If you had any question before Tuesday night’s debate about which Democratic presidential candidate is effectively the front-runner, the first half-hour answered it.
Pete Buttigieg went after Elizabeth Warren, wondering why she was so intent on abolishing private health insurance and suggesting that her stance would dangerously intensify political polarization in America.
Amy Klobuchar went after Warren, describing her “Medicare for All” plan as one big fat Republican talking point and Warren as a fantasist peddling “a pipe dream.”
Bernie Sanders went after her — well, sort of — by correctly noting her repeated refusal to admit what he already had, which is that Medicare for All would require a tax increase not just for affluent Americans but also for the middle class.
All of this was to be expected. All of it was, in fact, a great compliment to Warren. During both the opening stretch of the debate and subsequent ones, her prescriptions were the point of reference, her priorities set the terms of the discussion, and she was the candidate to whom the debate’s moderators kept returning so that she could respond to her rivals’ invocations of her.
And she stayed cool and confident under fire, sounding more grateful for the spotlight than fearful of the microscope. It was, for the most part, a fine performance.
But it was also, at first, an exasperating one. That unwillingness to talk candidly about middle-class taxes, though she was pressed by both a moderator and by other candidates to do so, bordered on perverse.
She kept saying, as if it were a tic or a stutter, that “costs will go down” for middle-class families, the translation of which is that taxes might well go up but that those families would be economically ahead of the game in the end.
If that’s the case, why not be explicit about the arithmetic and own it? If there’s nothing to hide from, why hide from it? Warren has campaigned as a truth teller but came across, in this instance, as a classically evasive Washington operator, scared to treat voters as grown-ups who can process information in a sophisticated manner.
Maybe that’s smart politics. But it’s not great leadership.
I loved this debate. OK, maybe “loved” is too strong a word, but I appreciated it, for three main reasons.
One is that Warren’s rivals jousted with her more than before — on health care, on her “wealth tax,” on the way she speaks about corporations and the richest Americans. That was crucial, because it brought to the surface questions about her ideas that are best recognized and evaluated now, so that Democratic voters can figure out if she’s their surest bet against President Donald Trump. It was also important because it gave her a better chance than the previous, gentler debates did to show what she’s made of.
And once she got past that maddeningly vague start, she was fierce.
She also displayed flashes of charm, most memorably after Joe Biden patronized her, taking some of the credit for the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that she more than anyone made happen. He volunteered that he, as vice president, was responsible for building the necessary support in Congress.
“I got you votes,” he said.
“I am deeply grateful,” she responded, “to President Obama.” It was a dexterous and devastating way of observing how readily Biden claims the accomplishments of an administration in which he played second fiddle.
She had another deft moment regarding the subject of whether voters should be concerned that she, Sanders and Biden are all 70 or older.
“I will outwork, out-organize and outlast anyone,” she said, “and that includes Donald Trump, Mike Pence or whoever the Republicans get stuck with.”
The second reason I appreciated this debate was that it vividly framed the fundamental tension in the Democratic field, the fault line separating Warren and Sanders, for example, from Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, among others.
The latter group of candidates traffic in measured remedies that are more obviously attainable, prioritizing imperfect, incremental change over grandly transformative proposals that face hurdles galore and very long odds. In their estimation — in mine, too — that’s probably the safer agenda with which to do battle against Trump, whose ouster eclipses all other goals. It’s also the best hope for national healing.
“We cannot wait for purity tests,” Buttigieg said, specifically explaining why he wasn’t signing on to Beto O’Rourke’s push for the confiscation of assault weapons but also articulating a general philosophy beyond that. “We have to just get something done.”
Warren flatly rejected the idea that, in her words, “some vague campaign that nibbles around the edges of big problems” is a winning formula for Democrats. “If all Democrats can promise is that after Donald Trump it will be business as usual, then we will lose,” she said.
There was a similar — and similarly important — back-and-forth about the Manichaean, truculent language that she uses to talk about Americans on different sides of the economic divide.
“Sometimes I think Sen. Warren is more focused on being punitive and pitting some part of the country against the other,” O’Rourke said. Klobuchar chimed in: “I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.”
She was referring to Tom Steyer, who was making his Democratic-debate debut.
Warren said that she had nothing against billionaires per se and wasn’t in the demonization business. She was in the justice business. And with her final remarks, she sought to underscore that with praise for a prominent Republican ally of the first President Bush. She also noted that two of her three brothers were Republicans and that she loved them very much.
The third reason I appreciated this debate is because it so perfectly underscored the most prominent candidates’ rationales for running and arguments for themselves. Apart from that odd exchange with Warren, Biden had a decent night, partly because he was given, and took advantage of, several opportunities to stress that he was more prepared for the presidency than anyone else and that the post-Trump era called for someone who wouldn’t have a steep learning curve. The repair work must begin immediately.
Buttigieg made clear that what he offers, at the tender age of 37, is a truly fresh perspective. He had a superb night, because he embraced a role as Warren’s inquisitor and because several supremely eloquent remarks about foreign policy — in particular, about Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria — allowed him to project a command and maturity that some voters needed to see to consider him seriously.
Cory Booker quintupled down on his pitch as the candidate of love — and was so expansively loving to several of the other Democrats, including Kamala Harris and Biden, that I found myself wondering if this debate was a bid to salvage a flagging campaign or the beginning of an audition to be the eventual nominee’s running mate. As for Harris, she had strong moments, but they were neither strong nor frequent enough to alter her fortunes.
This was the most crowded televised presidential debate ever, with 12 candidates, so I’d need the column equivalent of “War and Peace” to appraise all of them. Still I’d feel remiss if I didn’t note that Sanders, who recently suffered a heart attack, seemed no less vigorous than he had before.
But Warren, not Sanders, was carrying the progressive mantle Tuesday night, when her less liberal competitors sought with a new assertiveness to trip her up. I don’t think that they quite succeeded.
Warren exits this latest debate as strong as she entered it. And those of us who watched it understand her — the calculations behind her positioning, the potential miscalculations of her monumentally expensive plans and the profound conviction she summons — better than ever before. That’s no small payoff for three long hours.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.