Substance over spectacle: How progressivism won the first two rounds of Democratic debates

With the two main progressives together drawing as much or more support than Biden, Sanders and Warren, each in their own way, are hoping to reverse this tendency by hammering away on the issues their fellow citizens care about most.


With the first two rounds of Democratic debates having passed, and with a long pause before the next round on ABC and Univision on September 12th (there may be two nights again, depending on how many candidates are able to meet the higher thresholds set for the third round in terms of donations and polling), it seems like a good time to look at how the more progressive candidates and ideas are doing on the long road to 2020.

Despite a powerful closing statement, Senator Bernie Sanders didn’t seem comfortable with the format during the first debates held on NBC but this wasn’t the case last Tuesday on CNN. Rather than providing the battle between progressives that many in the media seemed to be hoping for, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem to have teamed up to easily defeat moderate challengers like Representative John Delaney of Maryland’s 6th district, who at one point tried to attack Sanders’ Medicare for All’ proposal by claiming the Vermont senator didn’t know what’s in his own bill.

Sanders succinct reply fell well within the 15 second time limit mandated by CNN, “I do know it… I wrote the damn bill!”

More generally, centrist candidates sometimes argue that a program like tuition-free college is not just too expensive but unfairly rewards the rich. What universal plans like those mainly being proposed by Sanders (in opposition to Senator Warren’s more means-tested plans) are designed to do is create a more level playing field for those with fewer resources without the need for authorities to sit in judgment over their economic circumstances (and for those concerned about the children of the wealthy, there will always be elite private universities for those like George W. Bush, who went to Yale as a so-called ‘legacy’ student).

The public option for healthcare proposed by candidates like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was also on the stage with Sanders and Warren, would probably create a tiered system with the free option being the most limited one. A public option would also be vulnerable to right-wing politicians and their donors over the longer term, who will insist that it, as they have tried to do for decades on Social Security, is just too expensive to maintain.

One of the smarter tactics used by Democratic moderates and much of the corporate media in 2016 was to claim that Bernie Sanders was not good on issues of race, gender or sexual orientation, despite a record that was more consistent over time in each of these areas than his opponent in the Democratic primaries. This line of attack was made easier by the 2016 Sanders campaign’s single-minded focus on income inequality, especially early on, when no one believed the Vermont independent would be more than a progressive foil trying to push Hillary Clinton to the left.

Besides, as Jonah Birch wrote in a recent piece on Jacobin, “When Sanders’s opponents criticize his focus on “universal” social policies and wealth redistribution, by contrast, it is not because they want to do more to combat racism, but because they want to do less. The difference can be seen in the narrowly targeted policy proposals offered by other Democratic candidates.” 

During the second night of the CNN debates held in Detroit, there were growing signs of desperation on the part of low polling candidates, most of whom made former Vice President Biden their primary target. Considering his record, especially in terms of the 1994 crime bill, at first it seemed that the front-runner would be the big loser of the night for a second time, despite interesting push back on his part against those on either side of him on the podium: Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

Biden’s replies to Booker, who oversaw an enlarged ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy when he was mayor of Newark, New Jersey, were particularly effective. 

Oddly, Representative Tulsi Gabbard came to the former Vice President’s rescue, taking an opportunity to go after Senator Harris over her record as California’s Attorney General, concluding the argument with the following, “She [Harris] kept people in prison beyond their sentences to keep them as cheap labor for the state of California, and she fought to keep a cash bail that impacts poor people in the worst type of ways.” 

It was similar break out moment to Harris’ own attack on Biden in the first round of debates and she was obviously not prepared for it and seemed to lose her usually impressive composure, talking about how she “did the work” as Attorney General and criticizing Gabbard for making speeches on a legislative floor, something she does herself in her current role as a senator.

In the end, Gabbard’s ploy seems to have worked, as she became the most searched candidate of the night and Harris’ poll numbers fell in the days after the debate. 

Gabbard had a similar, if less noted, moment in the first round of debates in Miami, replying to Congressman Tim Ryan on the pointlessness of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Perhaps because of Ryan’s lower stature in comparison to Harris, or Gabbard’s stated aversion to continuing and expanding U.S. war-making, this moment didn’t receive as much play in the media. Regardless of whether she makes the stage in the next round of debates, Gabbard has proven herself a shrewd politician and could find a place in a progressive Democratic Administration post-2020.

Despite Gabbard’s good performance, the real winners on the second night of CNN debates weren’t on the stage but rather in the crowd. Although it was difficult at first to hear the protesters, one group calling on New York Mayor Bill De Blasio to fire Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer whose chokehold on Eric Garner resulted in the death of the father of three, seemed to force a question from the moderators and allowed other candidates Julian Castro and Kirsten Gillibrand to claim the high ground in criticizing the NYC mayor.

The other group of protesters consisted of members of Moviemiento Cosecha, who unfurled banners that said “Stop all deportations on day one!” while Joe Biden was speaking about the record of the Obama administration on immigration and the U.S southern border. 

As for the other candidates that have generated some interest among progressives, two outsiders seem most likely to make it to the third round of debates in September, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and self help guru Marianne Williamson.

Although some people, especially online, are devoted to Yang, who is running on a platform almost entirely devoted to a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which at times he seems to see as a way to eviscerate what little remains of the U.S. social safety net. 

As a supplement to other social programs like food stamps, a UBI is a good idea, but there’s a reason why so many who call themselves libertarians have championed similar programs for many years and it isn’t to help poor and marginalized communities. 

While others may disagree, Marianne Williamson was probably the breakout star of these debates. While some dismissed her argument about the current president unleashing “dark psychic forces”, it’s an obvious statement of fact. That these forces sometimes manifest as real-world violence was once again tragically demonstrated in El Paso this past weekend.

Knowing that she probably won’t be the eventual nominee allowed Williamson to deliver some larger truths on issues like reparations for the descendants of slaves and on healthcare, saying about the latter, “We need to talk about more than just the health care plan. We need to realize we have a sickness care rather than a health care system. We need to be the party talking about why so many of our chemical policies and our food policies and our agricultural policies and our environmental policies and even our economic policies are leading to people sick to begin with.”

Finally, in terms of the formats and broadcasters, one of the other things the debates did was blatantly show the limitations of corporate media and the personalities they promote to actually engage on the issues in an honest way. From the ridiculous, often disingenuous calls in the first round of debates for a show of hands-on nuanced issues to the constant interruptions over time constraints on CNN, the idea, so easily visible in 2016 when news outlets preferred to show talking heads and empty podiums where the current president would be speaking later over showing speeches then being made by Bernie Sanders, is to showcase the spectacle over the substance. 

With the two main progressives together drawing as much or more support than Biden, Sanders and Warren, each in their own way, are hoping to reverse this tendency by hammering away on the issues their fellow citizens care about most. At this point, it seems like a winning strategy.


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