Jonathan V. Last watched last night’s Democratic presidential debate so we didn’t have to:
Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Detroit was, amazingly enough, an illuminating event as six candidates laid out—very clearly—the two pathways open to the party in this cycle.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren made the case for one of those options: A radical change in America’s economic compact. Sanders and Warren advocated for universal healthcare with private insurance outlawed. They argued for free college tuition. They said that illegal migration should be decriminalized and that all immigrants, documented and undocumented, should get universal healthcare. And that private sector companies should be viewed as “sucking” money out of the economy.
Sanders and Warren are currently polling at a combined 30 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.
On the other side, John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Tim Ryan, and John Hickenlooper argued that universal coverage was a laudable goal, but that outlawing private health insurance was bad policy, financially foolish, and politically suicidal. They insisted that immigration laws should be enforced because functionally open-borders would incentivize more uncontrolled migration. They proposed that the private sector was a source of innovation that could be leveraged to solve a number of America’s problems.
Delaney, Bullock, Ryan, and Hickenlooper are currently polling at a combined 2.0 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.
Over the course of three hours, these two sides went after one another in a sustained and open manner. (And four other Democrats more or less did their own thing.)
How do we decide who “won” the first Detroit debate? That’s tough. You’re probably going to think that the winner was the side whose politics is closest to your own. (This is not a criticism.)
But I’m going to try to put my own priors aside and rank the candidates on the merits, which is to say: On how they did relative to what they’re trying to accomplish.1. John Delaney: He’s running to be the Democratic nominee for president and he opened by telling the audience, “I was the youngest CEO in the history of the New York Stock exchange.”
Honestly, I couldn’t tell if this was naivete or the greatest troll job since Cocaine Mitch’s thanks-for-playing meme.
But Delaney did what he wanted to do: Establish himself as the most substantive critic of the progressive agenda being advanced by Sanders and Warren.
He stood up for the idea that “The Green New Deal is about as realistic as Trump saying Mexico is going to pay for the wall.” And then he listed four or five distinct policy ideas to deal with climate change, including a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
He made the case for Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership—a policy that has currently been abandoned by both parties.
And on the subject of single-payer healthcare, he was basically the honey badger.
Delaney explained that Medicare does not actually cover the cost of healthcare—Medicare covers 80 percent of costs while private insurers cover 120 percent. He predicted that if America does away with private health insurance, we’ll get a two-tiered system where there is elite healthcare for rich people who can pay with cash—nd then everyone else, who has to make do with whatever the government gives them.
Explaining the insanity of proposing to eliminate private insurance, Delaney said, “When we created Social Security, we didn’t make pensions illegal.”
Toward the end of one of his exchanges with the progressives, Delaney quipped, “I’m starting to think this is not about healthcare, but this is some anti-private sector thing.”
You don’t say . . .
So here’s the thing about Delaney: He’s not running to be the nominee. He’s running to save his party from a 2020 loss.
Delaney delivered his message as well as it could be said. The question is whether or not Democratic voters have any interest in hearing it.
2. Bernie Sanders: I’ve been saying for months that no one is going to outbid Sanders on socialism. On Tuesday night he asserted his dominance.
Bernie’s superpower is his ability to shamelessly—and literally—wave away any critiques. Over and over, all night long, one of the non-progs would pick at some unworkable element of his plans and Sanders would thrust his hands in the air and do that muppet thing with them and shout “He’s wrong!”
Or “Your question is a Republican talking point!”
Or “I do know, I wrote the damn bill!”
Always in a shout, always with an exclamation point at the end. And it works for him.
Unlike Warren, Sanders avoided getting drawn into policy questions and stayed at a high altitude. Which was good, since Warren’s answers were . . . not great.
Bernie came to Detroit with one goal: To differentiate himself from Warren without having to attack her. To my eyes, he nailed this.
3. Pete Buttigieg: Mayor Pete’s whole thing is that he doesn’t fit into your progressive-moderate dichotomy. He’s a fresh face! Just wants to solve problems with the best ideas! The choice of a new generation!
But without saying so, he very subtly signaled that if you’re looking for a Big Change Progressive . . . well, he’s available.
He spent a very disconcerting couple of minutes talking about the need for “structural changes” that would have to be made to the Constitution in order to deal with Citizens United and end the Electoral College and turn the District of Columbia into a state and pack the Supreme Court and just kind of assumed that constitutional amendments are something America has done before and can do again.
Having a 37-year-old mayor insist that, obviously, we should pass three or four amendments to the Constitution, as if this was all NBD, is suboptimal because it suggests that all of his pragmatic pablum might simply be a mask.
Speaking of which, the other moment that stuck out for me was one of his answers about single-payer. Mayor Pete says that his plan is “Medicare for All Who Want It,” but that he believes that people will just love Medicare and no one will keep their private insurance and eventually private insurance will simply wither away without the government having to kill it.
