DES MOINES, Iowa — As Democratic presidential candidates debate the right approach to health care, immigration and taxing the wealthy, their policy disputes reflect an underlying disagreement over the tone and tenor the next president should take: Do primary voters want a fighter, or a unifier who can bring the nation together?
Stumping across this critical first-in-the-nation caucus state last week, the leading contenders’ answers to that question largely break along the same ideological lines that have defined the race for the past several months.
Buttigieg, addressing more than 12,000 Democratic activists in Des Moines last week, said he would end the “partisan warfare that we have come to accept from Washington, D.C.”
“I will not waiver from my commitment to our values or back down from the boldness of our ideas, but I also will not tire from the effort to include everyone in this future we are trying to build. Progressives, moderates and Republicans of conscience who are ready for a change,” Buttigieg said. “I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fight that we start to think the fighting is the point. The point is what’s on the other side of the fight.”
“Anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we are already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight,” Warren said, in an unspoken rebuttal of Buttigieg a half hour later. “Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight is not going to win that fight.”
The competing tonal approaches bleed into the policy realm, especially on health care. Buttigieg has cast Warren’s “Medicare for All” plan as a my-way-or-the-highway red line that will worsen partisan divisions. Warren has slammed those with more centrist plans as weak candidates who suffer from “fear and complacency.”
Biden, whose campaign is based on a premise of returning American politics to an earlier era of conciliation and bipartisanship, warns of a deeper threat that partisan divisions portend.
“If you can’t bring the country together, we’re in real, real, real trouble,” Biden told Iowa Democrats. “The next president is going to be the commander in chief of a world in disarray. There’s going to be no time for on-the-job training.”
Experts watching the race say the candidates are positioning themselves to send important messages to voters.
Bellicose rhetoric, common to political campaigns the world over, can be even more important for female candidates who are often perceived as being not as tough as male candidates, said Karen Kedrowski, the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
“Especially for Warren and Klobuchar and Harris, they’re trying to navigate some pretty complicated gender dynamics,” Kedrowski said. “The race for the presidency is a really masculinist space.”
Buttigieg’s pledge to bring the country together may be in part aimed at voters who are concerned that, at 37, he is too young to serve as commander in chief.
“Buttigieg needs to show some serenity, that he’s not too young,” said David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa political analyst.
But this time around, some Democrats incensed by the first years of the Trump administration have concluded they need a new approach.
“As a rule as Democrats, we want conciliation, reconciliation,” said Judy Philbrook, a retired project manager in Indianola who backs Warren. “But I think with what’s been going on these last two and a half years, we have to be ready to fight.”
There are some signs that Democratic voters are still in the mood to stick with past patterns. A Fox News poll conducted in June found 23 percent of Democratic primary voters preferred a candidate who would “fight against extreme right-wing beliefs,” and 74 percent said they wanted a candidate who would unite Americans “around shared beliefs.”
A quarter of Democrats said they wanted a candidate who would put forward a bold new agenda, while 72 percent said they preferred someone who would provide “steady, reliable leadership.”
The most capable Democratic candidate, several Iowa activists said this weekend, would be someone who strikes the balance between both factions.
“Politics unfortunately has just become so polarized,” said Crystal Schrader, who heads the Warren County Democratic Party. “I think it’s about figuring out a balance.”