Elizabeth Warren’s Big Night

The senator’s plea that voters set aside their fears and back the candidate they believe in helped her stand out on a crowded stage.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

Updated on July 30 at 10:48 p.m. ET

Senator Bernie Sanders often positions himself as the political heir of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but tonight in Detroit, Senator Elizabeth Warren was the candidate who borrowed the 32nd president’s dictum that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Anxiety stalks the Democratic Party. From the grass roots to the candidates, the party is haunted by the specter of allowing President Donald Trump, whom they underestimated in 2016, to win a second term. For long portions of tonight’s debate, several of the candidates onstage warned that the party was headed for a disaster by espousing policies that are too liberal. Governor Steve Bullock, who was making his debut after missing the first debate, joined forces with former Governor John Hickenlooper, Representative Tim Ryan, and former Representative John Delaney to question the leftward drift of the party, often urged on by questions from the moderator Jake Tapper of CNN.

In practice, this led to a series of attacks on the two highest-polling candidates onstage, Sanders and Warren. Sanders, as is his wont, got angry—or at least irritable. Warren didn’t get mad; she got even—or, perhaps, inspirational.

As Tapper noted, Democratic voters have told pollsters they prefer a candidate who will beat Donald Trump to a candidate they agree with ideologically. Warren argued that was a false choice. “I know how to fight, and I know how to win,” she said:

I took on giant banks and I beat them. I took on Wall Street, and CEOs, and their lobbyists and their lawyers, and I beat them. I took on a popular Republican incumbent senator, and I beat him. I remember when people said Barack Obama couldn’t get elected. Shoot, I remember when people said Donald Trump couldn’t get elected.

But here’s where we are. I get it. There is a lot at stake, and people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in. Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it. I am not afraid, and for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.

The message was clever: She played to voters’ desire to vote for a candidate they believe in, while insinuating that she was that candidate. Warren also managed to get more speaking time than any other candidate, narrowly edging out Sanders.

Since the debate lineups were announced, there had been speculation about how Warren and Sanders, who share a broadly common set of policies (though not the same approach to politics), would interact, and about whether the candidates would attack each other or join forces. Warren’s answer was to outflank Sanders without ever needing to attack him head-on.

To that end, she seemed to be focusing on emotion. Early in the night, the candidates engaged in a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating debate about health-care reform. The issue is one on which there are real differences of opinion among the hopefuls, and they engaged in a few substantive exchanges—occasionally overcoming strict timekeeping that felt more and more counterproductive. The result was frustrating, because while the left (Sanders, Warren) and right (Delaney) poles of the debate were clear, the large number of candidates onstage meant it was hard to differentiate among the many nuanced views present. Warren was able to cut through with an anecdote about the progressive activist Ady Barkan, who has ALS.

“This is somebody who has health insurance and is dying,” Warren said. “Every month, he has about $9,000 in medical bills that his insurance company won’t cover. His wife, Rachael, is on the phone for hours and hours and hours begging the insurance company: Please cover what the doctors say he needs. He talks about what it’s like to go online with thousands of other people to beg friends, family, and strangers for money so he can cover his medical expenses.”

Warren is not the only candidate to argue that Democrats should follow their hearts and trust that votes will follow. Pete Buttigieg repurposed one of the more effective lines from his stump speech in the debate.

“It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” he said. “If we embrace a far-left agenda, they are gonna say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re gonna do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there, and defend it.”

Buttigieg’s agenda is, in its own way, radical. While Warren’s policy ideas are further left, Buttigieg has proposed an aggressive set of structural reforms to the American system, including packing the Supreme Court and eliminating the Electoral College. “This is a country that once changed its Constitution so you couldn’t drink, and changed it back because we changed our minds, and you’re telling me we can’t reform our democracy in our time?” he quipped.

But it was Warren’s litany of her victories over heavily favored opponents that captured the spotlight tonight. Just after she spoke, Delaney replied in his by-now-familiar role as the dour realist of the field, hectoring the candidates over plans whose math, he says, does not work. “I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not empty promises,” Delaney tut-tutted.

Warren’s response was unsparing and evinced genuine exasperation. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to be the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said. “I don’t get it.”

As it turns out, there is something that Democrats—at least those running for president—should fear: incurring Elizabeth Warren’s wrath.