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In the War for the Progressive Future, Bernie Just Crushed Elizabeth Warren

The final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses was lit.
January 14, 2020
In the War for the Progressive Future, Bernie Just Crushed Elizabeth Warren

We can score the debate in a minute, but if you want the executive summary: Everyone did fine.

First, let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, because they had an important exchange.

Over the last 20 years or so, progressivism has gone from being primarily concerned with economics to being primarily concerned with identity. The old-guard socialists were out; the new jack identitarians were in.

Bernie Sanders’s 2016 crusade against Hillary Clinton changed all that. It was a revolution not just against the Democratic establishment but against the dominant progressive worldview. Of course, the Sanders campaign didn’t explicitly reject identity politics. And I’m sure there are many young comrades at Jacobin and Current Affairs who will angrily explain that ackshually, identity politics and socialist politics are inextricably linked and complement one another in deeply important moral and philosophical ways. But at the end of the day, the class struggle can only have one god, and a rejection—or diminution, if you prefer—of identity politics is implicit in democratic-socialism. The primary organizing principle is not race, or gender, or sexual orientation, but economics. In the Sanders worldview, what matters most is who holds the capital and how it is distributed.

And to the surprise of almost everyone in America, a large number of progressives signed up with him.

Over the last three years, the Sanders view of progressivism has gained strength. Consider that in this presidential cycle, the two avatars of economic progressivism—Sanders and Warren—have been the center of gravity for the race while the explicitly identitarian candidates—Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Kirsten Gillibrand—failed to assemble any real support.

All of which is why the way Warren chose to open hostilities against Sanders this week was so interesting.

On Monday, CNN broke a story with multiple sources saying that, in a private meeting in 2018, Sanders told Warren that a woman could not win the presidency.

Sanders told CNN that these anonymous sources were lying.

After the story ran, Warren said that the sources were correct—meaning that she was alleging that Sanders was lying.

The question of who is telling the truth here matters very little.

What matters is that when Elizabeth Warren’s democratic-socialist campaign was in very real trouble, her team thought that the way out was to lean into identity politics.

If this works for her, it will mean something.

And if it doesn’t work for her, that will mean something, too.

Okay, the question of who was telling the truth matters a little bit. Here’s what happened on stage at the debate:

  • The CNN moderator asked Sanders about the remarks which the CNN story and Warren attributed to him.
  • Sanders flatly denied that it was true: “Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it.”
  • Sanders then trotted out circumstantial evidence to support his claim—most significantly that in 2016 he had tried to recruit Warren to run against Hillary Clinton.
  • The CNN moderator then asked Warren what the truth was and Warren insisted that the incident did indeed happen.

At which point CNN simply moved on.

Yes, that’s right: CNN has two candidates calling each other plain liars about a factual matter on a story that CNN broke. Yet they didn’t follow up by pressing the candidates to get to the bottom of who was lying on their stage.

And they didn’t follow up on what is now a clear pattern for Elizabeth Warren.

But then again, why would they? Debate moderators have been covering for Warren for the entire cycle.

Warren’s single biggest liability in a general election matchup with Trump is her “Pocahontas problem.” She has not yet been asked about that in a debate. Not once.

Neither has she been pressed on her claim to have been fired for being pregnant. Which is, at best, factually disputed.

And now, at a critical moment in the campaign, here she is claiming that a rival candidate once told her that a woman couldn’t win the presidency—a claim he denies.

Are you sensing a pattern? It sure looks as if Warren has a habit of making up claims of victimhood to advance her interests. And no debate moderator has pushed her on it.


So let’s score the actual debate. As I said: Everyone did fine. Even the people who needed to do better than fine.

Amy Klobuchar. Had her best night, by far. If the DNC hadn’t decided to let every Tom, Dick, and Swalwell who wanted to be president up on the early debate stages, maybe she could have caught on. Just one more example of how important gate-keeping is, and what can happen when institutions abandon the task.

Pete Buttigieg. A typically good night. At this point we should all be used to Mayor Pete being the most thoughtful and sensible voice on foreign affairs at these debates.

So it’s not surprising anymore. But it is kind of awesome to watch. And he and Klobuchar took apart Warren (again) on Medicare for All.

But Buttigieg’s problem is that his numbers are going the wrong way and being “typically good” wasn’t what he needed at this debate. He needed to blow people away, or have Biden stumble.

Joe Biden. Had a typically mediocre night. At times he looked tired. At times he was fully engaged. At times he was great. What he is selling, though, is powerful stuff. While Bernie and Warren are offering visions of fighting and revolution and punishing the Bad Corporations, Biden explicitly says, “I can’t hold a grudge [against the Republicans who have attacked him]. My job is not just to lead, but to heal.”

That’s it. That’s his entire candidacy. Either people want a restoration of political norms, or they don’t.

And if they do, he’s going to be the next president.

Elizabeth Warren. Tactically, she had a fine night. Strategically, not so much. Warren was energetic and engaged and wonky—all the things her people love about her. But she also got crushed on Medicare for All.

I’ve been asking this question for a full year now and I have yet to get a convincing answer: If you’re the type of progressive who wants revolutionary change, why would you choose Warren over Sanders?

Bernie Sanders. His best debate, by far. People who don’t like socialists have a big blind spot about Bernie. Look: His politics may not be your politics. You may believe that his politics are wrong, or dangerous, even. But he knows exactly what he thinks and how to explain it. He has no doubts, whatsoever, about his rightness. On anything. In short, he is very good at being Bernie Sanders. And in most elections, the guy who’s best at being himself wins.

For my money, his most impressive moment was his answer on why he won’t support the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal even though he thinks it’s a moderate improvement. He didn’t straddle or prevaricate. He didn’t dance around the question or deflect it. The guy genuinely thinks that “moderate improvements” aren’t good enough and that there is more on the table for the taking.

This man is not politicking. He’s leading a movement.

And you discount movements at your peril.

Tom Steyer. Why? No, really. Why is this man on the stage? Tom Steyer standing on stage in Des Moines answering questions about what he’d do as commander-in-chief is the worst use of time by a political party, maybe ever. Because Steyer has no chance—literally zero, impossible-to-one—of being the next president of the United States.

If the other five candidates disappeared into the Springfield Mystery Spot and then a sinkhole swallowed every single member of Congress and then Barack and Michelle Obama joined hands with Donald Trump and begged America to vote for Steyer, the guy still wouldn’t get elected.

And that’s a good thing. Because a dilettante who stands in front of voters and says that healthcare is “not a complicated problem” and is only made suboptimal by “the corporations” should be kept far away from government.

We’ve tried that already. It’s not working out so well.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.