The Revenge of the Moderates: How Bold Pragmatism Won the Democratic Debate Last Night

Last night’s Democratic primary debate, hosted by PBS Newshour and Politico, was smaller than previous debates. Seven candidates made it to the stage (an eighth qualified candidate, Kamala Harris, is no longer in the race), and the debate lasted roughly two and a half hours.

In my view, there was a clear winner: bold pragmatism.

The pragmatic flank of the party - Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg - were strong, commanded the stage, and put the far left flank (represented by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) on the defensive. They called out the far left’s faux-populist demagoguery, pointed out the absurdity of their arguments, and made a convincing case for center-left policies as well as posture. Below are some of the exchanges in the debate that carried the night.

Early on, Biden neutered the far left’s talking point about cooperation with Republicans.

Joe Biden - and by extension, pragmatists and center-left moderates - have been ridiculed for some time by the far left for entertaining the possibility that bipartisan legislating, to even a small extent, may be possible. Biden has been further denigrated for wanting to return decency, and thus some modicum of normalcy, against the tide of hurricane politics espoused by Trump, the far right, and the far left.

Last night, Biden reminded his competitors and his audience that he understands what it is like to be aggrieved by Republicans because of the way Republicans have personally attacked him and his family. “If anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans and not want to cooperate it's me, the way they've attacked me, my son, and my family.” And despite that, he refused to accept that cooperation will never again be possible at all. At once, Biden destroyed the far left’s case that he did not understand Republican reality and called on everyone to rise above pettiness in politics. Pretty presidential.

But Biden also made it clear that he did not think Republicans will suddenly sing kumbaya with him once Trump is gone, but only that with Trump defeated, the handful of Republicans Democrats may need to pass legislation may become easier to get.

Biden and Buttigieg Savaged Sanders and Warren, respectively, on money in politics.

How a campaign raises their resources has always been a calling card for the ideologue left. Directly and indirectly, candidates on the far left have declared their success in raising money from monthly, online, credit card donations as liberation from the influence of big money, as they have attacked those who utilize other resources, like a traditional in-person fundraiser, as puppets of the master class.

This is a particularly insidious form of demagoguery, because empirical evidence shows that the individual small donor universe is tiny (0.6% of US adults make political contributions), disproportionately male (men contribute 71% of the dollars), largely white, and systematically disadvantages candidates with the highest support among communities of color. But despite the evidence, it is easy to create the false impression that the higher a candidate’s dependence on what is essentially the Trump demo, the more incorruptible they are.

That demagoguery was broken down last night in two exchanges: one between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg; the other between Vice President Biden and Sen. Sanders.

Buttigieg reminds Warren that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

After Buttigieg delivered a passionate, convincing argument that in this election, Democrats could ill afford to turn away support and resources against a president who has already amassed a $300 million war chest and is inviting foreign help, Warren moved to undercut him by criticizing about Buttigieg’s fundraisers.

Buttigieg swiftly returned fire, pointing out that everyone else running, including Warren, is a millionaire or a billionaire, and that the Democratic party cannot go down the road of purity tests. “Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine,” Buttigieg exclaimed, and wondered whether Warren thinks that any campaign contribution she gives as a wealthy person is polluted. Buttigieg also called out Warren’s hypocrisy of starting her presidential campaign by transferring millions of dollars raised from big donors in high dollar fundraisers from her Senate campaign coffers. Warren appeared deflated.


Biden goes big on campaign finance reform, Sanders fails to land a blow.

The biggest reason attacks like Warren’s and Sanders’s work is people (often correctly) assume that taking large contributions makes a candidate beholden to special interests. If you are taking money from the wealthy, the argument goes, they must want something, and you must want to give them that. Some purists on this issue, like Warren, have even called those donations ‘bribes.’

What’s the antidote to this argument? Be the candidate who commits to getting all private money out of politics.

Joe Biden did just that after Bernie Sanders attempted to make a point by counting off the number of billionaires who have donated to Biden and Buttigieg. Bernie doesn’t talk about millioanires who donate to campaigns anymore, curiously, having become one with swelling personal fortunes from his last run for president.

Biden turned Sanders’s argument on its head, declaring that he, Biden, is the candidate who has made a Constitutional Amendment mandating the public financing of all election - the ultimate progressive campaign finance reform - the centerpiece of his agenda. Sanders, likely with a bruised ego, missed a golden opportunity to publicly sign on to such an amendment. The truth is that Sanders probably doesn’t want such an amendment to be enacted, because it would eliminate the advantage his band of subscription politics.

Biden and Klobuchar teamed up to take on Bernie Sanders on health care.

With Elizabeth Warren having effectively abandoned single-payer Medicare for All, Sanders was left on the stage as the only candidate still advocating for a full repeal of Obamacare on day one. The pragmatists on the stage were ready to defend their ideas - expanding the Affordable Care Act to achieve universal coverage with the addition of a public option open to all and expanded subsidies for coverage - as bold and right, and not as some temporary solution.

Biden led the attack, pointing out not only the searing cost of Beniecare at up to $40 trillion on top of current public spending on health care, but that Berniecare would seek to have Washington dictate the surrender of health care plans often won as the hard work of labor unions. Biden pointed out that presently, only 16% of Americans have Medicare, and already every working person pays into it, regardless of whether they are on Medicare or not.

Amy Klobuchar - who famously defanged Bernie Sanders’s “I wrote the damn bill” Medicare for All talking point in a previous debate by saying, “but I read the bill” - was also in no mood to suffer purist fools. She interrupted and contradicted Sanders when Sanders accused Biden of advocating for the status quo. Sanders was clearly not expecting candidates opposing single payer plans to ban together just as those supporting it - he and Warren - were drifting apart on the issue.

Klobuchar also made a point of saying that she would reduce the cost of prescription drugs and take on the drug companies within the current system, and the very idea that reforms can reduce cost within the current system cuts the central cost argument for Medicare for All.

By the end of the debate, the pragmatist, center-left, moderate candidates on the stage had emerged not just as a coalition of the possible, but with the best claim on good ideas. They’d made it clear that they were prepared to take the fight - on policy and not just on politics - to the ideologues. They picked up the mantle of politics not merely as the art of the possible but marketplace of ideas.

Last night, the pragmatists were the bold ones. They called out ideologues on policy and on tactic. They won.

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