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Progressivism Is the New Establishment

Ranking how the Democrats did in Detroit Rock City.
July 31, 2019
Progressivism Is the New Establishment
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Detroit was, amazingly enough, an illuminating event as six candidates laid out—very clearly—the two pathways open to the party in this cycle.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren made the case for one of those options: A radical change in America’s economic compact. Sanders and Warren advocated for universal healthcare with private insurance outlawed. They argued for free college tuition. They said that illegal migration should be decriminalized and that all immigrants, documented and undocumented, should get universal healthcare. And that private sector companies should be viewed as “sucking” money out of the economy.

Sanders and Warren are currently polling at a combined 30 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.

On the other side, John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Tim Ryan, and John Hickenlooper argued that universal coverage was a laudable goal, but that outlawing private health insurance was bad policy, financially foolish, and politically suicidal. They insisted that immigration laws should be enforced because functionally open-borders would incentivize more uncontrolled migration. They proposed that the private sector was a source of innovation that could be leveraged to solve a number of America’s problems.

Delaney, Bullock, Ryan, and Hickenlooper are currently polling at a combined 2.0 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.

Over the course of three hours, these two sides went after one another in a sustained and open manner. (And four other Democrats more or less did their own thing.)

How do we decide who “won” the first Detroit debate? That’s tough. You’re probably going to think that the winner was the side whose politics is closest to your own. (This is not a criticism.)

But I’m going to try to put my own priors aside and rank the candidates on the merits, which is to say: On how they did relative to what they’re trying to accomplish.

1. John Delaney: He’s running to be the Democratic nominee for president and he opened by telling the audience, “I was the youngest CEO in the history of the New York Stock exchange.”

Wait what?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell if this was naïveté or the greatest troll job since Cocaine Mitch’s thanks-for-playing meme.

But Delaney did what he wanted to do: Establish himself as the most substantive critic of the progressive agenda being advanced by Sanders and Warren.

He stood up for the idea that “The Green New Deal is about as realistic as Trump saying Mexico is going to pay for the wall.” And then he listed four or five distinct policy ideas to deal with climate change, including a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

He made the case for Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership—a policy that has currently been abandoned by both parties.

And on the subject of single-payer healthcare, he was basically the honey badger.

Delaney explained that Medicare does not actually cover the cost of healthcare—Medicare covers 80 percent of costs while private insurers cover 120 percent. He predicted that if America does away with private health insurance, we’ll get a two-tiered system where there is elite healthcare for rich people who can pay with cash—and then everyone else, who has to make do with whatever the government gives them.

Explaining the insanity of proposing to eliminate private insurance, Delaney said, “When we created Social Security, we didn’t make pensions illegal.”


Toward the end of one of his exchanges with the progressives, Delaney quipped, “I’m starting to think this is not about healthcare, but this is some anti-private sector thing.”

You don’t say . . .

So here’s the thing about Delaney: He’s not running to be the nominee. He’s running to save his party from a 2020 loss.

Delaney delivered his message as well as it could be said. The question is whether or not Democratic voters have any interest in hearing it.

2. Bernie Sanders: I’ve been saying for months that no one is going to outbid Sanders on socialism. On Tuesday night he asserted his dominance.

Bernie’s superpower is his ability to shamelessly—and literally—wave away any critiques. Over and over, all night long, one of the non-progs would pick at some unworkable element of his plans and Sanders would thrust his hands in the air and do that muppet thing with them and shout “He’s wrong!”

Or “Your question is a Republican talking point!”

Or “I do know, I wrote the damn bill!”

Always in a shout, always with an exclamation point at the end. And it works for him.

Unlike Warren, Sanders avoided getting drawn into policy questions and stayed at a high altitude. Which was good, since Warren’s answers were . . . not great.

Bernie came to Detroit with one goal: To differentiate himself from Warren without having to attack her. To my eyes, he nailed this.

3. Pete Buttigieg: Mayor Pete’s whole thing is that he doesn’t fit into your progressive-moderate dichotomy. He’s a fresh face! Just wants to solve problems with the best ideas! The choice of a new generation!

But without saying so, he very subtly signaled that if you’re looking for a Big Change Progressive . . . well, he’s available.

