The promised fights fizzled.
The Democrats wrapped their pre-voting debate schedule Tuesday night with an unexpected dose of Iowa nice. It reflects the reality of an up-for-grabs caucus race where at least four candidates have a real shot at winning in less than three weeks – and anxiety about how voters might respond to last-minute attacks.
It’s not that contrasts aren’t there, or that there weren’t sharp critiques shared at the debate in Des Moines. The differences between the six candidates on stage pit left vs. center, left vs. left, fighters vs. healers, experience vs. fresh faces, Obamacare vs. Medicare-for-all, and billionaires vs. everyone else – to cite just a few.
On perhaps the most anticipated potential clash of the night, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders denied telling Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a private conversation that a female candidate couldn’t defeat Trump. But he was eager to move on.
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders said. “And I don't want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want.”
Warren didn’t back down, but neither did she attack Sanders.
“Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie,” Warren said. “The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can't pull our party together, or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency.”
That may have been a dig at certain candidates, but none took it as such. “I am the one who has the broadest coalition,” former Vice President Joe Biden said.
One big theme of the debate tracks a major theme of the primary race to date: the absolute urgency Democrats feel over finding a way to defeat Trump. Worries over that – and the differing takes the candidates offer in that respect – seems likely to loom over the race for months.
Some of those distinctions came through on stage, perhaps most prominently on foreign policy. Events in Iran brought a discussion over the proper use of US troops, which Sanders used to attack Biden over his initial support for the Iraq war in 2002.
“I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw it differently,” Sanders said.
Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is some 40 years younger than Biden and Sanders, made a biographical and generational pitch.
“There are enlisted people I served with barely old enough to remember those votes,” he said.
Warren sought to draw a clean contrast on her approach to the Middle East.
“We need to get our combat troops out,” Warren said. “We should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”
The candidates again debated health care, with Biden hitting Sanders for not being “candid with voters” about the costs of his plans. Sen. Amy Klobuchar picked up on that theme, pointing out that even many Democrats don’t support his vision of Medicare-for-all that would replace private health insurance.
“This debate isn’t real,” Klobuchar said.
Warren steered a familiar conversation on that topic where several candidates wanted to take it – to Trump.
“We're going to be up against a Republican incumbent who has cut health care for millions of people and is still trying to do that,” Warren said. “I'll take our side of the argument any day. We'll beat him on this.”
Talk of Trump’s impeachment drew no meaningful distinctions between the candidates. Biden used the topic to try to rise above the fray.
“I can't hold a grudge. I have to be able to not only fight, but also heal,” he said.
The debate marked the first and also last debate in Iowa. It came on the eve of a Senate impeachment trial that will draw three of the candidates on stage back to Washington for unwelcome chunks of campaign time in the final weeks before the caucuses.
It’s hard to imagine much from Tuesday night changing the trajectory of the race. It also happens to be hard for the candidates to know what that trajectory actually is.