Democratic presidential candidates debated for the fourth time Tuesday night, this time in suburban Columbus, Ohio. The debate comes at a time when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is ascending in Iowa and national polls. But for some Iowans, Warren’s new status as a frontrunner is refreshing some underlining concerns, particularly when it comes to healthcare policy.
A few dozen Democrats crowded in to a bar called Lucky’s on 16th in the Czech Village neighborhood of Cedar Rapids Tuesday night. It was a mixed crowd, with some highly engaged caucus-goers already sworn to particular candidates, decked out in campaign t-shirts and pins, while others were still sorting and shuffling their lists.
It was the first debate since House Democrats launched a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, a probe that has raised new questions about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s international business associations, and comes after Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, suffered a heart attack, spurring him to take a break from the campaign trail.
The 12 qualifying candidates took to the stage at a time when Sen. Warren is increasingly seen as a frontrunner in the field, and she faced fresh scrutiny from her competitors, particularly on her support for Sanders’ Medicare For All plan.
Nonprofit executive Okpara Rice watched the debate over dinner with a friend. He hasn’t settled on a candidate yet, but is leaning towards Biden, Warren, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He heads a children’s mental health non-profit and is especially concerned about rising healthcare costs.
“The cost of healthcare is astronomical. We do have people dying because they cannot afford treatment. And I think that’s frankly pretty disgusting,” Rice said. “What I don’t know though…and this is what they don’t get in to when you have such a large stage of 12 candidates is how do you actually pay for it?”
Rice said he noticed that Warren faced a new level of pressure to match her new leading status, referencing a comment from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, who’s presented herself as a moderating presence in the field.
“Clearly the healthcare discussion, Klobuchar was really on the aggressive kind of stance tonight. And so that was an interesting interchange as well in the sense of…everyone trying to get Elizabeth Warren to say she’s gonna raise taxes,” Rice said. “They just wouldn’t relent on that.”
Klobuchar pushed back on how Warren would fund her Medicare for All plan. Warren has resisted saying that the proposal would result in increased taxes, saying instead that net costs overall would go down.
“At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Klobuchar said. “And I’m sorry Elizbeth, but you have not said that and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”
After seeing the opposition to the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration and into the Trump administration, Rice says candidates will have to be transparent and clear on this issue in order to set in place what would be a far-reaching transition for a major part of the American economy.
“If you really lay it out in a way that is simplistic, that makes sense, that it actually functionally works for people, I think that people will get there. We have to believe that,” Rice said. “It may take a while, but I think people will get there. But we have to have the collective will. And I think we can.”
Caucusgoer Scott Foens works in IT in Cedar Rapids and has sworn his support for Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey. He also previously worked as a paramedic, and says he’s deeply skeptical that political sentiment in America has sufficiently changed since the Obama administration to support a Medicare For All model.
“There’s a huge amount of work that’s gonna have to be done in this in order to develop an understanding for what that plan is gonna look like and kind of how that whole thing is gonna work,” Foens said. “And given what we went through with Obamacare, I’m not convinced that Americans are ready for that.”
Linda Bakk is semi-retired and relocated to Iowa in recent years to be closer to her grandchildren. She’s excited to participate in her very first caucus cycle, and says if she had to caucus today, she’d be for Warren.
“She is self-made. She didn’t have it easy. This isn’t my only reason for voting for her but I really would like to see a woman president in my lifetime,” Bakk said. “I just really like her directness and I like the fact that she’s a nerd.”
But she’s worried Warren’s push to the left on healthcare could unravel the support she’s built.
“That’s the one thing I have a slight…questions regarding Elizabeth Warren’s policy. I don’t think it can be just, tomorrow we’re gonna turn this off and turn this on,” Bakk said. “There’s too many lives, there’s too many jobs at stake, there’s too many variables.”
Bakk says she’s already seeing how other candidates are seizing on Warren’s healthcare stance as a point of vulnerability.
“I think if anything will be a struggle for her to get past it’s that one, I think. And the other candidates, Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] and all that, know that and they’re focusing on that. Biden is focusing on that,” Bakk said. “I think that that’s gonna be the biggest struggle.
Bakk says she’s leaning hard towards Warren, but if she had to change her pick, Bakk says she could be converted.
“I’d have to go with Biden. Even though he wouldn’t be my choice. He has the name recognition. He has the African American support. He’s a man,” Bakk said, laughing. “I think that…I think that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
According to the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacomm Iowa Poll, more than 50 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers said they worried Medicare For All could either cost the election, or was bad policy.
The same poll showed 63 percent saying they could be persuaded to support another candidate.
With less than four months left before the Iowa caucuses, those candidates struggling to break through the lower tiers of the field may be running out of time to win over those persuadable supporters.