He spent a very disconcerting couple of minutes talking about the need for “structural changes” that would have to be made to the Constitution in order to deal with Citizens United and end the Electoral College and turn the District of Columbia into a state and pack the Supreme Court and just kind of assumed that constitutional amendments are something America has done before and can do again.

Having a 37-year-old mayor insist that, obviously, we should pass three or four amendments to the Constitution, as if this was all NBD, is suboptimal because it suggests that all of his pragmatic pablum might simply be a mask.

Speaking of which, the other moment that stuck out for me was one of his answers about single-payer. Mayor Pete says that his plan is “Medicare for All Who Want It,” but that he believes that people will just love Medicare and no one will keep their private insurance and eventually private insurance will simply wither away without the government having to kill it.

That’s a sign of someone desperately trying to have it both ways: Don’t worry, I’m totes pragmatic. But, you know, not really.

All of that aside, he’s so thoughtful and well-spoken that he’s clearly a top-tier talent. And he’s the only person on stage to vocalize a fundamental truth: “Ask yourself how someone like Donald Trump even gets within cheating distance of the Oval Office in the first place. It doesn’t happen unless America is already in a crisis.”

True that.

4. John Hickenlooper: Like Delaney, he’s not really running for president. He’s running for Secretary of the Interior or some such.

But credit him for this: He made three excellent points.

First, that Democrats didn’t win big in 2018 by being like Sanders and Warren.

Second, that you if pick your progressive battles, you can get real wins. For instance, in Colorado, he beat the NRA, but didn’t build massive government expansions.

Third, as Bernie was doing his Crazy Bernie hand waving, Hickenlooper blurted out sarcastically, “Throw your hands up.”

This was a dagger. And while it didn’t leave a mark in Detroit, someone heavier is going to use it against Bernie down the line. Take that to the bank.

5. Marianne Williamson: She got just the right amount of time—enough to make an impression, but not enough to expose her as being kind of kooky. Like when she talked about a $250 billion to $500 billion reparations package. Or the “dark psychic force.”

She’s a weird bundle of conviction politician and motivational speaker and Shirley MacLaine. And I’m pretty convinced that if this was a normal-sized Democratic field with only seven candidates in it, she’d be somewhere between 5 and 10 percent.

6. Tim Ryan and Steve Bullock (tie): Neither of them moved the needle in the way they needed to. But both made reasonable criticisms of the progressive agenda. If there is a market for this in the primaries, someone else will pick up what they’re laying down.

8. Elizabeth Warren: I’m not prepared to call it a terrible night for her. But it wasn’t good.

Warren could not differentiate herself from Sanders. And she had no good answer for the criticisms of Delaney et al.

For example, when Delaney talked about what a terrible idea getting rid of private health insurance was, at first she balked. Then she complained that Democrats shouldn’t be using Republican talking points about taking things away from people.

(As if that would be a sufficient answer in a general election.)

But then, when she finally got warmed up, she went even further to the left, explaining that the real problem with private health insurance was that the profit motive is incompatible with the health insurance sector. And that “These insurance companies do not have a God-given right to make $23 billion in profits and suck it out of our healthcare system.”

I am—how to put this delicately?—very much the target audience for Warren’s brand of anti-corporate progressivism. And even I thought to myself, “Hold on there, comrade. Are we sure we want to seize the means of production for healthcare?”

And Warren’s stock answer for all political and practical objections—that they might have unintended consequences, that they were likely to repel voters, that they would be nigh on impossible to implement—were met with one of two counterarguments:

Either, “Oh that’s just a Republican talking point.” (Which is what she said to Hickenlooper after he took apart the Green New Deal as a serious policy idea.)

Or, “[W]e can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else.” (Which is what she said when asked if she was worried about being seen as a radical socialist, like Sanders.)

Those are not compelling answers. In a general election they would be very risky answers. Though it’s possible they will resonate with Democratic primary voters.

9. Amy Klobuchar: If she had charged into the fight with Delaney and the other anti-progressives, she might have seized the night. As it was, she mostly laid back and then, weirdly, tried to talk about how tough she is. (“I was called a street fighter from the iron range by my opponent. And when she said it, I said thank you.”)

Spoiler: Amy Klobuchar is not this guy:

10. Beto O’Rourke: ☠️

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.