vision 2020

Mayor Pete Will Have a Target on His Back at Wednesday’s Debate

Let the pile-on begin. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Though it may be difficult to focus on anything other than Gordon Sondland’s explosive impeachment testimony, there’s a Democratic debate happening on Wednesday night in Atlanta. With Pete Buttigieg surging in Iowa, the one thing most observers expect is for the South Bend mayor to come in for some criticism from his fellow candidates. I chatted with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about what to expect.

Ben: After all the winnowing that was supposed to happen this fall, we’ve still got ten candidates onstage Wednesday night in Atlanta. But right now, the race features a clear top four: Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg. The South Bend mayor has everyone on notice with his solid lead in Iowa in a recent poll, which came on the heels of his aggressive jab at Elizabeth Warren in the last debate over her health-care plan. This means that Mayor Pete, who has high favorability numbers and not a ton of criticism from his rivals thus far, is ripe for attack. Do you expect that he’ll be the central focus of incoming fire from other candidates?

Gabriel: Well, first, let’s note that his big number came in a poll of Iowa, which is super-important, but not the whole ball game. I still wouldn’t call him the national front-runner. But, that said… Yeah, it’s only logical, but it’s also been the pattern so far. Biden got the brunt of the fire in the first debate, Warren in the last one, and so on. Buttigieg’s team seems to be getting ready for this. To me, one of the big questions is whether Warren goes after him. She hasn’t yet done anything like that in any of the preceding debates, but obviously Buttigieg’s rise has appeared to eclipse her own in Iowa.

Ben: And when she released her new health-care plan last week, which puts Medicare for All on the back burner, he came out with a statement accusing her of wanting to kick 100-something million people off their health insurance. So I could see some version of “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

Gabriel: Warren, and some others, have repeatedly used the “let’s not use Republican talking points” line, but she got a good deal of blowback for suggesting Biden was running in the wrong primary when discussing health care a few weeks ago, so we’ll see which direction she goes. I’ll be really curious to see how central health care is in this debate. It’s dominated every one until now, basically, and it’s clearly been extremely important to the national conversation even outside of the debates. But now that the race feels like it’s in a new stage and we’ve got juuust a little impeachment news flooding the ecosystem, that calculus may change for the moderators.

Ben: I was sort of hoping that we wouldn’t begin with yet another 30-minute health-care section in which the moderator repeatedly asks Elizabeth Warren whether her plan will raise taxes on the middle class. (Though she does have a clearer answer for that now, thanks to her new proposal.) But yeah, it’s not getting any less important as a central issue in Democratic primary voters’ minds.

Gabriel: Absolutely not, it’s clearly top of mind, and it should still be treated as such. And Warren is almost definitely going to have to talk about her plan now that she’s released details. So how do you think she and Buttigieg will face off on this topic?

And will we get more policy chatter that all blends together over an hour, and allows Sanders to come out of it all looking calm while everyone else has had to defend themselves repeatedly?

Ben: I think it might be awkward for Buttigieg, because Warren has now basically proposed the same thing he has — Medicare for those who want it — just a more generous version. And he can say that she’s flip-flopped on the issue, but (a) I don’t know how much voters will care as long as she’s not still attaching herself to Medicare for All, and (b) he can credibly be accused of having done the same, since he made what appeared to be a very conscious swing to the center on this issue in recent weeks.

Gabriel: So the answer to my second question is “yeah.”

Ben: Haha. I think it’s possible. Sanders has somehow faded into the background while at the same time boosting his poll numbers, post–heart attack. This seems to be a good spot for him.

Gabriel: Yes, though in the last debate no one went after him because he was (a) immediately post–heart attack, and (b) thought to be fading. Neither of those is still the case. So he may find himself on defense, though. Again, I’m hoping this debate touches on things other than health care. On that front, I wouldn’t be surprised if Buttigieg is asked to speak about his corporate work for McKinsey, which he rarely talks about and has to answer for.

Ben: Yeah, that’s a bit of a black hole for him.

Gabriel: Like with so many other things, it’s possible he has a good answer for these questions now, we just have no idea because his time in the harsh spotlight hasn’t yet come.

Ben: It seems Joe Biden, like Bernie, has had a pretty smooth stretch — no big errors (unless you count his stance on weed), no alarming slips of the tongue — and he still holds healthy leads in most state polls, and continues to dominate among black voters. Might there be a renewed attempt to go after him aggressively, the way Kamala Harris did, or is there still this notion that he’ll just fade away at some point — which looks less and less likely?

Gabriel: I would never rule out the possibility that someone might go after Biden harshly, but it hasn’t worked for anyone who’s tried it. Not just Harris, but Booker and Castro and Swalwell and … I do think that the candidates outside of the top four will feel immense pressure to have big, memorable performances, but the truth is none of us knows what exactly that would have to look like to actually change their lot in the race.

Ben: Oh right, the other six candidates. It seems Klobuchar is having a bit of a surge in Iowa — she’ll probably keep making the “I can win in a purple state” case, right?

Gabriel: I don’t see why she wouldn’t, that’s her whole pitch. Klobuchar is doing better in Iowa, and she basically came into the last debate with the same plan as Buttigieg — to go after Warren on health care. So perhaps she’ll try that again, since everyone expects Buttigieg to get most of the pressure this time, giving her more time and space. But Booker and Steyer and Yang and Gabbard have yet to qualify for the December debate, and so they most desperately need something to happen.

Ben: Though, as I understand it, the latter three are very likely to, needing just one more poll or a gettable number of donors. Whereas Booker may be looking at the end of the line.

Gabriel: I don’t know about “very likely,” but yes, they certainly are confident they’ll be there. Booker, less so. Not that that’s the end of the line for him, of course. There are still sevenish candidates running who haven’t sniffed the debate stage in months (or at all)!

Ben: Riiight.

Gabriel: Anyway …! The feeling around this debate is pretty strange, I have to say, since so much of the attention is elsewhere, and since everyone I’ve talked to in campaign world agrees that the first thing they’re watching for is how Pete takes a hit. (It’s rare to have such agreement about What Matters and The Narrative.)

Ben: Ah yes, the whole impeachment thing. I’ve seen criticisms of past debates that take issue with how little Trump — you know, the existential threat to the country — is mentioned. But do the candidates have any disagreements about what’s going down in Washington right now? I’m not sure what there is to say.

Gabriel: They have philosophical disagreements about how central it is to the country’s ills, absolutely. And since one read of presidential primaries is that they’re audition processes for the general election, it might be useful to hear the candidates all talk about the most important thing happening, which will almost certainly be central to the general election no matter what. (Trump’s various misdeeds, that is, if not the Ukraine scandal specifically.) There’s a reason it’s been (momentarily, at least) effective whenever candidates say onstage, “Hang on, why are we talking about this? Trump is president!!” in the middle of some policy discussion where the disagreement is marginal.

Ben: Yeah. And gives them a chance to look reasonable and collegial, too.

Gabriel: Which, y’know, they basically are.

Ben: Says YOU.

Gabriel: I yield my time to the chairman.

Buttigieg Will Have a Target on His Back at Tonight’s Debate