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Democrats Have Their Big Four

June 28, 2019
Democrats Have Their Big Four

So it turns out Wednesday night really was the kids’ table debate. Because on Thursday night four Democrats demonstrated big-league talent. After this debate, the field has winnowed. It is clear that the nominee is going to be one of four people, all of whom helped themselves enormously.

It was a very big night.

Joe Biden: I watch life debates with Twitter turned off so I was surprised to see people thinking that Biden didn’t do well. This seems kind of crazy to me.

Biden has a commanding lead over the rest of the field. He has a double-digit lead over Donald Trump. He is the vice president to the last Democratic president, who is insanely popular within the party. All of these advantages are built in.

The big question was this: Does Joe Biden still have command of his fastball? And: Is he in this thing to win, or does he expect a coronation?

This debate answered both of those questions. Biden was his old self: Folksy, likable, sharp, tough. He was energetic. He had a command of all of the issues.

And he was incredibly disciplined. He took aim at Donald Trump literally from the first moment he spoke and over and over again he hit two messages: (1) The contrast with Trump and (2) His record as Obama’s wingman.

What did he do? Went after Trump’s “tax cuts for the rich.” Defended private health insurance. Said he “wants to build on Obamacare” and “make sure that everyone does have an option.”

He ran that debate stage like a surgeon at an operating table.

And as for whether or not he’s expecting a coronation, we’ve got that answer, too. The single most significant moment of the night was when Kamala Harris went after him with a stiletto over civil rights and busing.

Biden didn’t apologize, and he didn’t hesitate: He went right back at her, saying that this was “a mischaracterization of my positions across the board” and noting that after law school, he became a public defender, not a prosecutor. It was the only time all night where Harris looked shaken.

Understand this: Biden’s electoral pitch is unorthodox. Most elections are forward-looking. Biden is positing that the Trump experiment is such an aberration that people want a restoration. He literally said this in his closing statement: He wants to “restore the soul of this nation.”

People were swinging for Biden. And he answered the bell.

Biden didn’t win the nomination on Thursday night. But he ratified his position as the frontrunner and put to bed any suspicions that he’s only coasting on name-ID and his place in line.

No matter what happens from here on out, the road to the nomination runs through him.

Kamala Harris: Huge night for her. Harris fulfilled all of the promise she’s held out for Democrats who want to like her.

Harris had moment after moment, and projected a blend of intelligence, strength, and personal warmth greater than anyone on stage save (possibly) Biden.

Like Biden, she came to torch Trump, and she did it effectively, time and again. “Yeah, people in America are working. They’re working two and three jobs.” Her answers on guns and her set-piece about parents sitting in a car outside the ER with a sick kid worrying if they can afford to go inside—were masterful.

Civilians don’t appreciate how hard it is to connect with voters without coming across as fake or cloying. On this score, the Harris who showed up in Miami was the equal of Bill Clinton on his best days.

The only soft spot Harris had all night was her premeditated hit on Biden. She seemed genuinely shocked that he didn’t go into turtle guard and apologize. It made me wonder if she’s used to getting by on her moral authority. If so, she’ll have to lose that crutch, because Trump isn’t going to care about it one bit.

The highest praise I can give for Harris’s performance is this: After watching her for two hours it was simply obvious that she could be elected president next year. That’s a bar that only four Democrats are clearing.

Bernie Sanders: It was a good night for Bernie, too. Though in different ways. Sanders was, as the kids say, on brand. All class-war, all the time. He leaned into everything, apologized for nothing. He is, in a way, the socialist Trump. No matter how improbable something is, he just barrels right through it, drowning everything in a torrent of half-shouts.

Please understand that I don’t view any of this as a weakness. It’s his strength. He’s selling something no one else is selling: very real, very radical, change. He is offering Democrats the chance to do to their party what Trump did to the GOP: Blow it all up. Free college. Single-payer health care. A VAT. He won’t go all the way to packing the Supreme Court but will “rotate judges”—whatever that means.

And I am not convinced that Sanders would necessarily lose to Trump.

Is he a lower-percentage play than Harris or Biden? Almost certainly. But listen to the way he talks about attacking Trump:

“Trump is a phony.”

“Trump is a pathological liar and a racist.”

“He lied to the American people during his campaign.”

“We expose him for the fraud that he is.”

Understand that Bernie’s not talking about virtue signaling here: He’s making a pitch that Trump wasn’t populist enough and that the system is still rigged and that only he can really blow everything up.

I would be surprised if there is not a cohort of Trump voters out there who would respond to this proposition.

But here’s why Sanders did well at the debate: He came to Miami with an Elizabeth Warren problem. She’s rising. Her rise is real. She’s taking from his base of people who want change and see her as a more capable manager for the same brand.

