Critic's Notebook: Elizabeth Warren Takes a Turn in the Hot Seat at Democratic Debate

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Elizabeth Warren was a target as the new frontrunner, Pete Buttigieg came out swinging and Bernie Sanders displayed reassuring vigor in the largest-ever presidential debate.

Elizabeth Warren on the defensive. Mayor Pete on the attack. Bernie Sanders looking vigorous. Amy Klobuchar giving her strongest performance yet. Some familiar faces missing, and one new face.

Those were the chief takeaways from the latest in the seemingly never-ending series of Democratic debates. Featuring a record-breaking 12 — count 'em, 12 — candidates onstage, the three-hour event proved surprisingly substantial, dealing more with serious policy discussions than silly distractions. Not that there weren't a few of the latter.

The main question going in was how Warren would fare in her first appearance as the Democratic frontrunner and how Bernie would hold up during the marathon proceedings after his recent heart attack. Bernie did just fine, announcing, "I'm healthy, I'm feeling great!" and, in the evening's most emotional moment, delivering heartfelt thanks for all the love and support he's received and getting a huge round of applause. When moderator Erin Burnett gifted him a question about income inequality, Sanders had such a huge grin on his face that you knew he was going to be all right.

Warren, on the other hand, had a tough night. In previous debates, it was Biden who took all the heat. This time it was she who served as a political punching bag from her more moderate opponents eager to point out the impractical aspects of her Medicare-for-All proposal. Buttigieg and Klobuchar in particular went after her with a vengeance, but nearly all the candidates took shots at one point or another. Beto O'Rourke even described her plans as "punitive," which seemed to particularly rankle Warren. Not used to being the brunt of such attacks, she looked visibly shaken at times.

Of course, she doesn't help herself with her continued evasiveness. How many times do we have to hear her asked if her plan will raise taxes on the middle class, followed by her refusing to answer? She's certainly disciplined, repeatedly reciting the word "costs" as if it were a mantra. When Bernie admitted that yes, his plan would inevitably require raising taxes but that they would be offset by the savings in medical expenses, it came as a breath of fresh air.

"At least Bernie is being honest about taxes going up," Klobuchar pointed out, in a not-so-subtle dig at Warren.

Kamala Harris also couldn't resist getting in a dig at Warren, although she took the unusual tack of criticizing the frontrunner for not agreeing with her on the need to shut down Trump's Twitter account. Warren bobbed and weaved on the issue, switching the subject to taking money from corporate donors. For the most part, Harris lacked much of a presence this night, having her best moments with her forceful defenses of women's reproductive rights.

Biden, whose son Hunter had just given a major television interview in which he admitted to "poor judgment" (whoever thought that was good timing might think about a career change), wasn't particularly strong in his response to Trump's spurious attacks. Biden gave yet another of his maddeningly inconsistent debate performances, alternating between appearing commanding and in control and shaky and confused. He was strongest when talking about foreign policy issues, lambasting Trump's withdrawal of troops from Syria in a fiery tone. "This is shameful, shameful, what this man has done!" Biden announced. 

He also gave a terrific response when asked the inevitable question about his age. "One of the reasons I'm running is because of my age and experience," Biden said. "With it comes wisdom. I know what has to be done. I will not need any on-the-job training the day I take office." It was a perfect answer, perfectly delivered.

Warren also handled the age question well, saying, "I will out-work, out-organize and outlast anyone, and that includes Donald Trump, Mike Pence or whoever the Republicans get stuck with," she said, getting in a sly dig at Trump's current troubles.

The evening began with all the candidates asked if they were in favor of Trump being impeached. No prizes for guessing that they all were, although Tulsi Gabbard, ever the iconoclast, seemed curiously hesitant about the issue. Regarding the inevitable trial in the Senate, Sanders announced, "Mitch McConnell has got to do the right thing," a line which somehow failed to get any laughs.

Cory Booker has apparently decided that the best way to stand out from the crowd is by playing peacemaker. He constantly derided the onstage sparring among his fellow candidates, essentially arguing that everyone should just get along and agree to defeat Trump. Sporting the sort of beatific demeanor that only a vegan can (he mentioned it not once but twice), Booker seemed not so much running for president as auditioning to become the next Dalai Lama.

On the other hand, Mayor Pete, who appears to be visibly aging during his run (he's perhaps the only candidate that would actually benefit from looking older), has given up his Mister Nice Guy approach. He displayed a newfound aggressiveness, especially during an exchange with O'Rourke about their respective stances on gun control. When O'Rourke questioned his commitment to getting automatic weapons off the streets, Buttigieg shot back, "I don't need lessons from you on courage, either political or personal." The animosity between the two men felt so palpable it made you glad that neither one was packing.

Maybe it's my imagination, but all of the candidates somehow looked more…presidential. Even Andrew Yang, who seems to be getting sharper with every appearance. Yang actually delivered substantial answers rather than canned lines about being a math-loving Asian man, although he did wear a large pin on his lapel spelling out "MATH" in large letters. It certainly beats the cliched American flag pin.   

Tom Steyer, who essentially spent his way into the best debate money can buy, was also surprisingly impressive, although his appearance was entirely superfluous. Steyer has based his campaign on the need to impeach Donald Trump, and that's now happening. So this would be a good time for us to say thanks, and so long. Maybe now he can spend some of his fortune on voter registration. There are a lot of felons in Florida who could use the money to pay that state's new poll tax.

Gabbard, who makes a specialty of viciously going after her fellow candidates, set her sights on Warren. She tried to put the frontrunner on the defensive regarding Syria, but Warren, by now getting used to this sort of thing, just brushed her off. Instead, it was Buttigieg who got into a major tussle with Gabbard over what she repeatedly described as "this regime change war." While Gabbard expressed support for the pullout, Mayor Pete described it as a disgrace, saying, "It is undermining the honor of our soldiers."

As usual, Buttigieg was forceful and articulate, but he hurts himself by constantly repeating phrases like, "when I was deployed" and "in my lifetime," reminding us of his military experience and age. Oh, and did you know he's from the Midwest?

The event ended with Anderson Cooper asking all the candidates to describe their most surprising friendships. Inspired by the recent brouhaha over the friendship between Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush, it was the sort of question that seemed more appropriate for speed dating than a presidential debate. Everyone gamely took a shot at answering, although Klobuchar, Sanders and Biden essentially took a mulligan by mentioning their closeness to John McCain (the one Republican who didn't inspire visceral hatred on the part of Democrats). Beto described his 1,600-mile, live-streamed road trip with Republican congressman Will Hurd. Gabbard mentioned her warm relationship with Trey Gowdy. Sanders talked about his friendly interactions with arch-conservative Republican Sen. Mike Lee.

But it was Booker who easily won the competition by talking about the time he went to dinner with Ted Cruz. For that selfless and courageous act alone, he deserves to become president.