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The Night of the Mad Moderates

The Democratic field's centrists spent Tuesday's debate working through their status anxiety.

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

It’s getting more difficult by the day to remember the vigor with which former Vice President Joe Biden jumped into the presidential race earlier this year. One of the important documents of that moment in the spring was a piece in Politico Magazine by Bill Scher titled ”Did The Left Misread the 2020 Democratic Primary?” To a not inconsiderable number of pundits, an obvious answer was taking shape, just a few weeks into Biden’s candidacy. “He has dominated the polls since he entered the race last month,” Scher wrote. “Before Biden announced, he was at a measly 29 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, only 6 percentage points ahead of progressive favorite Bernie Sanders, who not all that long ago looked like a genuine co-front-runner. Since then, Biden has surged to 40 percent, kicking Sanders down to the mid-teens.”

Scher went on to explain that the threat of Trump’s reelection had made most of the primary electorate “more cautious and less radical,” a mindset favorable to Biden and at odds with assertions that a large share of Democrats were hungry for ambitious policy change. “It’s indisputable that such a faction exists among Democratic primary voters,” he wrote. “But if the left is wrong about its breadth, it will take more than a good clapback tweet for them to figure out what to do next.” In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait agreed. “Perhaps it was the party’s intelligentsia, not Biden, that was out of touch with the modern Democratic electorate,” he wrote. “The conclusion that Biden could not lead the post-Obama Democratic Party is the product of misplaced assumptions about the speed of its transformation. Yes, the party has moved left, but not nearly as far or as fast as everybody seemed to believe.”

This was a premature assertion for a variety of reasons, the simplest of which being math. The initial spike in Biden’s support following his announcement leveled off by mid-June, at which point polls clearly showed that the combined constituency for the race’s progressive standard bearers, Sanders and Warren, was as large or larger than Biden’swithout even counting the supporters of formerly moderate candidates who had taken from the 2016 election no small amount of encouragement to move leftward, such as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. 

We have seen since that Warren’s progressivism has neither prevented her from broadening her base of support within the primary electorate, nor from taking the lead from Biden in a growing number of polls. Sanders, in third place, remains very much in the hunt having raised more money than any other candidate. Biden, by contrast, is lagging in fundraising and, it was reported Tuesday night, has only about $8 million in cash on hand. Even his advantage in perceived electability among Democratic voters seems to be waning, thanks perhaps in part to Hunter Biden and the Ukraine situation. The rest of the field’s moderates have failed to build any meaningfully large constituency and some have been forced to move substantially left on issues including healthcare and climate change to keep themselves relevant within the Democratic policy discourse and within public view. 

Amy Klobuchar has been an exception to the latter, having shown throughout the race so far a gritty determination to offer the Democratic primary electorate as little as possible. This approach hasn’t worked very well, oddly enough, and at Tuesday night’s debate, her frustration with progressives boiled over in response to Warren’s suggestion that opponents of a wealth tax want “to protect billionaires.”

“I want to give a reality check to Elizabeth,” she said huffily. “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even [billionaire Tom Steyer] wants to protect billionaires. We have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.” Klobuchar then went on to argue for repealing Trump’s income and corporate tax cuts. “You add it all up, you got a lot of money that...helps pay for that child care, protects that dignity of work, makes sure we have decent retirement and makes sure that our kids can go to good schools. It is not one idea that rules here.”

Warren replied that Klobuchar had entirely missed the point of instituting a new tax on wealth on top of revisiting income tax rates. 

“The rich are not like you and me,” she said. “The really, really billionaires are making their money off their accumulated wealth and it just keeps growing. We need a wealth tax in order to make investments in the next generation. Look, I understand that this is hard, but I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started.”

“I think simply because you have different ideas doesn’t mean you’re fighting for regular people,” Klobuchar replied. “We are in Ohio. We can win Ohio and the presidency, but only if we uniteif we unite around ideals and don’t go fighting against each other and instead take the fight to [President Donald Trump].” Klobuchar revived this appeal to electoral strategy later in the debate. “We can’t get any of this done on climate change or immigration reform unless we win,” she said. “And what I have done is win. I’m the only one up here, time and time againthe reddest of red districts, Michele Bachmann’s, I won that district three times, rural districts at the border of Iowa and North and South Dakota. And I do it by going not just where it’s comfortable, but where it’s uncomfortable.”

This was voiced with the same kind of indignation towards progressives expressed all year by moderate House Democrats, annoyed that their part in retaking the House had been eclipsed by the rise of AOC and “The Squad.” It was voiced, too, by figures like Claire McCaskill, whose Senate loss last year hasn’t prevented her from obtaining a high-profile cable news consultancy, a perch from which she regularly celebrates the presumed electoral durability of centrist Democrats. And it was voiced, towards the end of the debate, by Joe Biden, who responded gruffly to Elizabeth Warren’s referencing of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an example of her getting big things done in Washington.

“I went on the floor and got you votes,” he said, with an edge in his voice. “I got votes on that bill. I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight.”  Warren amusingly deflated Biden’s bluster with a thankful paean to President Barack Obama, but Biden got his point across: moderates are the glue that hold the system together, without whom nothing can be accomplished or even contemplated. 

While other moderates in the race, most especially Biden, have talked up bridging the partisan divide in an amorphous, almost spiritual sense, Buttigieg argued, at least as far as health care policy was concerned, that the best way to heal country was through policy moderation. The Sanders vision for Medicare for All, he said, would only inflame existing political tensions. 

“Our country will be polarized more than now—after everything we have been through, after everything we are about to go through, this country will be more divided. Why divide this country over health care when there’s a better way to deliver coverage for all?” This was an odd shift from a candidate who spent early debates encouraging candidates to ignore inevitable Republican efforts to paint Democrats as extreme. It was also a misleading elision of the differences between Medicare for All and the plan he has proposed: The very choice as to whether or not enroll in a public option, which Buttigieg likes to tout, means that his plan would not necessarily deliver care to all, and it would moreover preserve for the insured the cost sharing eliminated under Medicare for All. Buttigieg’s framing is nevertheless common in moderate rhetoric. Beyond being electorally necessary, progressives are told, moderates actually share the same goals as figures further left—that the party’s divisions are ultimately a matter of choosing between reasonable and unreasonable paths to the same destination. 

In truth, Democratic moderates and progressives fundamentally disagree about the scale of the problems facing the countryand the planetas well as the solutions they require. Tuesday night’s debate was a reminder that the tensions present in discussions of healthcare, or climate change, or the basic structure of the economy will be sustained not only through the rest of the primary but well into the next Democratic administrationand that the obstacles to passing ambitious legislation will be not just provided by Republicans. Haughty and bitter moderate Democrats, all just as miffed as Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Biden seemed to be Tuesday night that the party is moving away from them, will pose their own challenges.