The fourth Democratic presidential debate can be described as one candidate surrounded by eleven wolves circling and looking for any opportunity to pounce.
They ignored Senator Elizabeth Warren when she announced that she would be running for president. They figured her wonkiness wouldn't appeal to everyday voters. They ignored her when she began to rise in the polls. They figured Trump would take her down with his Pocahontas belittlement. They were wrong.
Warren has continued her rise, overtaking both Bernie Sanders, her compadre on the progressive side of the party, and Joe Biden, the moderate leader of the pack who stakes his claim to the presidency on the coattails of Barack Obama.
Against a backdrop of possible genocide in Syria, twelve candidates gathered in Ohio and the challengers could no longer ignore her.
The participants can be divided into at least four groups: The attack dogs, the target, the forgotten and the virtually invisible.
ATTACK DOGS: GABBARD, KLOBUCHAR AND BUTTIGIEG.
There were three attack dogs in this debate: Hawaiian representative Tulsi Gabbard, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar and Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg. There were times when Mayor Pete seemed determined to attack anyone and everyone. He clearly had Warren in mind from the start but he saw an opportunity to hit Tulsi Gabbard and he jumped at it. Gabbard, who defended herself against CNN and the New York Times for suggesting she's a Russian asset, baited Warren on the only opportunity she got, demanding that the Massachusetts senator reaffirm her antiwar stance. Warren did not hesitate to do so. Gabbard was cut off on her second attempt.
As a distant challenger in the Democratic race, it seems Gabbard has accepted a subservient role in this race. In the beginning she was clearly the strongest antiwar voice and her function was to remind the candidates that the party is fundamentally antiwar. In the second debate she went on the attack against California Senator Kamala Harris. Harris had distinguished herself in the first debate by being the first to attack frontrunner Joe Biden. The bump Harris got in the polls all but vanished when the case she made for busing as a means to integrate the schools did not pan out. In retrospect, it seemed forced and rehearsed. Gabbard's attack on Harris may have done harm but it did not benefit the attacker. Her attack on Warren missed the mark.
Mild-mannered midwestern Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota led the charge with an estimated fourteen attacks mostly aimed squarely at the head of Warren. Emboldened by her recent appearance on Bill Maher's Real Time, Klobuchar seemed genuinely incensed that Warren gets credit for all the bold ideas when other people have ideas too.
I wouldn't want to earn Klobuchar's wrath but bold ideas don't come from the middle ground. To those of us who favor the bold progressive platforms of Sanders and Warren, the repeated claim that Klobuchar can win in Republican districts does not give us confidence.
We understand that while Klobuchar attacks Warren, her real target is Joe Biden. They occupy the same moderate territory along with everyone in the field but Warren and Sanders. (Gabbard is just an observer at this point.)
Mayor Pete runs the risk of losing the aura of a nice guy with his persistent attacks on Warren, his opportunistic potshot at Gabbard and a few swings at his favorite target: Former representative Beto O'Rourke of Texas. It seems the mayor recognized his rival early on and hasn't missed a chance to attack him since. O'Rourke seemed to hit a nerve when he suggested that some candidates give too much attention to opinion polls and focus groups. Buttigieg took it personally and fired back: "I don't need lessons from you on courage." It was a cheap shot and it might ultimately backfire.
Mayor Pete is in fifth place and he knows he has to make a move. He seems certain he has the argument against Warren. Why would anyone want Medicare for All when you can have Medicare for All Who Want It? There's a very real reason that the mayor's compromise approach will not work though neither Sanders nor Warren has chosen to elucidate the point. Warren came close when she spoke of private insurance companies dropping coverage with a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease or any other costly condition.
Consider a two-tiered system where some have reasonably priced private insurance and others have public insurance. Those with private insurance are healthy and young and low risk. That's why their insurance rates are low. When someone in the private insurance pool is diagnosed with a serious and costly disease, their rates go up or their policy is dropped at the first opportunity. That's how profit-based insurance works. Inevitably, since the Medicare group has all the high-risk population, it becomes insolvent. Inevitably, the system fails.