In Democratic debate, progressives resist efforts to divide them

The moderators did all they could to start a fight, but Sanders and Warren refused to bite

DES MOINES, IOWA - JANUARY 14: Members of the media watch the CNN Democratic Presidential Debate. Six candidates out of the field qualified for the first Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - JANUARY 14: Members of the media watch the CNN Democratic Presidential Debate. Six candidates out of the field qualified for the first Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The moderators did all they could to start a fight, but Sanders and Warren refused to bite.

In the lead-up to Tuesday night’s Democratic debate at Drake University in Iowa, there was a lot of chatter about the growing negativity between the progressive candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The CNN moderators did their best to draw it out, asking Sanders whether it was true that he’d told Warren a woman couldn’t win the presidency, and getting Warren to reinforce her recollection that he had said it. But Sanders more or less put the matter to rest with his strong statement that “of course a woman can win”—and, furthermore, that he will strongly support whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic primary.

Sanders also reminded viewers that he stepped aside when there was a movement to draft Warren to run for President in 2016, and did not announce his own candidacy until she decided not to run that year. (I remember it well—the birth of a progressive campaign unofficially dubbed “Plan B for Bernie.”)

The CNN crew tried again to sow division between the two leading progressives over  the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which Sanders opposes and Warren has said she will support, because it makes  modest improvements on workers’ rights and reins in Big Pharma. Both candidates agree it doesn’t go far enough. No real sparks there.

For the most part, the point of the debate, as far as the three centrist candidates—Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden—as well as the CNN team, were concerned, was to expose the far-out nature of the progressives’ vision for Medicare for All, free college, and other “grand ideological schemes that will never see the light of day,” as Klobuchar put it.

But the progressives received an unexpectedly strong assist from Tom Steyer, who supported perhaps the most important argument, on health care, made by both Warren and Sanders: Providing universal, publicly funded health care would not bankrupt the United States. In fact, quite the opposite is true—Americans already pay more for health care than citizens of other countries.

The reason, as Warren patiently explained to a sour-looking Brianee Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register, is simple corporate greed. We waste millions of dollars on unnecessary bureaucracy and just plain highway robbery when it comes to drug prices, Warren said. All of that could be eliminated, and Americans could get health care, too.

As Sanders put it, “We are now spending twice as much as any other country on health care. Why is that?” The answer, he said,  is “greed and corruption” of the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.

“It is not complicated,” Steyer said, jumping in. “We have corporations who are having their way with the American people.”

Steyer’s intervention on this point helped tipped the scales so the balance between the progressives and the real politikers was 3-to-3—a historic ratio. It was a paradigm shift, in part, because for so long the ambient pro-establishment, pro-wealth bias in Democratic debates is so overwhelming that it has come to sound like simple common sense.

But when Klobuchar derided the Medicare for All bill because, she said, two-thirds of Democrats in the Senate don’t support it, she was describing a political, not an economic or structural reality. As she herself pointed out later, members of Congress are outnumbered 2-to-1 by pharmaceutical company lobbyists. That has a lot to do with politicians’ view of the possible.

The idea that we must continue to spend untold trillions on the military, but that it is ludicrous to think of making health care and education available to everyone in the richest country on Earth is not, actually, common sense. But no one except Sanders and Warren had made those kinds of out-of-the-box points—until Steyer joined them, and suddenly the progressives were taking up half the debate stage.

We are so accustomed to a lone voice-in-the-wilderness candidate who tries to stake out progressive positions only to be condescendingly ushered offstage by the sensibly centrist popular kids, this moment in history snuck up on us.

But here we are, living under the white nationalist candidacy of Donald Trump. Australia and Canada are burning, due to the ravages of climate change. And the go-along-to-get-along, incrementalist approach to Democratic politics suddenly does not seem as sensible.

