Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren could be a foil for centrists who used the second Democratic debate as a chance to find their voice. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Sanders and Warren kept their voices but a parade of centrists finally found theirs.
By JOHN F. HARRIS
07/31/2019 01:35 AM EDT
The assignment of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to the same debate stage in Detroit Tuesday night was random chance, but turned out to be a well-timed and clarifying event.
There was the possibility that the two heroes of the left would sharpen the differences between them in the competition over who is the fairest of them all. But very little of that came to pass.Story Continued Below
Instead, the combined Warren-Sanders presence emboldened most other voices in the first round of a two-night debate to say they wouldn’t enter the derby over who is most ideologically pure. The real argument, they urged, should be over who is most credible general election adversary to Donald Trump and potential president in 2021.
It wasn’t exactly an invigorating evening. It was too long (closing in on 2 hours, 45 minutes) and too disorienting (candidates clamoring to be heard; moderators laboring with impatient “thank yous” to shut down answers that went over time) for that.
But in its discursive way it was illuminating: The debate showed a party arguing seriously about the inherent tension between boldness and realism, passion and prudence, on such topics as improving health care, immigration, taking on wealthy interests, and the best way broadly to energize average voters.
It was the relative absence of such arguments that made the first round of debates, last month in Miami, so striking. In those encounters, some challenges, like finite financial resources, or the political reality that large swaths of middle America that Democrats need to win Congress or the presidency have been hostile toward robust liberalism, seemed to be waved away by proclamation. Candidates who disagreed often muffled their views, and previous records, leaving the impression of an unconsidered swerve to the left on such issues as abandoning Obamacare and abolishing private health insurance, or decriminalizing illegal border crossings and giving government health care to undocumented immigrants.
In Detroit the dissenters found their voices, and even those who had previously staked out bold positions seemed to be injecting a bit of squish in their language.
At least a half-dozen of the first eight opening statements—Warren and Sanders were nine and ten—included explicit or implied rebukes of the leftward tilt of the party.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said the first round of debates featured “wish-list economics” that suggests a party talking to itself rather than listening to voters. Former Rep. John Delaney said “bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything, and impossible promises…will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected.” Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said “not one of those 40 Democrats” who flipped formerly Republican House seats in 2018 support the more extreme positions of Sanders and Warren. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she has “bold ideas but they are grounded in reality.”
Throughout the evening, Warren and Sanders did not shrink from the challenge. Instead, they seemed to work in tandem to advocate for a less cautious, defensive-minded brand of progressive activism.
Warren said Democrats “should stop using Republican talking points” in debating health care among themselves.
On the question of electability, Sanders boasted, “Well, the truth is that every credible poll that I have seen has me beating Donald Trump, including in the battleground states of Michigan, where [in 2016] I won the Democratic primary, Wisconsin, where I won the Democratic primary, and Pennsylvania.”
“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” Sanders rasped.
Warren, at another point, added: “I don’t understand why anybody goes through all the trouble of running for president of the United States to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
That was a vivid line, but there were others on the opposite side. The Green New Deal, which mixes environmental goals on climate change with a promise of guaranteed jobs for every American would be “a disaster,” said Hickenlooper, adding, “You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.”
One notable aspect of the evening, spurred in part by decision of CNN moderators, was that candidates who have previously been marginalized in the race, were often the main people waging the case on behalf of moderate policies and incremental goals. These included Delaney, Klobuchar, Hickenlooper, and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. Candidates who once had touted as centrist beau ideals, including South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, did not command disproportionate shares of time or deliver many of the most evocative moments.
Buttigieg, who had previously endorsed decriminalizing illegal border crossings, seemed to downplay the significance of that stand.
“When I am president, illegally crossing the border will still be illegal,” he said. “We can argue over the finer points of which parts should be handled by civil law and criminal law but we have a crisis on our hands, not just a crisis of immigration but cruelty and incompetence that is creating a humanitarian disaster on our southern border.”
The most exotic voice on the stage, author Marianne Williamson, said she “normally is way over there with Bernie and Elizabeth” on ideological issues, but that on Medicare for All, “I do have concern about what the Republicans would say and that’s not just a Republican talking point. I do have concern that it will be difficult. I have concern that it will make it harder to win, and I have a concern that it will make it harder to govern.”
One Democratic divide on display was not so much ideological as moralistic. Warren and Sanders both articulated deep disdain for what they regard as the ethical vacuum in corporate America. Sanders talked about “crooks on Wall Street” and “crooks” in the pharmaceutical industry. Warren said big companies use trade and health care policies to “suck more profit out for themselves and to leave the American people behind.”
This left a sharp, if implicit divide between those Democrats who don’t think business defaults to amoral or immoral. Both O’Rourke and Delaney talked about their entrepreneurial experiences starting companies.
A note of interpretive caution: If the Miami debates tended to create an exaggerated impression of the party’s leftward drift, people should be alert of viewing Detroit as an equally abrupt lurch to the center.
Even avowed centrists like Delaney talked about the need to recognize health care as a universal right, and supported raising taxes on the wealthy to support progressive change. Klobuchar, among others, assailed the NRA and argued that effective leaders can pass gun laws without abandoning red-state voters. Bullock talked of beating the influence of the Koch brothers’ political network.
The inescapable conclusion: Democrats are indeed a party becoming steadily more progressive and aggressive, even if they are zig-zagging a bit along the path.
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