A Smaller, Whiter, Meaner Democratic Debate

Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang got unprecedented air time in the seven-person Democratic debate on Thursday night. Yang lamented the fact that he was the lone remaining person of color on stage (but predicted Cory Booker would be back), and made good use of his time by talking about inequality in general. 

Yang also warned the other candidates, “The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems, the more Americans lose trust” in the idea that Democrats know what is wrong in their lives—namely that decline of manufacturing and the collapse of the middle class.  

Steyer, from the other end of the stage, asserted that “I’m the person who started impeachment,” advocated dealing with China as a “frenemy,” and suggested that he alone, as a wealthy entrepreneur, can take on Trump’s claim to represent prosperity and economic growth—arguments that resonate as much with voters as the social justice claims made by the other candidates, he said.

No matter what Biden says, the people who own America know that he is not a threat.

Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren mixed it up in the testiest exchange of the night. Warren mocked Buttigieg’s $900-a-bottle wine fundraiser, saying “billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next President of the United States.” Buttigieg responded by saying he was the only non-millionaire on stage, with one-100th of Warren’s net worth. 

“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” Buttigieg said, adding that Warren herself, before she made her pledge to eschew big donors, had raised big bucks, too.

Amy Klobuchar, who had the best night of all the candidates, did her best to channel Kamala Harris, denouncing the bickering and declaring “I did not come here to listen to this argument” (as if a presidential debate stage were an inappropriate forum for arguing).

Bernie Sanders, uncharacteristically, lightened the mood, challenging Buttigieg, whom he claimed has thirty-nine billionaire donors, to take on Biden, who has forty billionaires.

Biden, the Senator from Citibank who defended the financial industry against overzealous consumer advocates for decades, told Sanders that billionaires simply “oppose everything I’ve ever done.” 

Biden did OK for the most part, surviving a question about Obama’s embarrassing comments that old men should get out of the way, and generally tracking better than he has in most of the debates.

When he noted that the Republicans have attacked his son, however, it was a reminder that Trump is already putting together campaign ads targeting Hunter Biden’s sweet gig on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. That’s a problem not just for Trump voters, but also, as Sanders put it in the debate, for the voters Democrats need to inspire, who will only get excited about someone who is going to “take on the people who own America.” 

No matter what Biden says, the people who own America know that he is not a threat. He has even said so himself, assuring wealthy donors at an event in June that “nothing would fundamentally change” for them if he’s elected. 

Not so with Sanders and Warren, who parried questions about whether free college was a wasteful give-away to people who don’t need it, and whether confiscatory taxes on the wealthy will crush economic growth.


Klobuchar and Buttigieg staked out the middle ground, each making the case that they can win by bringing together a broad coalition that includes rural Midwesterners, Republicans, and centrists.

But instead of piling on the progressives, or the frontrunner (still Biden), as they have in other debates, the Dems went after each other—a sign that the race is still very much up in the air.

Klobuchar challenged Buttigieg’s dismissive comments about Washington politicians in “committee rooms,” saying she and the other candidates on stage have more experience and a track record of getting things done that outshines the small town mayor.

“I think winning matters,” she said. “I think a track record of getting things done matters.”

“If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Buttigieg shot back.

“If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing. You tried and you lost by 20 points,” Klobuchar retorted, referring  to Buttigieg’s failed bid to become state treasurer.

Klobuchar had the strongest closing statement, contrasting her iron-mining grandfather who saved money in a coffee can so her dad could attend community college with the entitled rich kid Donald Trump.

It was a more specific and believable pitch to Midwestern voters than Buttigieg’s vague bid to “bring people together.”

Warren didn’t have her best night, failing to give direct answers to questions on why taxing the rich won’t hurt economic growth and why America should have free college. She left it to Sanders to give the expansive, idealistic pitch for an America with universal access to education—since even Trump’s kids should be able to go to public school.

Sanders had a couple of awkward moments, batting away a question on race to talk about climate change, which actually caused the audience to laugh. But he made another historic pronouncement that the United States should be not just pro-Israel but “pro-Palestinian,” and he seemed the most comfortable champion of the progressive point of view.

In her closer, Warren hit on a relatable populist note—her strong suit—saying the thing that unites her brothers is their hatred of Amazon, a massively wealthy corporation that pays no taxes.

Biden wrapped up by saying, “We’ve gotta level with the American people, tell ‘em the truth, and be authentic.” 

Good luck to us all.

This article was simultaneously published in Wisconsin Examiner and The Progressive.

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