He basically killed that argument.

Think of it this way: Elizabeth Warren is Ant-Man. Super-smart. Lots of great ideas on how to get back the Infinity Stones and reform progressive capitalism. Kind of a neat set of powers.


He made that contrast completely clear. “How come nothing ever really changes?” Bernie asked in his closing statement. It was an indictment of the entire Democratic party. If that’s the question you’re asking yourself as a voter, then Sanders is your guy.

Pete Buttigieg: So now Beto’s candidacy is officially dead. Mayor Pete curb stomped any chance of Beto emerging as the generational change candidate. He was very, very good.

You know all of those jokes about McKinsey guys? Well, it turns out that there are worse ways to prepare to run for president than doing a stretch in a consulting firm. He was low-key, but obviously both smart and thoughtful.

He framed issues in ways that were full of common sense. If you can refinance your house, why shouldn’t you be able to refinance your student debt? Why should we make college tuition free to rich kids? Why not have “Medicare for All Who Want It”?

Mind you, there are good answers to all of these questions, but when Mayor Pete is talking everything sounds reasonable and logical. He is what people thought Al Gore was, once upon a time in the late 1980s.

But what really impressed me was how he handled the question about the police shooting in South Bend. Here are the very first words he said: “I didn’t get it done.” And then he explained what happened, in a way that conveyed the facts of the case without shading it to make him look better. He stood there and took responsibility.

Now maybe that’s not good enough. Maybe it’s not a reason he should be president. But let me ask you this: How many times in your life have you seen a pol get a hard question like this and then just stand there and take his medicine?

That’s special and Mayor Pete clearly has the goods. Brad Parscale would probably prefer him to Biden or Harris or Bernie, even. But he wouldn’t be over the moon about having to line against him, either.

Then there’s everyone else.

The delta between the Big Four and the rest of the field is so large that I don’t really want to bother with it, but since this is likely to be the last time we see most of them on a debate stage, we might as well do a quick run down:

Eric Swalwell: He’s a heel who thinks he’s a face and is intent on putting himself over by ambushing beloved superstars. In other words, Swalwell is the Honky Tonk Man of the Democratic field.

The Snake Pit Superstars 2/21/87

He went after Mayor Pete without seeming to know anything about how the law in Indiana works. And he went after both Biden and Sanders demanding that they “pass the torch” to him.

Allow me to explain to Eric how generational handovers work: If you have to run around yelling “GIVE ME THE TORCH OLD MAN” then you are not, in fact, one of the leaders of your generation. The leaders are the people that the old timers look at and say, “Yeah. That guy has the goods.”

If you have to insist that you’re generational change, then you’re not.

Michael Bennett: Why was he shouting? What was up with that weird half-accent? Is that a thing they have in Col-o-rah-do?

But more important: Why was this guy, who has less of a chance to be the Democratic nominee than, I dunno, Andrew Yang, talking so much?

Andrew Yang: He spoke precisely four times. Almost certainly had the lowest word-count of the 20 debate candidates. Never tried to interrupt or interject. And didn’t wear a tie.

Basically, he’s my hero.

Yang seems smart and likable and maybe he should run for governor of California. Maybe as a Republican. It could be kind of interesting if the Universal Basic Income became a Republican issue and the California Republican party is there for anyone who wants to rent it.

But I do have one question: If your entire candidacy is about the UBI, then when you’re asked how you would pay for the UBI at a presidential debate, how do you not have a 30-second explanation of what the UBI is and how you would pay for it?

John Hickenlooper: He was like the great Admiral Stockdale. But without the insane heroism, the awesome middle name, and the tremendous charm.

Admiral Stockdale - 1992 VP Debate - "Who Am I? Why Am I Here?"

Kirsten Gillibrand: When she says that no one will fight harder for abortion, I believe her.

Marianne Williamson: What a weird, strange woman.

I say that because she obviously had no business being on that stage. And because if you want to further the movement for reparations, it would help not to have an anti-vaxxer as a spokeswoman.

But you have to give her this: She has a very clear-eyed understanding of what politics is right now in America and I wonder if Democrats understand how correct she was when she said this:

“If you think you’re going to beat Donald Trump with all of these plans, you’ve got another thing coming.”

The Democratic nomination isn’t actually about policy differences or ideology. That sort of thing is always subject to change, to events, and even in the best cases, rarely survives first contact with the legislature. No, the 2020 nominating process is about understanding how they’re going to beat Trump. And then having the will to carry it through.

If the Democrats lose sight of this very basic fact, then they will be in a world of trouble.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.