That’s a sign of someone desperately trying to have it both ways: Don’t worry, I’m totes pragmatic. But, you know, not really.
All of that aside, he’s so thoughtful and well-spoken that he’s clearly a top-tier talent. And he’s the only person on stage to vocalize a fundamental truth: “Ask yourself how someone like Donald Trump even gets within cheating distance of the Oval Office in the first place. It doesn’t happen unless America is already in a crisis.”
4. John Hickenlooper: Like Delaney, he’s not really running for president. He’s running for Secretary of the Interior or some such.
But credit him for this: He made three excellent points.
First, that Democrats didn’t win big in 2018 by being like Sanders and Warren.
Second, that you if pick your progressive battles, you can get real wins. For instance, in Colorado, he beat the NRA, but didn’t build massive government expansions.
Third, as Bernie was doing his Crazy Bernie hand waving, Hickenlooper blurted out sarcastically, “Throw your hands up.”
This was a dagger. And while it didn’t leave a mark in Detroit, someone heavier is going to use it against Bernie down the line. Take that to the bank.
5. Marianne Williamson: She got just the right amount of time—enough to make an impression, but not enough to expose her as being kind of kooky. Like when she talked about a $250 billion to $500 billion reparations package. Or the “dark psychic force.”
She’s a weird bundle of conviction politician and motivational speaker and Shirley MacLaine. And I’m pretty convinced that if this was a normal-sized Democratic field with only seven candidates in it, she’d be somewhere between 5 and 10 percent.
6. Tim Ryan and Steve Bullock (tie): Neither of them moved the needle in the way they needed to. But both made reasonable criticisms of the progressive agenda. If there is a market for this in the primaries, someone else will pick up what they’re laying down.
8. Elizabeth Warren: I’m not prepared to call it a terrible night for her. But it wasn’t good.
Warren could not differentiate herself from Sanders. And she had no good answer for the criticisms of Delaney et al.
For example, when Delaney talked about what a terrible idea getting rid of private health insurance was, at first she balked. Then she complained that Democrats shouldn’t be using Republican talking points about taking things away from people.
(As if that would be a sufficient answer in a general election.)
But then, when she finally got warmed up, she went even further to the left, explaining that the real problem with private health insurance was that the profit motive is incompatible with the health insurance sector. And that “These insurance companies do not have a God-given right to make $23 billion in profits and suck it out of our healthcare system.”
I am—how to put this delicately?—very much the target audience for Warren’s brand of anti-corporate progressivism. And even I thought to myself, “Hold on there, comrade. Are we sure we want to seize the means of production for healthcare?”
And Warren’s stock answer for all political and practical objections—that they might have unintended consequences, that they were likely to repel voters, that they would be nigh on impossible to implement—were met with one of two counterarguments:
Either, “Oh that’s just a Republican talking point.” (Which is what she said to Hickenlooper after he took apart the Green New Deal as a serious policy idea.)
Or, “[W]e can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else.” (Which is what she said when asked if she was worried about being seen as a radical socialist, like Sanders.)
Those are not compelling answers. In a general election they would be very risky answers. Though it’s possible they will resonate with Democratic primary voters.
9. Amy Klobuchar: If she had charged into the fight with Delaney and the other anti-progressives, she might have seized the night. As it was, she mostly laid back and then, weirdly, tried to talk about how tough she is. (“I was called a street fighter from the iron range by my opponent. And when she said it, I said thank you.”)
Elizabeth Warren: Trembling with rage, she flunked the stress test, and without mentioning her testosterone, or her dislike of men (especially white men), promised to “fight, fight, fight”; all the while conveying a certain derangement of mind that might compel a friend to tie her hands in rags for her own protection. Nervous Nellie, shakin’ all over!
She sounded like a Texas yodeler on crystal meth standing on a hot plate.
Bernie Sanders: Poor Bernie…feeling the rug being dragged from under him he periodically stabbed the audience with eyes crazier than ever! He kept trying to interrupt everyone, presumably asserting his new found designation as a millionaire, going after billionaires. That’s the old socialism, not the new.
Sorry Bernie, you are going to fade fast because you’ve refused money from those who are now unwilling to give. Frustrated by his attempt to stand up for the working man, his main thrust was taking his insurance away, raising his taxes, and redistributing it to non-workers. Sorry Bernie. You are melba toast.
Beto O’Rourke: Ever watch old WWII clips of prop planes spiraling into the water. “All the way, with Beto!” He got a good dunking and we await his coming up for the third breath. Won’t happen. Finished.
Klobachar: More smirk than sanctimony, putting her at a disadvantage over those who prayerfully mourn the demise of class consciousness among the non-working class who want “free stuff.” She delivered herself, with stretcher in hand, to the mortuary for political embalmment. Dismal with her time crowded out and unable to assert herself or, even on tip toes, excel the stature of her meanest interlocutor. Bye, bye.
