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A frosty Elizabeth Warren takes down a tepid Joe Biden

Former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate in Ohio Tuesday night. John Minchillo/AP/Associated Press

Brrrr. The frost is not just on the pumpkin. It’s on Elizabeth Warren as she prepares to pull away from Joe Biden for good and win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Attacked by rivals in the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, the senator from Massachusetts officially cemented her status as the Democrat to beat. For most of the night, she ducked or swatted away questions raised by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, among others, about taxes and Medicare for All and her obsessive love of plans.

But the way she handled Biden at the end of the debate — like a cocky first-year law student who must be put in his place — showed her strength and weakness as a candidate. The former vice president was arguing, with Biden bluster, that he’s “the only one on this stage who’s gotten anything really big done.” He accused Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont of offering up “vague” ideas. In response, Warren talked about how she came up with the idea for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and then made it happen in Congress.

“I went on the floor and I got votes for that bill, I convinced people to vote for that,” said Biden. “Let’s get that straight.”


To which Warren mirthlessly replied, “I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.”

Warren won the moment on Twitter, with women especially finding Biden condescending and overbearing for trying to take credit for her accomplishment. But I wonder how many people in the non-tweeting audience winced a bit at her cold takedown of him. That’s assuming anyone other than pundits and politicos actually made it to the end of the third hour of a very long debate.


What if she had just smiled and thanked him?

Biden had already experienced a mediocre-to-bad night. He flubbed the one question he should have been able to hit out of the park, about his son’s work for an energy company in Ukraine. “My son’s statement speaks for itself,” he said about the interview Hunter Biden gave to ABC News about his overseas work. Pressed on the matter, Biden said, “My son made a judgment. I’m proud of the judgment he made.” That was confusing, since Hunter Biden now calls his decision to join the board of the Ukrainian energy company a mistake. The former vice president also stumbled around on other questions and wasn’t really a factor in the debate until the end — when he raised the vagueness issue with Warren and she iced him.

Can you imagine Warren taking apart President Trump with the same cold surgical skill? I can. Does that make her the best Democrat to take him on, even if he’s wounded by impeachment? I don’t know. Think of her starting nearly every answer with “So,” and then launching into a lecture on bankruptcy, an attack on billionaires, and the need for a wealth tax to pay for universal health care and tuition-free college. Think of her reprising the “you didn’t build that” claim, because, after all, all of us, together, pay for schools, roads, and bridges. Talk about an assertion that is absolutely guaranteed to rile up the other side.

Warren also refused to answer a key question: Will her Medicare for All proposal increase taxes on the middle class? She answered by saying total costs would go down, and refused to acknowledge what Sanders admits about his Medicare for All plan: Yes, taxes will go up.


“I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families,” said Warren. But as Buttigieg rightly pointed out, she ducked a “yes or no question.” And, according to Klobuchar, she is presenting a “pipe dream.” If fellow Democrats are saying that now, imagine Trump’s fiery attacks.

Warren can freeze out Biden. But she can’t freeze out all the questions about her health care plan — or her ability to unite the country and defeat Trump.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.