Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent at Politico Magazine.
MIAMI—Marianne Williamson narrowed her eyes and gazed into my soul, channeling some of the same telekinetic life force she’d used minutes earlier to cast a spell on Donald Trump in her closing statement of Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate. Inside a sweaty spin room, with swarms of reporters enfolding Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, the author and self-help spiritualist drifted through the madness with a mien of Zen-like satisfaction. It was only when I asked her a question—what does she say to people who don’t think she belonged on that debate stage?—that Williamson’s sorcerous intensity returned.
“This is a democracy, that’s what I say to them,” she replied, her hypnotic voice anchored by an accent perfected at Rick’s Café. “There’s this political class, and media class, that thinks they get to tell people who becomes president. This is what’s wrong with America. We don’t do aristocracy here. We do democracy.”Story Continued Below
For better and worse.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was served the Democratic presidential nomination on a silver platter. With a monopoly on the left’s biggest donors and top strategists, with the implicit backing of the incumbent president, with the consensus support of the party’s most prominent officials, and with only four challengers standing in her way—the most viable of whom had spent the past quarter-century wandering the halls of Congress alone muttering under his breath—Clinton couldn’t lose. The ascendant talents on the left knew better than to interfere. She had already been denied her turn once before; daring to disrupt the party’s line of succession would be career suicide.
This coronation yielded one of the weakest general-election nominees in modern American history—someone disliked and distrusted by more than half of the electorate, someone guided by a sense of entitlement rather than a sense of urgency, someone incapable of mobilizing the party’s base to defeat the most polarizing and unpopular Republican nominee in our lifetimes.
Democrats don’t have to worry about another coronation. Instead, with two dozen candidates battling for the right to challenge Trump next November, they are dealing with the opposite problem: a circus.
Three days after the maelstrom in Miami, top Democratic officials insist there’s no sense of panic. They say everything is under control. They tell anyone who will listen that by virtue of the rules and debate qualification requirements they’ve implemented, this mammoth primary field will soon shrink in half, which should limit the internecine destruction and hasten the selection of a standard-bearer. But based on conversations with candidates and campaign operatives, it might be too late for that. The unifying objective of defeating Trump in 2020 likely won’t be sufficient to ward off what everyone now believes will be a long, divisive primary.
First impressions are everything in politics. And it was understood by those candidates and campaign officials departing Miami that what America was introduced to this week—more than a year before the Democrats will choose their nominee at the 2020 convention—was a party searching not only for a leader but for an identity, for a vision, for a coherent argument about how voters would benefit from a change in leadership.
“I don’t think there’s a sense among the American people of what the national Democratic Party stands for. And I think there’s actually more confusion about that now,” Michael Bennet, the Colorado senator and presidential candidate, told me after participating in Thursday night’s forum.
Some confusion is inevitable when 20 candidates, many of them unfamiliar to a national audience, are allotted five to seven minutes to explain why they are qualified to lead the free world. Yet the perception in the eyes of the political class—and the feeling on the ground was something closer to chaos.
With a record number of viewers tuning in between the two nights, a record number of candidates talked over one another, contorted themselves ideologically, evaded straightforward questions and traded insults both implicit and explicit. With such a splayed primary field, some of this is to be expected: Debates are imperative to exposing the fault lines within the Democratic coalition, to refining and forging the left’s governing philosophy through the fires of competition. A measured clash of ideas and worldviews is healthy for a party seeking a return to power.
What’s not healthy for a party is when the front-runner, a white man, is waylaid by the ferociously talented up-and-comer, a black woman, who prefaces her attack: “I do not believe you are a racist …” What’s not healthy for a party is when a smug, self-impressed congressman with no business being on the stage flails wildly with juvenile sound bites. What’s not healthy for a party is when a successful red-state governor and a decorated war hero-turned-congressman are forced to watch from home as an oracular mystic with no experience in policymaking lectures her opponents on the folly of having actual “plans” to govern the country.
Granted, these lowlights and many others came during the second debate. Just 22 hours before it commenced, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez sounded relieved at how relatively painless the first contest had been.
“We talked about the issues. We didn’t talk about hand size,” Perez told me after the end of the Wednesday night debate. (Perez was grinning in reference to the 2016 Republican debate in which Donald Trump, responding to Marco Rubio’s vulgar euphemism, assured viewers of his plentiful genitalia.) “The Republican candidates were only concerned about how they could put a knife in their opponent’s back,” Perez added. “We had spirited discussions. We had some disagreements, but they were all about the merits and the issues. They weren’t, ‘Not only are you wrong, but your mother wears army boots.’”
Even in that first debate of this week’s campaign-opening doubleheader, however, there was no shortage of skirmishes that felt deeply personal, opening wounds that won’t easily scab over in the campaign ahead.
History will remember Harris confronting Biden on Thursday, the testier of the two debates, in a moment that dominated news coverage and could well come to inform one or both of their campaign trajectories.
But even on Wednesday, there was Tim Ryan vs. Tulsi Gabbard, a clash of the congressional back-benchers, feuding over the use of American military force abroad. Gabbard, an Iraq veteran, won the round on points by correcting Ryan’s assertion that the Taliban attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001. This so visibly irked Ryan that he fumed to reporters afterward, “I personally don’t need to be lectured by somebody who’s dining with a dictator who gassed kids,” a reference to the congresswoman’s rapport with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad.