Even the centrists now agree that the Iraq war was a mistake, that economic inequality is a huge problem, and that transitioning to a carbon-free energy system must be a key priority in 2020 (or 2040 or 2050, as Klobuchar stated, to which Sanders replied that such foot-dragging will surely make the planet “uninhabitable”).

The centrists have adopted some progressive talking points. Buttigieg gave a shout-out to the Poor People’s Campaign marching into Iowa, and mocked Democrats’ reluctance to talk about poverty, preferring to cater to the middle class. He noted that scripture does not say “as you do to the middle class, so you do unto to me.” But he made that point in the service of his argument that America should not offer universal free college, because those who can afford it should be made to pay—an argument that could have been used to oppose the creation of the Social Security system.

Buttigieg’s whole pitch is that he is younger and hipper than the other candidates, and therefore more likely to win, and to bring a kind of progressive-lite sensibility to governing. Climate change “is personal to me,” he said, because he will have to live for longer with the consequences.

When the debate started with Sanders and Biden defending their opposite positions on the Iraq war (Sanders said he was right, and therefore most qualified to be Commander-in-Chief, Biden said he had evolved on the issue), Buttigieg pointed out that he served in the military with a lot of people who could barely remember Iraq—or 9/11 for that matter.

War and foreign policy are suddenly more prominent issues after Trump’s assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the subsequent deterioration of relations between the two countries. This is an opening for Buttigieg—the only candidate with a military background. But despite telling a good personal anecdote about watching a young father go off to war, he lacked the progressives’ clarity.

Like Klobuchar and Biden, he gave a murky answer to the question of withdrawing troops from the Middle East, and what the proper U.S. role should be. As Steyer pointed out, “there is no clear strategy for what we are trying to accomplish” in the region.

Sanders called for an end to “endless wars,” and rebuilding the United Nations.

Warren described sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee and listening to optimistic reports from military commanders who keep promising that the United States has “turned the corner” in Afghanistan. Getting off one of the best lines of the debate, she declared, “We’ve turned the corner so many times, we’re going in circles.”

“We have to stop this mindset that we can solve everything with combat troops,” Warren added.

All of the Democrats endorsed Congressional authorization for military action, and the recent resolutions to demand that Trump come to Congress for that authority, instead of usurping war powers, as many recent administrations have done.

Biden pretended that Obama had received Congressional authorization for all of his military actions. “There’s no way you can negotiate with terrorists,” he added—a stale piece of rhetoric as well as a non sequitur.

Buttigieg lamented the demise of the Iran nuclear deal and called for a three-year sunset provision on any military authorization—a reasonable proposal to avoid mission creep and make Congress responsible for war-making.

Toward the end of the debate, all of the candidates answered questions about their perceived weaknesses. For Bernie, it was socialism. He declared that Trump has benefited from, and continues to promote, socialism for the rich.

For Warren, it was whether she will scare away moderates. She pointed to her two Republican brothers in Oklahoma, with whom she shares basic values.

For Biden, it was whether he can handle Trump’s nastiness, and the attacks on his son. He got a laugh, saying he is already the object of Trump’s affection, but then wandered a bit, blustering about how people where he grew up are experiencing hard economic times and not really coming to a point.

Klobuchar was asked if she can get beyond being the realistic, sensible candidate and inspire people. That’s when she said it is “easy to sketch out grand ideological schemes that will never see the light of day.”

She and Buttigieg made a very direct pitch to Republican voters who are disgusted by Trump, and are looking for a return to decency.

And then there was Steyer, who responded to the charge that he is just a rich guy by defending his advocacy for saving the planet, his determination to give away all of his wealth before he dies, and his willingness to push for Trump’s impeachment before anyone else. “It’s always worth it to do the right thing,” he told Wolf Blitzer, who wondered if dumping millions into pro-impeachment ads might be a waste if the Senate doesn’t convict Trump.

The same could be said for all of the progressive campaigns. Someone has to get out there and tell the truth, even if it might be too late.

This column appears simultaneously in the Examiner and The Progressive.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.