spoke to one of the animating issues in the divide between progressives and liberals about the last 10 years: Did the Obama administration do everything it should have or could have after the financial crisis? Warren and Sanders in ways explicit and implicit say no. Biden has framed as part of his own record keeping the United States from descending into a depression during the Great Recession.
As Biden has held his support, the early debates often focused on him, with opposing candidates attempting generational contrasts, critiques of the Obama administration on policy issues, and criticisms of Biden’s own long record in the Senate. Biden’s support has held steady, however, with only Warren rising to equal or eclipse the former vice president in the polls.
On Tuesday, candidates like Klobuchar and Buttigieg drove at the more moderate contrast — by going after Warren repeatedly on health care and whether Medicare for All would raise taxes on middle-class families. Warren has repeatedly refused to engage the question, instead simply saying that overall costs for those families would go down. Both Klobuchar and Buttigieg sought to distinguish Warren from Sanders on that point, casting the Massachusetts senator as dishonest and fuzzy on the question.
“At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Klobuchar said at one point, before telling Warren, “I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that.”
After Sanders described his bill, Buttigieg said, “Well, at least that's a straightforward answer.”
Warren has mostly gone unchallenged in debates, and like anything else, it’s impossible to immediately know whether that has the effect of solidifying her rise or damaging her bid. And where she has been hesitant to engage in lengthy back-and-forths with candidates in prior debates — including one where moderators repeatedly tried to provoke a conflict with Bernie Sanders — Warren came prepared on Tuesday to push back with force against candidate attacks.
“You did a helluva job in your job,” Biden finally said of the CFPB, seeming to cede the argument.
“Thank you,” Warren replied crisply.