The first night of the debate in Detroit turned conventional Democratic political dynamics on their ear.
In the normal state of affairs, politicians calling for modest course corrections are given the presumption of virtuousness on the public stage, while candidates calling for transformation are forced to make the difficult case for change.
But on the stage at the Fox theater Tuesday night, the candidates who had to fight to justify the righteousness of their path were not the tag-teaming progressives demanding sweeping changes — to health, tax and environmental policy. Rather it was the raft of milquetoast moderates, preaching caution and incrementalism, who had to defend themselves from challenges of being callous, cold hearted, and out of touch. The questions that hit home were not “how can we possibly afford these changes?” but rather, given the challenges Americans face, “how can we possibly afford more of the same?”
If this new dynamic holds for the second night of the debates, it promises to put Joe Biden — whose campaign promises a reversion to the path he helped chart with Barack Obama — on the defensive. Can the former vice president who once campaigned under the slogan “Yes We Can” explain to America why in fact we really can’t?
By luck of the draw, the first night debate stage was anchored by the two strongest change agents in the 2020 race, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Instead of attempting to differentiate themselves, one from the other, the duo locked arms, and made the fierce case for the agenda they agree on: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and new taxes on the wealthiest.
America has seen bold, visionary Democrats on the debate stage before. But even prominent ones — Jesse Jackson in 1988 comes to mind — had to go it alone, swimming upstream against a current of knowing and complacent voices, soberly explaining why it’s too much too soon.
But the celebrity, charisma and moral clarity of Sanders and Warren — he leading with statistics (“49 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent”), she connecting with stories about Americans like ALS sufferer Ady Barkin (“This is somebody who has health insurance and is dying. And every month, he has about $9,000 in medical bills that his insurance company won’t cover”) — gave the pair unprecedented gravity on stage.
Centrists had traveled to Detroit expecting to be rewarded for exposing the difficulty and expense of implementing the Sanders/Warren agenda. And they dutifully unleashed their sound bites. “Wishlist economics,” drawled Montana Governor Steve Bullock. “Impossible promises,” proclaimed millionaire former congressman John Delaney. “An evolution, not a revolution,” preached former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. But rather than connecting as clear-eyed truth tellers, these moderates presented instead as cowardly lions, afraid to stand up for struggling Americans in the face of a corporate-political complex built to grind them down.
And they got savaged by candidates preaching fearlessness in the pursuit of a more just America. “I genuinely do not understand why anyone would go to all the trouble of running for president just to get up on this stage and talk about what’s not possible,” Warren said in a withering exchange with Delaney. Even love warrior Marianne Williamson pulled out the heavy artillery: “I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” she said, addressing the moderates. “You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people.”
Pete Buttigieg, himself far from the most progressive on the stage, cleverly distanced himself from the sour, can’t do spirit of the Delaneyloopers by giving lie to the notion that centrism offers safe harbor in the face of Republican attacks. “If we embrace a far-left agenda they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” Buttigieg said. “If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” he added. “So let’s just stand up for the right policy,” the millennial South Bend mayor insisted, “and go out there and defend it.”
The change agents in the race are appealing to what a charismatic young presidential candidate once referred to as the “fierce urgency of now.” And if the first debate night is any indication that fierce urgency is a mood, and that mood has gripped the Democratic electorate.
That spells trouble for one Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., who wants to run on America’s nostalgia for the eight years of sanity and stability under the Obama administration, while simultaneously tamping down on the Democratic base’s hopes for change.
The setup for night two on the debate stage will be different. Biden creates his own gravity, and his top challenger, Kamala Harris, just this week tacked away from Sanders and Warren — introducing a less sweeping path to Medicare for All that would transition to public health care more slowly and leave a greater role for private insurance.
But Biden has others to worry about. The night also features capable, unapologetic progressives who can make the case for Democrats to deliver the full monte — including a member of the Obama cabinet. Julián Castro shined in his Miami debate performance by making a searing moral case for decriminalizing the act of illegal immigration.
Though he’s not a star in the polls, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has proved himself a credible stand in for Bernie on the debate stage, insisting in Miami that the primaries are a “battle for the heart and soul of our party” and insisting that the Democrats are “supposed to be the party of working people… supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy… supposed to be for free public college for our young people” and “supposed to break up big corporations when they’re not serving our democracy.”
Biden — the resurgent front-runner whose poll numbers have recovered fully from his face plant in the first debate — will face perhaps the trickiest communication challenge of his long and gaffe-filled career. Can he satisfy the base’s thirst for upheaval while staying true to his message that “nothing would fundamentally change” on his watch?
Biden has some goods to deliver to those seeking change. His plan to close a sweetheart loophole that allows people to inherit assets while skipping out on taxes could raise a lot of revenue, as could his proposal to tax capital gains (i.e. investment earnings) as normal income. His plan to triple funding for struggling public schools also has heart. And the former vice president is uniquely positioned to talk up the Affordable Care Act as a sweeping achievement (a Big Fucking Deal, if you will) that must be defended. But can he make the case without resorting to lazy fear-mongering about Medicare for All?
In short, Biden’s challenge tonight is to thread the needle. He must vow to deliver Just Enough Change, while fundamentally insisting that the righteous path is to take America back to the future.