From the moment she walked on the stage at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, Tuesday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was treated to a taste of what it means to be a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president.
Warren, who is in second place nationally, behind former Vice President Joe Biden, leads in polls in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to RealClearPolitics.
Throughout the night, she fielded attacks from Biden, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), businessman Andrew Yang, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg over her proposed policies, most notably whether her call for “Medicare for All” would raise taxes on middle-class families and taking issue with the idea of phasing out private insurance within four years.
While Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who supports a similar plan, has acknowledged that Americans’ taxes would go up in order to pay for the plan, Warren has shied away from promising tax hikes, arguing instead that the overall cost of health care — particularly out-of-pocket expenses — will go down for middle-class families because deductibles, premiums, and co-pays would be eliminated under her plan.
O’Rourke also attempted to attack Warren over a proposed “wealth tax” intended to pay for child care, and whether such a tax would end up raising taxes on the middle class.
Gabbard — who has been criticized for her coziness with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — directed a question at Warren asking whether she supports keeping a U.S. military presence in the Middle East to push for what Gabbard has termed “regime-change wars.”
But while Warren was the target, it was Buttigieg, a former Naval intelligence officer, who pushed back against Gabbard’s premise, setting off an exchange between the two military veterans on the presence of American troops in Syria.
Buttigieg was forceful and much more assertive than he had been in past debates, particularly when it came to foreign policy, where he blasted President Trump for abandoning U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria ahead of a Turkish military offensive into Syria to keep the Kurds, whom Turkey sees as a security threat, at bay.
He also rejected Gabbard’s assertion that being opposed to “endless wars” necessarily means pulling American troops entirely out of the Middle East.
“The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence, it a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this President of American allies and American values,” Buttigieg said. “When I was deployed, I knew that one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word. And our allies knew it, and our enemies knew it. If you take that away, you are taking away what makes America, America. It [puts] our troops and our world in a much more dangerous place.”
Buttigieg had another strong moment when he attacked O’Rourke over guns. He criticized O’Rourke’s call for mandatory buy-backs of such weapons, saying that overreach by gun reform activists would polarize the country and stymie progress on more popular reforms like universal background checks.
“You just made it clear that you don’t know how this is going to take weapons off the street,” Buttigieg said. “If you can develop the plan further, we can have a debate about it. But we can’t wait.”
O’Rourke countered that mass shootings are a “crisis” and that Democrats should take bold action on the issue of gun violence, saying: “Let’s decide what we are going to believe in, what we are going to achieve, and let’s bring this country together in order to do that.”
He urged politicians to follow the lead of gun reform activists, like the mothers of children lost to gun violence or the youth behind the March for Our Lives, rather than “the polls, the consultants, and focus groups.”
Buttigieg responded: “The problem isn’t the polls, the problem is the policy. And I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.”
Klobuchar also had a strong night. Struggling in the polls, and facing the prospect of being left off the stage in future debates, she attempted to establish herself as a viable alternative to Biden for moderate voters wary of Warren and Sanders’ policies.
Several times, Klobuchar took on Warren directly, arguing that just because her policies aren’t as left-wing as those embraced by Warren doesn’t mean they’re not bold or the right policy.
She argued that Warren, by embracing ideas like the elimination of private or employer-based insurance, was supplying Republicans with talking points to use against Democrats in a general election.
“I believe the best and boldest idea here is not to trash Obamacare…but to have a public option that would bring down the cost of the premium, and expand the number of people covered, and take on the pharmaceutical companies,” she said. “…I think there is a better way that is bold, that will cover more people, and it is the one we should get behind.”
Klobuchar was also the first candidate to raise the problems of the need for long-term care options for an aging population that increases exponentially as Baby Boomers age, and the lack of action, on the part of politicians, to address the opioid epidemic — two issues she says she frequently hears about from voters on the campaign trail.
LGBTQ issues were almost entirely absent from the debate, even though members of the community have noted that there are specific issues that fall under the umbrella of the economy, education, and health care that have an outsized impact on the community.
Prior to the debate, the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD named several issues that they wish would be addressed in a major televised debate — rather than in a recent forum and town hall that were both specifically geared toward LGBTQ issues.
Some specific issues that GLAAD offered up, via Twitter, as worthy of mention during the debate were: anti-transgender violence; the Trump administration’s attacks on the LGBTQ community; the prevalence of bullying; and the recent decision by a federal judge striking down a provision in the Affordable Care Act that prohibits insurers and medical providers from discriminating against transgender individuals.
None of those topics were mentioned on Tuesday night, even fleetingly, by the candidates, and were avoided entirely by the moderators.
“We are living in an alarming time for LGBTQ Americans when just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments and will now decide whether employers should be granted the right to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement. “The recent LGBTQ forum in Iowa and town hall in Los Angeles demonstrated that Presidential candidates are passionate about our community and eager to address issues that are important to us. The election media cycle now needs to reverse course and ensure questions that address marginalized communities take center stage during debates and are not relegated to the sidelines.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) did note the absence of LGBTQ issues — as well as discussions of the climate crisis and immigration — in a tweet after the debate.
“Three hours. Not one question about the climate crisis. Not one question about LGBTQ+ rights. Not one question about immigration,” she tweeted. “These issues are too important to ignore.”
Not one question about the climate crisis.
Not one question about LGBTQ+ rights.
Not one question about immigration.
These issues are too important to ignore. #DemDebate
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) October 16, 2019
Kasey Suffredini, the incoming CEO of Freedom For All Americans, also expressed disappointment at the failure to address LGBTQ issues, most notably, support for the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations.
“Just one week after the Supreme Court heard arguments in three LGBTQ workplace discrimination cases — in which the Court will decide whether to make it legal to fire LGBTQ workers just because of who they are — it was disappointing to hear no mention during tonight’s debate of the Equality Act, which would provide express and enduring nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTQ Americans in all areas of daily life,” Suffredini said in a statement.