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The End of the Ideas Primary

For months, the Democratic presidential field has seemed to relish expanding the universe of policy possibility, but that energy stalled in Thursday night's debate.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The first mention of health care came about two hours into Thursday night’s Democratic primary debate, the last such encounter until 2020. This was a departure from previous debates, in which questions about Medicare for All and competing plans from the candidates have come early in the proceedings, and in many ways, it was a welcome one. Several critical topics typically ignored or saved for the end of the night were given pride of place by PBS, including climate change. But the very first question of the night, unsurprisingly, was about impeachment and what the candidates might do in the coming weeks to drum up support for President Donald Trump’s conviction.

By beginning the debate this way, the moderators were following not only recent headlines but a clear shift in the direction of the race. At year’s end, about a month and a half away from the Iowa caucuses, the ideas primary is over. The rough outlines of the candidates’ ideological positions within the party having been established to voters, the discourse has moved on to other matters. Barbs over Pete Buttigieg’s fundraiser at an opulent Napa wine cave, for instance, took up the sort of time and rhetorical energy that a previous debate might have seen devoted to the idea of decriminalizing border crossings, or the 1994 crime bill. The discussion was an opportunity for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to drive home lines about money in politics and the breadth of their support from ordinary Americans—Sanders offered a joke about Buttigieg catching up to Joe Biden’s number of billionaire donors—but the subject overall, along with an extended exchange between Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg on experience, recalled primaries past and political routine. There’s a fight about donors every election. For a time, the 2020 Democratic primary was about something more.

That ended, more or less, with Warren’s retreat from supporting Medicare for All to backing a public option plan fastened to a promise—or a prayer—to attempt Medicare for All late in her first term. It was a notable concession to the center from a candidate who has rooted her campaign in her ability to offer an array of new progressive policy ideas. In truth, most of the candidates made similar offerings—Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand spent the better part of the last three years introducing a steady stream of proposals and statements well to the left of what was the Democratic Party’s ideological center in 2016. A federal job guarantee and reparations are now ideas that serious Democratic candidates can float, thanks to the hopes these candidates had for competing with Sanders for a share of progressive Democrats. With Booker’s campaign fading, Warren is effectively the last of this gang standing, and her recent strategy suggests the Democratic Party’s drive leftward has been paused.

This is largely Pete Buttigieg’s doing. The South Bend mayor has raised doubts about Warren, Medicare for All, and progressivism among the Democratic rank and file. “Right now, I think we’re being offered a false choice,” he said Thursday night. “You either have to go all the way to the extreme or it’s business as usual. Yes, we must deliver big ideas and yes, taxes on wealthy individuals and on corporations are going to have to go up. We can also be smart about the promises we’re making.” Being smart, for Buttigieg, means, among other things, means-testing free college admission. “If you’re in that top 10 percent, how about you pay your own tuition and we save those dollars for something else that we could spend them on that would make a big difference?” Sanders made an admirable case for universality in response to this—“people are sick and tired of filling out forms,” he said memorably—but Buttigieg’s framing of the issue has been and will continue to be echoed by the press.

One of his bolder rhetorical moves might also catch on. “We’ve got to break out of the Washington mind-set,” he said at one point, “that measures the bigness of an idea by how many trillions of dollars it adds to the budget or the boldness of an idea by how many fellow Americans it can antagonize.” The implication here is that Medicare for All and other bold progressive policy ideas—having arrived in the Democratic mainstream practically yesterday—should now be considered part of the old Washington consensus. There was some truth to this when centrist Democrats said the same a generation ago—there really had been an era of big government for Clinton to declare to be “over”—although Reagan had already done most of the job. Moderation has seemed shiny and new to party elites ever since. We’re in at least the fifth act of Democratic centrism, and Buttigieg seems poised to lead it no matter how well he does in the primary.

As far as the race itself goes, he’ll have a hard time sweeping Biden aside—the former vice president remains formidable in national and early state polls and seemed more vigorous than he has all year at the debate, even as he offered the fundamentally tired message that has defined his campaign. “I refuse to accept the notion, as some on the stage do, that we can never, never get to a place where we have cooperation,” he said. “Again, if that’s the case, we’re dead as a country. We need to be able to reach consensus.” And when consensus seems out of reach? “When we can’t convince them,” he continued, “we go out and beat them like we did in the 2018 election—red states and in purple.”

The primary rests on who can convince the Democratic electorate they can accomplish this. Bernie Sanders, not the first choice for voters who have prioritized electability, offered his own theory of electoral success. “Let me tell you how you win it—you have the largest voter turnout in the history of America,” he said:

And you don’t have the largest voter turnout unless you create energy and excitement. And you don’t create energy and excitement unless you are prepared to take on the people who own America and are prepared to speak to the people who are working in America. We need a progressive agenda.

The field of candidates signaling they agree has winnowed considerably.