It was a light moment in a tense Democratic debate.
The Iowa caucus — with its botched vote count and (for now) split decision — had left many progressives with jittery nerves, worried that a factionalized Democratic party, with no clear frontrunner, might fail to unite in the face of the Trump threat, and risk enabling his re-election.
As a result, Democratic 2020 candidates took the debate stage in New Hampshire Friday night with oddly conflicting imperatives. One: Draw sharp contrasts, to distance themselves from the other candidates. The other: Prove a capacity to unify the party, by bridging the differences among the party’s true believers.
The unity theme won out, at least for a memorable second or two, in a literal hug between the standard bearers of the establishment and insurgency wings of the party. ABC News moderator Linsey Davis teed up the moment with a question about Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee who — far from preaching unity — has been throwing bombs at the progressive wing of the party, and in particular at her old rival, Sanders.
Citing an infamous line from a new Hulu documentary, Davis quoted Clinton as saying of Sanders that “nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him. He’s got nothing done.” (This line recently earned Clinton boos from a top Sanders surrogate.)
The moderator’s question was directed at moderate senator Amy Klobuchar. But it was Joe Biden — who stands, in 2020, in the same establishment “lane” that Clinton occupied in 2016 — who literally veered to his left, walked over to Sanders’ podium, and gave the Democratic Socialist a warm, sideways hug. The moment cracked up the crowd at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, and provided one of the most indelible images of the primary season.
“I like Bernie just fine. We actually worked together on a number of things,” Amy Klobuchar says when asked about Hillary Clinton saying Sanders did nothing and nobody likes him, but adds “we’re better off” with someone who won in red districts. https://t.co/Rhy9aOaDTU #demdebate pic.twitter.com/5ZqfxqT4EA
— ABC News (@ABC) February 8, 2020
It wasn’t all Kumbaya on the stage Friday night. Biden warned that Sanders’ “Democratic Socialist” label could tar the party’s candidates up and down the ticket, and make it more difficult for Democrats to retake the Senate. Sanders doggedly insisted the true path to unifying the opposition to Donald Trump is to give the working people of America a bold agenda worth fighting for — one that strips the power of the billionaire class and guarantees healthcare as a human right. Pete Buttigieg, surging in New Hampshire after his strong showing in Iowa, hit Sanders for offering “my way or the highway” and insisted that his wonky synthesis of establishment and insurgency was the happy medium that Democrats, and the rest of America, could agree on. While highlighting her ability to work with Sanders on drug importation from Canada, Klobuchar pointed to her track record of bipartisanship with Republicans and said, “I think we’re better off with someone who has the receipts.”
But as the noise receded, it was the hug — a simple gesture of reassurance — that won out. It reminded, in an instant, that Biden’s experience, and indeed his touchy style of politics, sometimes just works, dammit. And it gave American progressives a glimpse at their sincerest hope for 2020: We can get through this. It will all be all right.