The Democratic Debates: Where Does A Centrist Go?

The Democratic Debates: Where Does A Centrist Go?


Leonard Zwelling

I watched every minute of the two debates on June 26 and 27. Twenty candidates are a lot to get through and surely some would have advantages over the others. This was guaranteed as the moderators tended to ask questions of those at the center of the stage, those with higher poll numbers. That being said, I thought that the five NBC celebs, most of whom were more recognizable than most of the people on stage, did a reasonable job of spreading the air time while still giving those with the highest likelihood of actually prevailing the most oxygen.

As far as winners and losers are concerned, the first night’s opening half belonged to Elizabeth Warren with Julian Castro pummeling Beto O’Rourke in the second half. Beto looked like he had just awoken from a long nap. The rest of the first night group save for Corey Booker were not worth your consideration. They aren’t going to be the nominees no matter how earnest or qualified they may be. They will simply run out of money. What Castro did was probably move the Texas money from Beto to him and that might keep him in the mix for the next round.

Thursday was more fun for a whole lot of reasons. First, everyone on the second stage knew what to expect from the moderators.

Second, they knew that skillful shouting might get them air time.

Third, the two old targets of the rest of the field, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, were there. And away they went.

There is no argument about who won Thursday’s debate. Kamala Harris was ready to go and confronted Vice President Biden and backed him into a corner about his voting record on busing and his cozying up to Southern segregationists during his career in the Senate. Biden had no answer. He was flummoxed when he should have been ready. He looked confused and out of place. Bernie sounded angry and not very presidential. He had his shot the last time in 2016. He’s not the guy.

If either of those two guys get the nomination, Trump will not have to worry about packing up his office until 2025.

Pete Bittigieg had a good night, too and probably should be given second place on Thursday.

So here’s the way I see this very early in the 2020 cycle. The following people are still in the hunt: Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and maybe Michael Bennet and Amy Klobuchar, but the latter two may not be realistic. I just don’t think the others will have the money or signatures to make it another round. Joe and Bernie are yesterday’s fish. We know what they will smell like the next morning if they run against Trump.

Let’s say I am close to being right. Where’s the problem?

Where’s the center? (Please see Bret Stephens NYT op-ed from June 29).

Donald Trump makes no bones about the fact that he owns the Republican Party and most of the conservatives in the country. That’s about one-third of the electorate. Maybe a third could be considered progressive (although that may be high) and those folks have many choices in that list. What about the rest of us?

Most of the American people in the center back Biden, but he’s clearly not tomorrow’s candidate, but yesterday’s. He cannot keep up with the younger candidates and clearly was unprepared for what he should have known was coming his way. The dominant candidates in the Democratic field are very progressive with each fighting to get to the left of the others. That’s a losing formula against Mr. Trump and Trump knows it. He’s probably smiling in Japan knowing those who did best in the debates are the very people he wants to run against.

Somehow, the Democratic Party has got to figure out a way to make itself a majority party, not the party of the progressive wing. It will take more sorting out to see who emerges and I may be completely wrong and Amy Klobuchar, a moderate Midwesterner, may emerge from the pack.

For now, the winners on the two stages are very progressive and will have a tough time selling their ideas about health care, the economy, immigration, taxes and education to the American people who really want some of that stuff but want to hear how these candidates will get someone else to pay for them.

Me, too.

The real problem, as multiple editorialists have pointed out since the debates, is that where these candidates are on such issues as Medicare for all, decriminalization of illegal entry into the U.S., college debt forgiveness, and reparations is not where most of America is. In particular, it is not where the Obama-Trump voters they need to woo back are.

The Democrats had better get real. One hundred and eighty million people do not want their private health insurance canceled so that they can pay higher taxes for a single payer system run by the folks who gave you $600 toilet seats. Abortion is still no slam dunk for many and right now the Dems look like the party that wants to take more of your tax money and spend it on anyone but you.

If the Democrats hope to even challenge Mr. Trump, who, if nothing else, flies in the face of liberalism, they will have to arrive at a new centrist message. The two debate nights looked like more of what got Mr. Trump elected in the first place.

Bulletin Democrats. Winning the primary is not the goal. Winning the White House is. You can’t do the latter without the former, but what you do to get the former can disqualify you for the latter. Tough balancing act. Who has the chops?

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