The Elizabeth Warren Pile-On Begins

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks to South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.

Source Win McNamee/Getty

Why you should care

Because the Democratic primary is hitting a turning point.

Adrienne Elrod is a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

Call me naïve, but going into Tuesday night’s debate, I predicted that very few candidates would choose to mount attacks against Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her bold, progressive policies. Maybe it’s because her favorability numbers are so high. Maybe it’s because, while her policies like the wealth tax and Medicare for All have little chance of becoming law under a Mitch McConnell–led Senate, they are still seen as smart, lofty goals that would help millions of Americans who are hurting in this country.

Boy, was I wrong.

Call it the revenge of the pragmatic moderates. The defenders of Barack Obama–era policies. But for the first time, Warren experienced what it’s like to be a front-runner — and it’s not always pleasant.

The pile-on was fierce. While former Vice President Joe Biden is the current other front-runner in this race, the majority of arguments defending the centrist wing of the party came from an unplanned yet effective tag-team effort, mostly led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

And Warren, while still delivering a solid debate performance, was not always at the ready — especially when defending the high cost of some of her policies. 

Do voters want to improve upon Obama-era policies without massive overhauls? Or do they want a revolution?

The Klobuchar/Buttigieg effort was not always directed at Warren. From health care to gun control, both candidates made compelling arguments about why letting the perfect be the enemy of the good should not stop us from passing policies that get us 95 percent there.

Let’s take guns, for example. Klobuchar and Buttigieg join a majority of Democrats running in this primary in supporting voluntary buybacks. Fueled by legitimate rage and frustration following several recent mass shootings in Texas — including one in his hometown of El Paso — former Rep. Beto O’Rourke made a passionate case for supporting a mandatory buyback program. But in came Team Klobuchar/Buttigieg, with an assist from former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. 

The line that really resonated with me (and a lot of my nonpolitical friends, as evidenced by incoming text messages) was when Klobuchar said, “Let’s not mess this up with this fight.” Not only was she saying let’s not inject a poison pill into the gun-safety debate that would almost assuredly alienate key votes, but it was also a line that is relevant across the debate spectrum. In other words, this line was evergreen.

And it wasn’t just Klobuchar and Buttigieg who had strong performances. Sen. Kamala Harris, in her best debate performance since the first debate, proved that she doesn’t have to have a planned attack to have a viral moment. Harris is at her best when she delivers authentic soundbites, and Tuesday night those moments included the need to impeach the president and the impact of women’s reproductive rights under a Donald Trump presidency — something she proactively raised. “It is not an exaggeration to say women will die, poor women, women of color will die, because these Republican legislatures in these various states who are out of touch with America are telling women what to do with our bodies,” she said to applause. Somewhere in America at that moment, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was jumping up and down, along with tens of thousands of women. 

So ultimately, what does the debate mean for the actual race itself? In terms of the polling, I doubt Tuesday’s performance will do a lot to shift the numbers in the long term. Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker (who had a solid debate performance, especially with his reminders that we are in this race to take down Trump, not each other) will likely get a bounce, as will Buttigieg. Biden, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders will still be the top three candidates — though keep an eye on whether Sanders’ big post-debate news, the endorsement of influential freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, moves the needle.

But the overarching theme hits at the core of what Democratic primary voters want and are looking for in a candidate: Do a majority of voters want real, structural change? Do they want to improve upon Obama-era policies without massive overhauls? Or do they want a revolution?

The Thanksgiving holiday — when family members have some downtime to take a few days off and have lengthy conversations about life and, of course, politics — is when the primary numbers will start to gel. Voters come back and enter the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses more focused and resolute in who they are going to support. 

Tuesday’s debate started to frame what that argument and process will be. 

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