The stage was set with a new set of issues, a new candidate, and — arguably — a new frontrunner.
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That new frontrunner took the harshest attacks Tuesday night. Yet Sen. Elizabeth Warren was targeted mostly over old disagreements — with fireworks that illuminated familiar ground, or that created what Sen. Cory Booker called “déjà vu all over again.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, took no criticism from his rivals over the issues involving his son that have dominated the news in the month since the last debate, and virtually no attacks on matters of policy.
The Democratic candidates shredded President Donald Trump on foreign policy and whether he should be impeached. But they mainly fell back to sparring among themselves over narrow policy disagreements.
As she was at previous debates and in numerous interviews, Warren was pressed on whether taxes will go up on middle-class families under her Medicare-for-all plan. She ducked a direct answer by saying her plan would, on the whole, “lower costs for middle-class families.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg saw an opening: “We heard it tonight: A yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar also got in on the action: “You are making Republican talking points, right here in this room,” she told Warren.
And Biden piled on: “The plan is going to cost at least $30 trillion over 10 years. That is more, on a yearly basis, than the entire federal budget.”
That issue was among those that reveal the ideological and attitudinal splits that continue to define the campaign. Some of the disagreements seemed a bit forced; Sen. Kamala Harris spent a few minutes picking a fight with Warren about whether Trump should have his Twitter account suspended.
Warren sought to turn the argument against her policies on its head, when pressed on whether an additional tax on the wealthy is a politically wise approach to addressing income inequality.
“My question is not why do Bernie [Sanders] and I support a wealth tax,” she said. “It’s why is it – does everyone else on this stage think it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation.”
Klobuchar shot back: “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires,” she said, in a reference to businessman Tom Steyer, who was appearing at his first debate. “Simply because you have different ideas doesn’t mean you’re fighting for regular people.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke criticized Warren for not putting out a more specific tax plan: “I think that Sen. Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting some part of the country against the other.”
Booker chimed in to say that those sorts of attacks will hurt the Democratic Party: “Tearing each other down because we have a different plan to me is unacceptable. I have seen this script before. It didn’t work in 2016 and it will be a disaster for us in 2020.”
The debate also showcased a sharp disagreement between O’Rourke and Buttigieg – two candidates vying for a similar swath of voters – on guns. O’Rourke accused Buttigieg of excessive caution in avoiding a mandatory buyback of assault-style guns.
“Let’s decide what we are going to believe in, and what we’re going to achieve,” O’Rourke said.
Buttigieg shot back: “The problem isn’t the polls, the problem is the policy. And I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.”
The candidates treaded gingerly around issues involving Biden’s son and his business arrangements, an issue that was only raised briefly by the debate’s moderators.
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Hunter Biden’s interview with ABC News dominated the pre-debate discussion, after his acknowledgment that taking a job with a Ukrainian energy company was probably a “mistake” because of the way it opened his father to political attacks.
But Biden’s fellow Democrats seemed wary to be seen as going where Trump wants to lead them. And Biden sought to turn the conversation to Trump himself.
“My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in the Ukraine,” Biden said. “This is about Trump’s corruption – that’s what we should be focused on.”
Booker jumped in the debate later to defend Biden – even though nobody was attacking him.
Discussing Hunter Biden’s work at all amounts to “elevating a lie and attacking a statesman,” Booker said. “That was so offensive. The only person sitting at home that was enjoying that was Donald Trump.”
Trump took more than his share of attacks. Buttigieg tangled with his fellow veteran on stage, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, to argue that Trump was “undermining the honor of our soldiers” in withdrawing US troops from northern Syria.
And the first debate since the House launched an impeachment inquiry brought strikingly similar sentiments from the candidates.
“Trump is the most corrupt president in the history of this country,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“This president is the most corrupt president in modern history, and I think all of history,” Biden said.
“He is indeed the most corrupt and unpatriotic president we have ever had,” said Harris. “Dude gotta go,” she added later in the debate.
“Every candidate here is more decent, more coherent and more patriotic than the criminal in the White House,” Steyer said.
Yet Tuesday’s debate felt disconnected from the wild news cycles that have brought near-daily revelations contributing to an impeachment inquiry, and a developing foreign-policy crisis in the Middle East.
A party more focused than ever on defeating Trump spent an evening where candidates primarily argued over how to defeat each other.
The record 12 candidates on stage agreed on the urgency of defeating Trump. Yet they seem to think – perhaps rightly – that the Democratic primary will turn on narrower issues, even as momentum shifts in the race.
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