Another day, another Democratic debate.
With the field shrinking and the standards for getting on the debate stage rising, last night’s debate featured only seven candidates: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang. The last two are boutique candidates. Yang is focused on a single issue, universal basic income. Tom Steyer is your basic billionaire who bought his way into the race.
As for the remaining five, the smaller field was an opportunity to delineate themselves from their rivals. It was also a chance for Buttigieg and Warren to move from campaign trail sniping to outright war.
The tensions between the two candidates have been simmering for a while. In the past few weeks, Warren has made a number of attacks on Buttigieg, particularly over his private fundraisers.
“I think that Mayor Pete should open up the doors so that anyone can come in and report on what’s being said,” Warren said earlier this month. The attack must have drawn blood, because Buttigieg subsequently announced that he was opening up his fundraisers to the press.
In perhaps the most intense exchange of last evening, Warren went back at Buttigieg about his fundraising, using the occasion of a Napa Valley event held in a wine cave complete with chandelier. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said. Buttigieg fired back that Warren was trying to institute a “purity test” that would put the nominee at a disadvantage against the Trump campaign dollar machine.
But Warren wasn’t the only candidate to take a swipe at Buttigieg. Klobuchar took Buttigieg about his experience, arguing that knowing something about Washington’s ways actually helps a candidate.
“If you want to talk about the capacity to win?” Buttigieg responded. “Try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
Klobuchar saw that one coming and quickly pointed out that Buttigieg’s one statewide race – for state treasurer – flopped. “If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing,” she said. “You tried and you lost by 20 points.”
On the actual policy side, the debate highlighted the epidemic of violence against trans women of color. “Here is a promise I make,” Warren said. “I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, of people of color, who have been killed in the past year.”
As for the debate winner, it may have been, for a change, Biden. He managed to avoid gaffes and was surprisingly strong in arguing why the surge in Afghanistan was a mistake. He also wasn’t the main target on the stage. That honor went to Buttigieg.
The debate was a reality check for Buttigieg’s campaign. Being the front runner in Iowa makes him the primary target. The qualities that got him this far – his seriousness, smarts, and eloquence – will still be there, but the scrutiny is going to be far greater.
The New York Times pronounced that “his candidacy appeared to enter a new stage over the course of the evening, as his image as an articulate political wunderkind faced a rigorous test that is unlikely to ease up anytime soon.”