You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Moderates Fight Back

Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg came out swinging during the fourth Democratic debate. Is it enough to dent Warren's momentum?

Win McNamee / Getty Images

One of the hardest things for a presidential candidate is to put on a smiling public face for the TV cameras after spending three hours on a debate stage inwardly seething over missed opportunities and mangled lines. It is one reason why many candidates never appear in the Spin Room after a debate and why others march through the entire ordeal with the grim determination of someone who needs dental surgery.

There are the rare candidates who enter the Spin Room as Happy Warriors awash in the glow of knowing they had a strong debate. Amy Klobuchar fit that mold Tuesday night in Ohio.

The three-term Minnesota senator was chatty and relaxed as she waited to begin a post-debate MSNBC interview with Chris Hayes. As Klobuchar slipped off her shoes and clambered onto a small box so that she would be at the right level for the cameras, she laughingly insisted that at five-foot-four-inches she is the average height for a woman. It was just that the other eleven candidates on the debate stage Tuesday night were unfairly tall.

If this were a movie—maybe a reboot of Orson Welles’s 1960 David and Goliath—Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren would have been the central characters.

Klobuchar repeatedly challenged Warren, especially on the former law professor’s deliberate vagueness about the new taxes that would accompany Medicare for All. As Klobuchar put it in a telling early exchange, “At least Bernie is being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and the taxes are going up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”

In the Hollywood version of last night’s debate, Klobuchar would have leapt ahead in the polls. In reality, it is difficult for a single night—nearly four months before the Iowa caucuses—to change the contours of the race.

Klobuchar would need a significant boost in the polls to meet the rigid threshold (hitting at least 3 percent in a series of polls) that the DNC has imposed on candidates trying to qualify for the next debate on November 20. And while she performed well Tuesday evening, no one really knows how closely Democratic voters are watching these marathon three-hour encounters. An Iowa Poll, conducted after the September debate, found that only 21 percent of likely caucus-goers had watched the entire performance. (Remember, likely caucus-goers are the most dedicated Democrats in the first state on the political calendar.)

But it is also a mistake to go to the other extreme and cavalierly dismiss the winning performances Tuesday night as mere blips. (Yes, I confess that all debate scorecards are highly subjective).

Pete Buttigieg also had a strong night. While he remains the only major candidate in the Democratic race without Washington experience, he deftly parlayed his seven-month deployment to Afghanistan into an impressive command of foreign policy on the debate stage.

Buttigieg pounced after Tulsi Gabbard, also a veteran, made the morally repugnant claim that “the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war” in Syria have contributed to the carnage unfolding there today. Calling Gabbard “dead wrong,” Buttigieg went on to say, “the slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence. It’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.”

Much of the breathless pre-debate handicapping focused on how Bernie Sanders would look in his first major appearance after his heart attack. Maybe it was his constitution, maybe it was his doctors, or maybe it was knowing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was about to give him her endorsement, but Sanders came across as about the most radiant 78-year-old in history who had recently been in intensive care.

Joe Biden, in his best debate of the cycle, avoided any serious flare-ups over his son Hunter’s profitable but legal business dealings in Ukraine. Rightly reluctant to buttress Donald Trump’s frenzied tweets, the other Democrats on stage let Biden’s statement stand: “I never discussed a single thing with my son on anything having to do with Ukraine. No one has indicated I have. We have always kept everything separate.”

If the Cheaper by the Dozen Debate is remembered a year from now, it will probably be as the night when Elizabeth Warren discovered gravity. She has floated far above the Democratic field with a near-flawless campaign since Groundhog’s Day, but last night, Warren suddenly discovered what it felt like to be a political target.

The Massachusetts senator brought on part of it herself with her exasperating refusal to depart from her non-revealing talking points about Medicare for All. Warren also sounded like a Tulsi Gabbard isolationist when she said, “I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.”

Warren aides later tried to walk back her comments, telling the New York Times that she was merely referring to U.S. troops in active combat. But the slip-up was telling—Warren is usually precise in her speeches; this may have been the first time that campaign officials had to resort to the “what Elizabeth meant to say” defense.

Bombarded from all sides, Warren could also sound mildly exasperated at times, a far cry from the joyful Warren of the campaign trail, who bounds on stage, tells personal stories, and poses for selfies.

But no one looked more out of place than billionaire Tom Steyer, who, cynically gaming the DNC’s system for debate qualifications, spent a staggering $47 million in the third quarter to goose his poll numbers enough to qualify. That worked out to about $7 million for every minute that Steyer spoke during the debate without ever uttering a memorable sentence.

The Democratic Party would have been far better off if the ego-tripping Steyer (who has already qualified for the November debate) had squandered that $47 million on a minor Renoir.

In the end, we learned that Warren can be vulnerable; Biden and Sanders are not over the hill; and Buttigieg and Klobuchar have potential in Iowa where both are making a major effort. All in all, an intriguing night filled with new plot twists for the 2020 Democrats.