(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, the two leaders in the Democratic nomination race, finally confronted each other near the end of Tuesday night’s debate, clashing over how far and how fast the nation can change -- and who is best equipped to bring it about.
The sharp exchange encapsulated the main choice in the contest to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020: whether voters want a candidate like Biden who promises to build on the party’s past successes or one like Warren pushing for bold changes that are sure to spark tough partisan fights.
For more than two hours, Warren was the target of many of the candidates for declining to specify how much taxes would go up under the Medicare for All plan she supports and her call for a tax on the ultra-wealthy. Biden waited until almost the end of the debate in Westerville, Ohio, to deliver a shot with an unmistakable target.
“I’m going to say something that is probably going to offend some people here, but I’m the only one on this stage that has gotten anything really big done,” Biden said in a response to a question about whether Warren and Bernie Sanders would be able to attract the voters necessary to beat President Donald Trump.
Warren responded that she was able to help create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau despite “all of the Washington insiders and strategic geniuses” saying it would never get through Congress.
After the former vice president jumped in to say he had rounded up the votes for the CFPB, Warren offered that she was “deeply grateful to President Obama who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.”
For most of Tuesday night, as in the three previous debates, top candidates Biden, Warren and Sanders have mostly stayed away from attacking each other. But Warren’s rise as Biden’s direct competitor, mostly at the expense of Sanders, has shifted the dynamic in the race.
Sanders, who has been competing with Warren for the mantle of the party’s progressive leader, jumped into the fray by going to the parts of Biden’s record that he’s said he regrets or that are unfavorable with the Democratic primary electorate.
“You talked about working with Republicans and getting things done, but you know what you also got done – and I say this as a good friend – you got the disastrous war in Iraq done,” Sanders said. “You got a bankruptcy bill which is hurting middle class families all over this country. You got trade agreements like Nafta and PNTR with China done, which have cost us four million jobs.”
From the outset, the fourth Democratic debate was a departure from the three earlier contests, which started with policy arguments over health insurance and immigration.
The 12 candidates on the stage began with an issue that unifies them-impeaching Trump and removing him from office.
“Sometimes there are issues that are bigger than politics and I think that is the case,” Warren said. “This man will not be able to break the law over and over without consequences” and moving ahead on impeachment is “about the next president and the next president and the next president” and the future of the country.
Although he is at the center of the acts the prompted the impeachment inquiry, Biden only had to confront one question about his son’s work in Ukraine. The current House impeachment inquiry is rooted in part on Trump’s efforts to investigate Hunter Biden’s business dealings while Biden was vice president.
“Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine,” Biden said from the stage of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
Hunter Biden, 49, acknowledged making a mistake in working for Burisma Holdings earlier Tuesday. Joe Biden said he had nothing more to add, and none of his rivals used the opportunity to criticize him.
The debate, though, shifted quickly back to health care, giving an opening to Pete Buttigieg and others to challenge Warren over her refusal to say that the Medicare for All plan she supports would raise taxes on the middle class, even if their net health costs would go down.
What matters is ”what kinds of costs middle class families are going to face,” Warren, a Massachusetts senator, said. But opponents who favor keeping the Affordable Care Act in place and adding to it accused Warren of evasiveness.
Buttigieg said Warren was asked “a yes or no question that did not get a yes or no answer.”
“Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything, except for this,” Buttigieg said.
Warren has backed Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal rather than offering her own plan. Sanders readily conceded that his plan would come with a tax increase for the middle class but said that it would be balanced by the elimination of premiums and other out-of-pocket health care costs.
”Taxes will go up. They’re going to go up,” Sanders said.
Both Warren and Sanders came under criticism over their proposals to dramatically raise taxes on the very wealthy.
Warren accused her fellow Democratic presidential candidates of putting billionaires ahead of school children, because many of them were slow to endorse a wealth tax.
Warren’s endorsement of a 2% tax on Americans’ wealth that tops $50 million drew a sharp contrast between progressives like her and Sanders, and the rest of the Democratic field.
But others bristled at her suggestion and said it was unworkable and divisive.
“I think Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive, or pitting one part of the country against the other,” said former Representative Beto O’Rourke.
“I want to give a reality check to Elizabeth. No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar. Referring to Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor making his first appearance on the debate stage, she said, “Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.”
Warren said she didn’t have a beef with billionaires -- she just wants them to pay a bigger share for federal investments in education and infrastructure that helped make them rich. Warren’s plan would earmark that money for early childhood education, free college and student loan relief.
The attacks on Warren had a hidden benefit for her. Halfway through the debate, she had the most speaking time of anyone on stage at roughly 12 minutes, more than four minutes ahead of the next-highest, Biden, according to a tracker by the New York Times.
Buttigieg and O’Rourke, who both have struggled to find a way to break into the top tier of candidates, clashed over O’Rourke’s proposal for mandatory buybacks of military-style semi-automatic rifles.
“With 16 million AR-15s and AK-47s out there, they’re also too dangerous to own. Every single one of them is a potential instrument of terror,” O’Rourke said. But he was vague on how such a law would be enforced, saying only, “I expect my fellow Americans to follow the law.”
“Congressman you just make it clear that you do not know how this is going to take weapons off the street,” Buttigieg said. He said O’Rourke’s proposal was getting in the way of passing universal background checks and “red flag” laws.
The three presidential candidates in their 70s tried to reassure Democrats that they could handle the physical rigors of holding the Oval Office.
Sanders, 78, appeared at Tuesday’s debate two weeks after suffering a heart attack and undergoing emergency surgery to install stents in his coronary arteries. He said he would demonstrate his fitness by maintaining his schedule of mass rallies. “We’re going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country. That’s how I’m going to reassure the American people,” he said.
Biden, 76, promised to release his medical records before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, and bristled at a suggestion he should do so sooner. “Before Iowa. I’m the only guy that’s released anything up here,” referring to his earlier release of 21 years of tax returns.
And Warren, 70, promised to “out-work, out-organize and out-last anyone -- and that includes President Trump, Vice President Pence or whoever else the Republicans get stuck with.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Korte in Westerville, Ohio at firstname.lastname@example.org;Jennifer Epstein in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at firstname.lastname@example.org, Joe Sobczyk
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