For the past three decades, the Democratic Party has been living with a debilitating trauma that’s left it a shell of what it once was. But if Tuesday night’s debate is any indication, the Democrats may finally be moving into the home stretch of a long, painful recovery.
Rather than sticking to the longtime script of Democrats pandering to the center, the two highest polling candidates on the stage — Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — articulated a clear-eyed left-wing vision of the direction the party should take. Sanders railed against the “ruling class” while advocating enshrining universal economic rights, as Warren warned that “we’re not going to solve the urgent problems we face with small ideas and spinelessness.” Sanders agreed, claiming: “I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas.”
Ever since the Clinton years of the 1990s, the party’s officials and apparatchiks have internalized the belief that being too bold or too far left is a ticket to political oblivion. After enjoying a near-unbroken hold on the White House from 1932 to 1968, the following 24 years saw Democratic presidential nominee after nominee go down in landslides against ever more right-wing Republican opponents. Peace candidate George McGovern, who called for pulling troops out of Vietnam within 90 days in 1972, had been too far left to win, went the conventional wisdom. So had Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in 1984 and 1988, respectively, conveniently ignoring the reality that both had campaigned as centrists pledging to cut the deficit and reform welfare.
This set of lessons, combined with Bill Clinton’s two presidential victories, led the party to an increasingly ruinous set of choices. Clinton’s “triangulation” — collaborating with Republicans to deregulate banks, cut social programs and empower large financial institutions — helped hollow out unions and working-class support for the party, while setting the stage for the 2008 financial crisis. The Democrats’ choice of safe “moderate” candidate John Kerry in 2004 saw a vulnerable George W. Bush return to the White House for another four years. And Barack Obama finished the job Clinton had begun, with his fear of appearing too radical or—heaven forbid—a “socialist,” leading to a less-than-aggressive response to the financial crisis. This crisis, in turn, created a wipeout of black working-class wealth and a sluggish economic recovery that helped President Trump ride a wave of rage and apathy to the White House in 2016.
Paralyzed by caution, and its worst instincts justified through a gradual takeover by corporate interests, the Democratic Party has in many ways been its own worst enemy. Rather than proposing far-reaching redistributive policies, national Democrats have by and large moved to the right while pushing means-tested, tepid proposals meant not to offend corporate backers or scare off mythical “Reagan Democrats.” The result has been a party that’s failed to inspire its core constituency — working-class voters — to show up at the polls. Just look at the Obama years, during which the party lost over 1,000 seats nationwide.
Yet Tuesday night’s battle between, on one side, Sanders and Warren — the two most progressive candidates in the field — and, on the other, the conservative Democrats misleadingly labeled “moderates” by much of the media, suggest things may be finally changing.
The debate saw a conservative onslaught on the ideas of the party’s surging left wing. Sanders and Warren — both tribunes for progressive politics during the Obama years — faced right-wing attacks and skepticism from not just their conservative opponents, but CNN’s panel of moderators as well.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney opened the debate by derisively referring to Sanders and Warren’s “bad policies” and “impossible promises” of Medicare for All and “free everything,” questioning why the Democrats were being “the party of taking something away from people,” in this case, private health insurance. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan suggested that Sanders’ Medicare for All bill would make things worse for union members. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper stressed that incremental reform (“evolution, not revolution”) and giving Americans “choices” promised a better way forward. Moderator Jake Tapper demanded to know if Warren and Sanders planned on raising taxes for the middle class.
The two senators responded combatively, batting away the attacks in an often fiery fashion. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” an exasperated Warren told Delaney. “You’re wrong,” Sanders said, responding to Delaney’s charge that Medicare for All was “political suicide.”
Warren pointed out to Hickenlooper that incremental reforms had already been tried to no avail, and admonished the other candidates for “using Republican talking points.” Sanders leveled the same accusation at Tapper before charging that “the health care industry will be advertising tonight on this program … with that talking point,” a prediction that came at least partially true: PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying arm, was one of a number of pharmaceutical entities to air ads during subsequent commercial breaks.
And this was all during just the first half-hour. Healthcare reared its head again later in the debate once the conversation turned to immigration, with the moderators suggesting that Sanders’ plan to allow undocumented immigrants to access care under Medicare for All would encourage a deluge of migrants. A number of other questions implied that Sanders was too radical to beat Trump, or, as one put it, that he was indistinguishable from the far-right president because they both said they wanted to end wars. At one point, the moderators pushed the candidates to affirm they would maintain the United States’ first-use of nuclear weapons, a stance Warren bravely rejected, paralleling UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s own stance on the matter.
Perhaps most significantly, both Sanders and Warren tied signature policies like Medicare for All, a wealth tax, free tertiary education and student debt cancellation to their broader vision of political change, rebuking Democrats’ three-decade-long strategy of scurrying in fear at the sight of their own shadow. Warren thundered that the Democrats need to be the party “of big, structural change.” Sanders argued that “to win this election and to defeat Donald Trump … we need to have a campaign of energy and excitement and of vision. We need to bring millions of young people into the political process in a way that we have never seen.” For his part, Delaney fell back on the Democratic establishment’s classic warning that McGovern’s 1972 loss showed moving to the left was the electoral equivalent of drinking rat poison.
Meanwhile, Warren and Sanders’ criticisms of their conservative challengers were rooted in more than a kernel of truth. Sanders’ charge that Delaney, while opposing Medicare for All, “made money off of healthcare” wasn’t wrong. Besides being a conservative “New Democrat” who, while in the House, supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership and backed Obama’s entitlement-cutting Bowles-Simpson commission, Delaney was one of the richest members of Congress thanks to his career at the head of a company that lent money to the healthcare sector. As Sludge has reported, his latest financial disclosure, filed in 2019, shows Delaney has $3.2 million invested in the healthcare sector and funds with holdings in the industry.
The same goes for Warren’s suggestion that the candidates assailing Medicare for All lacked the “political will” to fight for it, which Hickenlooper emphatically denied. Yet in 2016, as governor of Colorado, he — along with fellow 2020 candidate, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet — opposed Amendment 69, a ballot measure that would have instituted a single-payer system in the state. At the time, Hickenlooper claimed that it was “premature” to reform the healthcare system. Behind closed doors, he told the Colorado Forum, an assembly of business leaders and political operatives that comprised one of Colorado’s most powerful lobbies, that a “couple large healthcare-related companies that are looking at moving their headquarters to Colorado” had “paused” when they learned about the measure.
While post-debate polling is still to come, it’s been clear that the unambitious, conservative approach championed by figures like Delaney and Hickenlooper is no longer welcome among the Democratic grassroots. Both candidates were booed at the California Democratic Convention this year for rebuking single-payer healthcare and socialism. In most polls, both candidates are ranking somewhere between 0 and 1 percent. Hickenlooper, whose campaign began hemorrhaging staff in early July, recently celebrated triumphantly when he hit a mere 2 percent, in one of this election’s most unintentionally hilarious tweets so far: “You did this. This campaign is gaining serious momentum and we’re just getting started.”
The Democratic Party’s recovery from their 30-year trauma isn’t over yet. After all, Joe Biden, one of the original neoliberal Democrats who abandoned the New Deal in the 1980s and is currently running a campaign based on attacking Medicare for All while being lavished with corporate money, is still the frontrunner.
But Warren and Sanders’ performance in Tuesday night’s debate, coupled with the crowd’s raucous cheers for their defiant retorts to the party’s withering conservative wing, hints that the healing process is well underway.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.