Detroit Debates, Night One: Democrats Face their Fears

Round 2 of the regular season for the Democratic presidential nomination kicked off Tuesday.  Ten candidates, who were randomly chosen (and better selected than NBC), took the stage this night in Detroit.  The other half, including presumptive former Vice President Joe Biden, will do so on Wednesday.  Candidates did their best to put some distance between themselves and their rivals, with questions from CNN moderators more designed to generate clicks, views, likes, and retweets than actual substance.  A host of issues were addressed, but the theme of this night was fear.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Delaney, and Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) made the case for moderation.

Anxiety stalks the Democratic Party,” as The Atlantic’s David Graham put it.  In this case, much of the anxiety is coming from inside the house.  Several candidates— occasionally Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, but especially Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and John Hickenlooper— expressed their fear that the Democratic car was driving off a cliff.  A socialist cliff.  They hoped to scare the voters and the grassroots, and remind them of the very real possibility of handing Donald Trump an easy re-election with the wrong candidate peddling an unrealistic message.

On health care, the moderates illustrated the folly of, in the words of Delaney, “telling half the country, who has private health insurance, that their health insurance is illegal.”  Ryan, who has made his campaign about reconquering the union vote, raised the possibility that an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders candidacy would put their bloc at further risk.  “This plan,” he warned, “will tell those Union members who gave away wages in order to get good healthcare that they’re going to lose their healthcare because Washington’s going to come in and tell them they got a better plan.”  That divide became clearer as the night went on.  As Hickenlooper warned, “you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.”

Progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) pulled their punches Tuesday, saving their best shots for their mutual rivals.

On the other hand, if there was one viral moment from the night’s debate, it was Warren’s finishing move on the hapless Delaney.  When it comes to the progressives’ big ideas, Delaney has been among the most vocal in these forums, insisting that the math doesn’t work— fiscal or electoral.  “I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not empty promises.”  It teed Warren up (and off) beautifully.  “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to be the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.  I don’t get it.”  From Medicare for All to free college, decriminalizing immigration to the Green New Deal, progressives believe they have a real opportunity against an historically unpopular president.  The real fear, from their perspective, would be wasting it.

Tuesday certainly had the potential of becoming a turning point in the race, depending on which side partisans take in their time for choosing.  It could be the night the moderates struck back— rescuing their party from the temptation of unpopular, fringe ideas; reminding them of the importance of electability; grounding them in the politics of the possible.  Most voters probably didn’t watch tonight, which squares nicely with an article from Arthur Brooks on political and social bubbles.  While the loudest voices are sure to have won Democratic Twitter, “only about 22 percent of U.S. adults are on Twitter, and 80 percent of the tweets come from 10 percent of users.”  Alternatively, tonight was the night that Warren and Sanders told Democrats, “be ye not afraid.”  The base wants boldness, arguably what three of the top four represent.

We’ll see you tomorrow night!

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Robert Martin (CN Staff)

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