There was Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor once considered the party’s brightest rising star, aiming to recapture mojo stolen by Beto O’Rourke. Unleashing on his unsuspecting fellow Texan, Castro repeatedly told O’Rourke to “do your homework” on the issue of immigration law, criticizing him for failing to back a sweeping change that would decriminalize border crossings. It was a stinging rebuke that punctuated O’Rourke’s dismal night and gave Castro’s camp their biggest boost of the campaign.
And there was Eric Swalwell, the catchphrase-happy California congressman, cynically scolding Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for not firing his police chief after a black man’s killing at the hands of a white officer. Buttigieg responded with a cold stare, crystallizing all the campaigns’ feelings about Swalwell, for whom indiscriminate attacks seem to be a strategic cornerstone.
The significance in these events was not merely what was said in the moment, but what is now assured in the future.
Upcoming debates will almost certainly feature discussion of Gabbard’s shadowy connections to Syria, and more broadly, of the party’s ambiguous post-Obama foreign policy doctrine. There will be greater pressure to conform to Castro’s argument on decriminalizing border crossings, a position that animates the progressive base but may well alienate moderates and independents. The whispers of Buttigieg’s struggle with black voters will surely intensify, and his opponents are already scheming of ways to use one of his debate responses—“I couldn’t get it done”—against him.
This is to say nothing of the other minefields that await: opposition-research files presented on live television, litmus-test questions on issues such as abortion and guns, not to mention the ideological pressure placed on the field by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, neither of whom were seriously tested in the first set of debates but whose ambitious Big Government proposals are driving the party’s agenda and putting more moderate candidates in a bind.
As for Biden, regardless of whether his poll numbers plummet or hold steady in the weeks ahead, one thing was obvious in Thursday’s aftermath: blood in the water. You could hear it in the voices of rival campaign officials, whispering of how they knew the front-runner was fundamentally vulnerable due to his detachment from today’s party. You could see it on the faces of Biden’s own allies, who struggled to defend his showing.
“What I saw was a person who listened to Kamala Harris’ pain,” Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of Biden’s highest-profile surrogates, said after the debate ended. Referring to the busing controversy, Richmond added, “All of that was out there when the first African American president of the United States decided to pick Joe Biden as his running mate, and he had the vice president’s back every day of the week. So, I’m not sure that voters are going back 40 years to judge positions.”
They don’t have to. What the maiden debates of the 2020 election cycle demonstrated above all else is the acceleration of change inside the Democratic Party—not just since Biden came to Congress in 1973, but since he became vice president in 2009.
Ten years ago this September, Barack Obama convened a joint session of Congress to reset the narrative of his health-care reform push and dispel some of the more sinister myths surrounding it. One particular point of emphasis for Obama: The Affordable Care Act would not cover undocumented immigrants.
On Thursday, every one of the 10 candidates on stage—Biden included—said their government plans would do exactly that.
The front-runner has cloaked himself in the 44th president’s legacy, invoking “the Obama-Biden administration” as a shield to deflect all manner of criticism. And yet, parts of that legacy—from enshrining the Hyde Amendment, to deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants, to aggressively carrying out drone strikes overseas, to sanctioning deep cuts in government spending—are suddenly and fatally out of step with the modern left. This crop of Democrats won’t hesitate to score points at the previous administration’s expense, as evidenced by Harris’ censure of Obama’s deportation policies. And the gravitational pull of the party’s base will continue to threaten the long-term viability of top contenders, as evidenced by the continuing talk of eliminating private insurance and Harris’s own shaky explanations of whether she supports doing so.
For months, Democratic officials have expressed confidence that their party would avoid the reality TV-inspired meltdown that was the 2016 Republican primary. After all, the star of that show is the common enemy of everyone seeking the Democratic nomination.
Miami was not a promising start. With so many candidates, with so little fear of the front-runner, with so much pressure on the bottom three-quarters of the field to turn in campaign-prolonging performances, nothing could keep a lid on the emotions and ambitions at work. It’s irresistible to compare the enormous fields of 2016 and 2020. But the fact is, when Republicans gathered for their first debate in August 2015, Trump had already surged to the top of the field. He held the pole position for the duration of the race, despite so much talk of volatility in the primary electorate, because he relentlessly stayed on the offensive, never absorbing a blow without throwing two counterpunches in return.
Leaving Miami, it was apparent to Democrats that they have a very different race on their hands—and a very different front-runner. Biden’s team talks openly about a strategy of disengagement, an approach that sounds reasonable but in fact puts the entire party at risk. The danger Democrats face is not that a talented field of candidates will be systematically wiped out by a dominant political force. The danger is that there is no dominant political force; that at this intersection of ideological drift and generational discontent and institutional disruption, an obtrusively large collection of candidates will be emboldened to keep fighting not just for their candidacies but for their conception of liberalism itself, feeding the perception of a party in turmoil and easing the president’s fight for reelection.
In the spin room after Wednesday night’s debate, a blur of heat and bright lights and body odor, John Delaney, the former congressman from Maryland, was red in the face explaining that none of the voters he talks with care about impeaching Trump. A few feet away, Bill DeBlasio, the New York City mayor, whacked the “moderate folks” like Delaney for not understanding where the base is, promising “a fight for the soul of the party.” Just over his shoulder, Washington Governor Jay Inslee slammed the complacency of his fellow Democrats on the issue of climate change, decrying “the tyranny of the fossil fuel industry” over both political parties.
Joaquin Castro, the congressman and twin brother to Julián, stood off to the side observing the mayhem. Just as he was explaining how “at least 20” reporters had mistaken him for his brother that night, the two of us were nearly stampeded underneath a mob of reporters encircling Elizabeth Warren.
“Man,” he said, looking warily from side to side. “This is surreal.”
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