Halfway through the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit on Tuesday night, there was an illuminating exchange between Senator Elizabeth Warren, who consistently polls in the double digits, and former Representative John Delaney, who does not. “I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy-tale economics,” he said, implicitly taking aim at Warren’s bold platform.
The Massachusetts senator often says on the campaign trail that she has “got a plan.” In Detroit, she also had a response to those, like Delaney, who knock her plans. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she fired back. It was the line of the night. The audience cheered; Twitter pundits declared a TKO. Delaney eked out a rebuttal about Social Security and private pensions, but was unable to get up off the mat for the rest of the night.
This back-and-forth epitomized the debate as a whole, which, with a few exceptions, broke into two camps. On one side were centrists like Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, and Steve Bullock, who tried to cast themselves as pragmatic progressives in a party that has shifted dramatically leftward. On the other were the two Democrats most responsible for that shift, Warren and Bernie Sanders, who spent the evening batting away moderate critiques of their wide-ranging plans.
The debate thus reflected a fundamental divide within the Democratic Party as a whole. Some describe it as a war for the soul of the party, one that began with Hillary Clinton’s defeat of Sanders in the 2016 party and only intensified with her loss to Donald Trump. If Tuesday night is any indication, it’s clear which side has the ideas, energy, and political mettle to win.
Warren set the tone for the night in stark terms. “We’re not going to solve the problems we face with small ideas and spinelessness,” she said in her opening statement. “We need to be the party of big, structural change. I understand what’s broken, I know how to fix it, and I’m willing to fight to make it happen.” Sanders, who played the bad cop to her good cop, reiterated that his goal was to “not only defeat Trump but to transform our economy and our government.”
Bullock, who only joined the race in mid-May and didn’t qualify for the previous debate, instead made a pseudo-populist appeal to Middle America. “I come from a state where a lot of people voted for Donald Trump,” the Montana governor said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. He will be hard to beat. Yet watching that last debate, folks seemed more concerned about scoring points or outdoing each other with wish-list economics, than making sure Americans know we hear their voices and will help their lives.”
The aforementioned moderates, all of whom are polling well below Warren and Sanders, received a helpful boost from CNN’s moderators, whose questions often seemed designed to tee up familiar centrist criticisms of the party’s ascendant left wing. “Are you saying that Senator Sanders is too extreme to be president?” Jake Tapper asked Hickenlooper at one point. He then asked a variation of this question to other candidates, for instance asking Bullock: “We’re talking about whether Democrats are moving too far to the left to win the White House. President Trump won your home state of Montana by 20 points. How do you respond, sir?”
These moments gave some lower-profile contenders a chance to attack their top-tier rivals, though to little avail. “On Medicare For All, the hospitals will save substantial sums of money because they’re not going to be spending a fortune doing billing and the other bureaucratic things that they have to do today,” Sanders said. “I’ve done the math, it doesn’t add up,” Delaney chimed in. “Maybe you did that and made money off of health care,” Sanders fired back, referencing Delaney’s past work in the industry, “but our job is to run a nonprofit health care system.”
Ryan, an Ohio congressman known for mounting a challenge to Nancy Pelosi for House speaker, tried to outflank Sanders by raising questions about Medicare for All’s effect on organized labor. “Can you guarantee those union members that the benefits under Medicare for All will be as good as the benefits that their union reps fought hard to negotiate?” he asked Sanders. When Sanders began to assert that they would be, Ryan tried to contradict him. “But you don’t know that, Bernie,” he said. “I do know it, I wrote the damn bill,” Sanders replied.
Part of the moderates’ attacks were driven by clear ideological divisions. Criticizing Medicare for All, Delaney said “we don’t have to go around and be the party of subtraction, and telling half the country, who has private health insurance, that their health insurance is illegal.” Hickenlooper said the Green New Deal would “make sure that every American’s guaranteed a government job if they want,” and that it’s “a disaster at the ballot box. You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.” And Bullock criticized his rivals who advocated for decriminalizing illegal border crossings. “We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now,” he said. “If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that.”
But there was also a whiff of desperation in all this scare-mongering, as the moderates tried to land blows against their more popular, and more poised, rivals. That strategy is forgivable, since this week’s debates may be their last chance to break through. Under the Democratic National Committee’s rules, candidates must have 130,000 unique donors spread across at least 20 states and poll above 2 percent in four reputable national surveys. According to NPR, only seven candidates currently qualify for the September debates.
Not everyone joined the fray on Tuesday night. Pete Buttigieg, who has already qualified for September’s debates, sparred with Sanders over student-debt relief at one point, but generally refrained from making sweeping ideological jabs as his Midwestern counterparts. Beto O’Rourke, who has also qualified, made familiar stabs at soaring rhetoric, but left no impression. Amy Klobuchar, who is expected to qualify for September, played up her Midwestern bona fides but never landed a punch (or took one, for that matter).
And then there was Marianne Williamson, who proved to be an unusual but effective presence on the debate stage at times. “I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” she said while Sanders and Buttigieg sparred over the merits of cancelling student loan debt versus more centrist alternatives. “You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people. That is what governments should do.” Williamson also went further than other candidates by fixing a $500 billion figure to her reparations proposal, and delivered a searing indictment of racial inequality and bigotry in America.
But it was Warren and Sanders who delivered the most convincing visions for the future of the Democratic Party—and indeed for the country. Sanders did so by remaining relentlessly on message, as he has been for years, about dismantling the American oligarchy. Warren, meanwhile, appealed to Democrats who may want to dismantle the oligarchy, but who also live in fear of four more years of Trump—the voters, in other words, who are susceptible to the moderate candidates’ unfounded claims of electability.
“I get it,” she said. “There is a lot at stake, and people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in. Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it. I am not afraid. And for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid, either.”