Democratic presidential candidates fought bitterly in their fourth debate Tuesday night. Then they fought about fighting. Then they lambasted President Donald Trump, saying (mostly) he should be impeached and driven out of office. Then they complained that they were making it all about Trump and would lose to the Republican next year if they didn’t offer something more than a critique of the beleaguered president.
And as the still-very crowded Democratic presidential field jockeyed for position in the race, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts found that moving up in the polls has made her a target, while still-struggling contenders struggled to find a defining moment. Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, seemed content to just stand by and let everyone else try to tear down Warren – before finally joining in on the effort as the debate descended into something close to a cable news show with guests shouting over each other instead of a presidential debate in a pretty college town.
Biden for the first part of the debate let the rest of the stage pick away at Warren’s proposals. As his primary foes went on the attack, Biden cast himself as the experienced politician and policymaker who knew world leaders others could only comment on and would be able to “get things done” others could only propose.
But in the third and final hour of the intense debate, the former senator and vice president abandoned any pretense of statesmanship.
“I’m the only one on this stage who’s ever gotten something done,” Biden said, ticking off the Violence Against Women Act, gun legislation and other measures he worked on as a senator from Delaware and then Barack Obama’s vice president.
“Who is best prepared? We all have good ideas, The question is, who will be able to get it done?” Biden said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont turned on Biden.
“You got the disastrous war in Iraq done,” Sanders said, referring to Biden’s Senate vote for the unpopular war. Warren, barely controlling her irritation over Biden’s dressing-down, noted that she had won the passage of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a signature achievement.
“I went on the floor and got you votes,” Biden said, nearly shouting. “I got you votes for that bill.”
Warren hesitated briefly.
“I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law,” she said evenly, drawing some “ooohs” from the audience.
Warren, who has been challenging Biden’s front-runner status in national and state polls, took the brunt of the criticism from fellow contenders, who cast her as too left-leaning on health care and taxation.
Referring to Warren’s plan for a tax hike on the super-wealthy, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas said, “Sometimes I think Sen. Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting one part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up” and bringing the country together.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota chastised her colleague for behaving as though her plan to deal with income inequality were somehow the only plan out there.
“I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth,” Klobuchar said. “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires” – not even, Klobuchar noted cheekily, the newest addition to the stage, billionaire activist Tom Steyer. “Your idea is not the only idea,” Klobuchar added.
Both Warren and Sanders were criticized for “Medicare for All” health care plans several of their competitors said would be too pricey and impose a government program on people who might not want it.
“I don’t think people are wrong when they say what they want is a choice,” said South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in what was arguably his strongest debate performance so far. “It’s just better than Medicare for All, whether you want it or not.”
Warren shot back with a jab at Buttigieg’s idea, which he calls “Medicare for all who want it.”
When someone “hears the term, ‘Medicare for all who want it,’ it’s ‘Medicare for all who can afford it,'” Warren said.
Sanders defended his approach as well.
“Do I think we should demand the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes so we can create a nation and a government that works for all of us? Yeah, that’s exactly what I believe,” Sanders said.
The debate was marked by more sniping and tension among the group of 12 – and those didn’t include more than a half dozen other hopefuls who didn’t make the cut for the debate. As the February Iowa caucuses near, candidates are competing for donations, media attention and crowds, and they appeared Tuesday night to be tired of sharing.
O’Rourke and Buttigieg argued over guns, with O’Rourke advocating for a mandatory buy-back programs for assault weapons and the mayor saying that was not a clear or realistic plan. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro cautioned that having police go to people’s homes to confiscate guns would exacerbate the problem of police shootings in minority communities.
“I’m not going to give these police officers another reason to go door-to-door in certain communities,” Castro said.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii kept demanding answers to her own questions of Warren – perhaps trying to get the sort of attention she got at an earlier debate, when she went after Sen. Kamala Harris of California on criminal justice issues.
Harris, meanwhile, referred to her experience as a former prosecutor – noting, when asked if Trump had committed an impeachable offense, that “as a former prosecutor, I know a confession when I see one.” And she called pharmaceutical companies that sell opioids “high-level drug dealers.”
Sanders, who recently had a heart attack, was as fiery and energetic as ever but was asked by moderators about his health and his age. Aat 78, the Vermont senator is the oldest of the contenders.
“I’m healthy. I’m feeling great,” Sanders said, inviting skeptics to an upcoming rally in Queens to see how well he is. Biden and Warren, too, were asked whether their ages would affect their ability to do the job.
Both said they were fit and ready, and Biden said he would release both his health records and tax records before the Iowa caucuses. Asked if he would do it earlier – by the end of the year, Biden grew somewhat exasperated.
“I’m the only guy who has released anything up here!” he said.
The candidates all reiterated their desire to get Trump out of office – by impeachment and conviction if not defeat at the ballot box. But several warned against taking each other apart so much that it will play into Trump’s hands.
Businessman Andrew Yang, meanwhile, warned that the Democrats were ignoring the reason Trump won Ohio and other states – that the Democratic Party was not paying enough attention to the concerns of truck drivers and manufacturing workers.
“I worry about how we talk to each other and how we talk about each other,” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said. “Tearing each other down because we have a different plan is unacceptable,” he said, noting that “it didn’t work in 2016, and it will be a disaster for us in 2020.” That, apparently, was a criticism of two other Democrats – one of whom, Sanders, was on stage.