Bullock: DANGER! DANGER! Articulate, thoughtful, with a calmness that added poise to his countenance. A definite threat to Trump. If the money begins to go his way, as it signal a need to COMPLETELY rewrite the Trump campaign play book.
Ryan: Called out the loony left, but fell slightly short of a couple of the other noncrazies. He would be formidable. He is calm, but too calm, reserved but too reserved. A guy like this could take up the washroom for an hour and still not finish. He is the “dingleberry” of the Party.
Williamson: The “Who let HER in” girl who didn’t mince her words and nearly choked. Her biggest moments did not consist in what she said but the applause she received from her racism schtick…and blah, blah, blah.
Hickenlooper: The only candidate with a name that matched his performance. Kindly soul with good intentions; the guy that makes you comfortable at a wild party AFTER he LEAVES. Good ol’ “Hicky.” Well, this was not his night for political hickies from Lizzy babes nor mayor Pete.
Worry about Delaney or Bullock. The rest “can be dealt with later.”
Bernie and Liz had the early discovered bad luck of standing next to each other. Two screaming skulls who simply looked crazier the closer together they got.
Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate offered voters a chance to understand the revolutionary changes that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seek to impose on American society. Beyond policy, the event in Detroit also confirmed that a win for either candidate would guarantee four years of bitter public discourse. Voters hoping for a kinder, gentler politics will need to look elsewhere.
So far, the big picture on the debate is the leading Democrats will criminalize private health insurance and decriminalize unauthorized border crossing. It’s a very different theory of the electorate than Democrats deployed in 08 or 12 or 18.
The sight of Sen. Warren happily rubbing her hands together at the prospect of illegally seizing wealth from rival John Delaney was worth more than a thousand words about her unconstitutional tax scheme. But Sen. Warren and the author of her health care plan, Sen. Sanders, made it clear that highly successful entrepreneurs aren’t the only targets of their ire.
Ms. Warren dismissed moderate candidates in her own party as people offering “small ideas and spinelessness.” This was her latest suggestion that Democratic colleagues who oppose her agenda do so not because of honest disagreements but because of character flaws. CNN noted her comments at last month’s debate in Miami promoting a government-run health system and a ban on private insurance:
“There are a lot of politicians who say, oh, it’s just not possible, we just can’t do it, have a lot of political reasons for this. What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it,” Warren said from her podium in the middle of the stage. “Well, health care is a basic human right, and I will fight for basic human rights.”
Perhaps some of her moderate colleagues have noticed how often governments declaring health care a basic human right end up providing horrible health care.
The comments about her Democratic colleagues were downright pleasant compared to Sen. Warren’s commentary about our President. Among other Tuesday insults she claimed that his enforcement of immigration law was merely a tool to achieve the larger goal of breaking up families.
Ms. Warren’s harsh rhetoric didn’t spare our former President, either. The Massachusetts senator alleged a “corrupt, rigged system” in the United States and implicitly included our 44th President, Barack Obama, among its administrators:
Right now, for decades, we have had a government that has been on the side of the rich and the powerful. It has been on the side of the wealthy. And that means it has not been on the side of everyone else, not on the side of people living on our Native American reservations, people living in inner cities, people living in small farms, and small communities across this country.
Yes, the white lawyer who claimed to be “American Indian” and then snagged an Ivy League professorship is now complaining about the impact of a “corrupt, rigged system” on Native Americans.
On Tuesday night in Detroit, Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders condemned entire industries which employ millions of Americans. Sen. Sanders had this to say about energy producers:
We’ve got to ask ourselves a simple question: What do you do with an industry that knowingly, for billions of dollars in short-term profits, is destroying this planet? I say that is criminal activity that cannot be allowed to continue.
Will Mr. Sanders consider the possibility that many people in the energy industry simply don’t agree with his climate assessment or think that imposing huge economic costs now is not the best way to respond to a potential threat? Certainly such opinions are held by tens of millions of Americans who don’t work in the energy industry.
Of course for the socialist Mr. Sanders the real problem is not with the energy industry but with industry, period. He said that when it comes to health care, companies inventing medicines and operating health plans “are going to war against the American people.” Ms. Warren offered similarly outrageous smears.
“Fight, fight, fight, fight. There is no syllable more central to Warren’s campaign,” writes Frank Bruni in the New York Times. He’s among those skeptical that most voters “want a government at bitter war with all of corporate America.”
Given the vitriol Sen. Warren has directed even at her own colleagues—and the many businesses condemned by both Sens. Warren and Sanders—voters may wonder how hard it will be to stay off Washington’s enemies list come 2021.
It says volumes that Delaney, Bullock and Ryan, who actually might not scare off undecided voters or Trump Democrats, have zero chance of winning the Democratic nomination.