Last night’s Democratic Party presidential nominee debate in Ohio – amid a biggest-ever-on-the-same-stage gaggle of twelve nattering naybobs clamoring for attention – reminded us of Max Ehrmann’s 1920s prose poem ‘Desiderata’ about life being a struggle at times.
The word desiderata means “things that are desired,” which is exactly what last night was all about – offering Americans everything they’ve ever desired (and the rich will pay), sadly missing out on Ehrmann’s real topic of remaining honest to oneself and others (something that seems to have disappeared entirely from our political sphere.
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story…”
Anderson Cooper gave Joe Biden full absolution on all things Ukraine-related, the rest of the field went after Elizabeth Warren for not admitting she’s going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for her socialized medicine, and everyone went all-in for abortion.
So with that in mind, what were the big takeaways from last night’s (fourth) Democratic debates?
Warren in the firing line
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has jumped to the top of some national polls recently, and her status as the new front-runner was underlined when several of her rivals attacked her.
They clearly see an urgent need to curb her momentum.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) were among the most aggressive in jabbing at Warren early on, though others, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), joined the fray later.
Warren by no means crumbled. But she was put on the defensive as she has never been before.
On her “Medicare for All” plan, Buttigieg argued it limited choice, while Klobuchar hit her refusal to acknowledge that paying for it would almost certainly involve tax hikes.
Warren’s argument on the tax issue — that voters are concerned about overall costs, and that any tax increase would be offset because there would be no private insurance premiums — is logically defensible. But her rivals will exploit her tendency to sound evasive on the tax point.
The Massachusetts senator seemed to become more comfortable as the night wore on. And her basic position that Democrats need a platform more ambitious than one that “nibbles around the edges of the big problems in this country” has real magnetism for progressive voters.
Warren survived her first turn in the firing line competently. But everyone will be watching the polls in coming days to see whether the sustained attacks on Tuesday slowed her march.
A bad night for Biden — again
Indifferent debate performances have been a problem for former Vice President Joe Biden before — and he failed to break the streak on Tuesday.
The 76-year-old faded into the background for large swathes in Westerville. When he did gain the spotlight, his answers were prone, once again, to lack sharpness or punch.
Even though Biden is two years younger than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), he continues to sprinkle his remarks with much more anachronistic phrases. On Tuesday, he talked about people “clipping coupons in the stock market” — a reference that seemed several decades out of date.
Biden’s backers would argue that his support has always come from older, more centrist Democrats and that he is the strongest candidate to take on Trump.
But there was nothing remotely dominant about his performance on Tuesday night.
Bernie bounces back — with AOC’s help
Sanders came into this debate facing serious questions about his health. It was the 78-year-old’s first major appearance since having a heart attack.
The Vermont Independent began putting those worries to rest with a typically feisty performance. There was no sign of a lack of vigor or stamina.
But the biggest boost to the veteran democratic socialist came from outside the debate hall.
As the clashes in Westerville were winding down, The Washington Post broke the news that he would be endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) at a Saturday rally in Queens, N.Y. Soon after, news emerged that Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) would also back him.
The endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez was arguably bigger news than anything that happened on the debate stage on Tuesday. The young left-wing icon’s endorsement may not be a surprise in itself — she worked as a volunteer organizer for Sanders’s 2016 campaign — but the timing delivers a jolt of excitement to his campaign at just the right moment.
It will also come as a disappointment to Warren, whom Ocasio-Cortez had also previously praised.
Buttigieg seizes his moment
Buttigieg was the single standout performer on Tuesday. He took the fight to Warren, was prominent in the key early stages of the debate and made his case more broadly as a candidate able to connect with voters beyond the liberal base.
Buttigieg has always been an effective television performer, and he has showed startling fundraising strength.
He has, however, struggled to translate those assets into real momentum in the polls.
The 37-year-old mayor’s path into serious contention lies in the possibility that he could supplant Biden as the centrist standard-bearer against the progressive wing of the party, represented by Warren and Sanders.
He helped himself in a big way on Tuesday — and Biden’s weakness also played into his hands.
Harris misfires with Warren attack
Harris shone in the first Democratic debates in Miami in late June, but she has faded in the polls since then.
She enjoyed a good moment early on Tuesday when she turned a general discussion of health care to the topic of women’s reproductive rights — a winning move with the crowd in the hall, and presumably with a lot of Democratic voters.
Just as memorable — but for the wrong reasons, from Harris’s perspective — was a later exchange with Warren on the subject of President Trump’s Twitter account.
Harris pressed Warren on why she wouldn’t support Harris’s push to have Trump banned from the social media platform. But Warren easily turned the attack around by saying that she was focused on removing Trump from the White House, not just from Twitter.
Harris persisted with the confrontation but the overall effect was to diminish herself rather than Warren, with the California senator seeming mean-spirited and somewhat petty.
It was a bad moment for a candidate who could ill afford one.
Prefer visual aids, here is The Daily Caller…
But, taking a bigger picture view of what occurred, The Nation’s Jeet Heer notes that the divide between the left and the moderates now defines the Democratic party.
With a dozen voices contending to be heard, it was impossible for the three leading candidates—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden—to dominate the conversation or engage in extended arguments.
Instead, the crowded field divided into two major teams, the left and the moderates.
Sanders and Warren commanded the left team, but they were occasionally helped out by Julian Castro, Cory Booker, and, surprisingly, billionaire Tom Steyer, who agreed with Sanders’s contention that the rich have too much power in American society. Tulsi Gabarrd was the wild card of the group, supporting the left team on many occasions but occasionally veering off on her own, as in her willingness to accept unspecified restrictions on reproductive freedom.
The moderate Democratic team was larger, led by Joe Biden but also including Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Yang were the wild cards on this side, occasionally taking hard-line or outlier positions, but basically agreeing with the moderate team’s emphasis on national unity, civility, and the need to avoid radical change. Yang’s advocacy of the Universal Basic Income was more far-reaching than any other position on the moderate side, but it fell far short of Sanders’s call for a federal job guarantee. Similarly, O’Rourke’s strong position on gun control shouldn’t mask the fact that he’s not on board with any fundamental changes in the economic order.
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie noted that “one consistent thread in these debates is how Castro (and Booker, to a lesser extent) regularly play the assist to Warren.” One way to think about this pattern is that Castro and Booker are auditioning to be vice-presidential picks if Warren is the nominee. Similarly, by sniping at Warren, Buttigieg was auditioning to be Joe Biden’s running mate.
As in the earlier debates, Sanders and Warren are clearly the intellectual leaders of the field, the ones who are defining the direction of the party with bold ideas like Medicare for All. Tellingly, the moderates often say they share the goals of these ideas, but they demur about the execution and emphasize the need to unify the nation against Donald Trump.
The recurring rhetorical move of the moderates is to concede that the goals the left wants are admirable and suggest that there are less divisive ways to get the same results. The problem with this argument is that in the polarized America of 2019, with Donald Trump regularly accusing Democrats of treason, the goal of conciliation seems utopian. Democratic voters very clearly want a fighter, which is one reason Warren is on the cusp of becoming a front-runner. Sanders, too, although he’s running third, has a solid base made up of one in six Democratic voters. On the moderate side, only Joe Biden has taken off, and his appeal is reliant on a nostalgia for the Obama era.
In terms of setting the policy goal, there’s only one team winning in the Democratic primaries: the left.
And with all that in mind, we revert back to Desiderata:
“With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”