In July 2012, President Barack Obama uttered one of the more disastrous pronouncements of his political career. Addressing the crowd at his campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia, during his run for a second presidential term, Obama ridiculed Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts as well as his general fidelity to “job creators” above all. “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said, outlining the public infrastructure and collective efforts which empower the U.S. economy. “If you’ve got a business,” Obama said, “you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
For the rest of the 2012 presidential campaign season, Romney and his Republican allies obsessed over Obama’s remarks—“you didn’t build that”—as clueless contempt for entrepreneurs. Though he coined the phrase, Obama cribbed his framing from Elizabeth Warren, who made similar remarks in her senate campaign against Scott Brown in Massachusetts. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” Warren said in her stump speech, now the source text for her insurgent 2020 presidential campaign.
On Tuesday, The New York Times and CNN hosted 12 Democratic candidates at the party’s fourth 2020 presidential primary debate in Westerville, Ohio. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders declined to draw any long-anticipated contrasts with Warren, his closest rival. But several other candidates—those languishing at single-digit support in most polls—contested Warren’s emergence as a presidential front-runner. California Senator Kamala Harris challenged Warren’s opposition to mandatory gun-buy-back proposals, and she later demanded Warren’s support for her own calls for Twitter to ban President Donald Trump. Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke challenged Warren’s campaign to dismantle Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard challenged Warren to match her own opposition to U.S. military interventions abroad. But, chiefly, Warren’s rivals challenged her to acknowledge—and defend—the tax hikes required under her plan to finance “Medicare for All.”
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar mounted the earliest broadsides against Warren’s tax proposals, including a “wealth tax” that would impose an annual 2 percent collection on assets worth more than $50 million. Buttigieg disputes Warren’s estimates for the potential costs for Medicare for All, as well as her claim to superior policy-writing. “Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everyone,” Buttigieg said, “except this: No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.”
Quickly, Klobuchar echoed Buttigieg. “I want to give a reality check to Elizabeth,” Klobuchar said. “Your idea is not the only idea.” O’Rourke ridiculed Warren’s wealth tax proposal as class warfare. “Sometimes I think Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive,” O’Rourke said. Indignantly, Warren answered O’Rourke with her stump speech about earning dividends on the American dream. “You made a fortune in America. You had a great idea. You got out there and worked for it, good for you,” Warren said. “All I’m saying is, you make it to the top—the top 0.1 percent—then pitch in two cents so every other kid in America has a chance to make it.”
Democratic candidates have all argued over universal health care in previous debates. But Tuesday night pit the party’s Medicare for All skeptics against Warren, first and foremost, despite Sanders having written “the damn bill,” as he emphasized after the early Warren-Buttigieg spat. Ultimately, Sanders struggled to defend his own Medicare for All proposal from Warren’s canny annexation. Meanwhile, Joe Biden once again struggled to answer his left-wing challengers with anything more than desperate gestures toward his time serving as Obama’s vice president. “I’m the only one on this stage who’s gotten anything really big done,” Biden said. In response, Warren, the former White House adviser to Obama, underscored her role in proposing and founding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in July 2011—the same year she debuted her influential stump speech in Massachusetts. The CFPB has all but collapsed under Trump’s appointees Mick Mulvaney and Kathy Kraninger, who have decimated Warren’s watch-dog agency. Warren has plans, but her opponents have all the hammers.