If you’re at all like me, you have probably had more than your fill by now of commentaries—on air, on-line and print—on the last two rounds of Democratic debates. And yet, here you are, reading yet another commentary. Unfortunately, I doubt that I have any special insights that you haven’t already come across, but anyway, what follows is my takeaway from what happened Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
There is a lot of subjectivity in assessing the candidates’ relative performances—who won, who lost, etc. A widespread view is that since Joe Biden, the front-runner, didn’t fall on his face, he did OK. I disagree. I found Biden to be sorely wanting—more than occasionally inarticulate and unsteady and occasionally near incoherent. It’s hard to see him standing up to Trump’s bluster in a debate. I don’t see the prime argument for supporting Biden—his presumed electability—holding up.
Cory Booker got in some good lines and got generally very good reviews, but I wasn’t so impressed. Maybe I just can’t get past my old image of Booker as an earnest, over-age Eagle Scout who really, really admires rich people. On the other hand, I was more impressed than most by Pete Buttigieg. He is clearly very smart, thoughtful and articulate and projects the solid, authoritative self-confidence that people look for in a POTUS. Kamala Harris got knocked down a couple of pegs from her standout performance in the last round, but I still think she’s very impressive—articulate and strong. Buttigieg and Harris I think stand to be the leading moderate candidates in the race should Biden falter, as I think he might and hope he does.
I agree with most commentators that both of the progressive champions—Sanders and Warren—did very well. I’ve already explained (here, here and here) why I don’t think Sanders can beat Trump, so let me focus on Warren, who remains my preference, but with an important qualification. Her continued advocacy of single-payer healthcare is a serious political liability. It’s not because single-payer isn’t objectively desirable—it is—but because the transition to single payer is tricky and its advocacy is politically risky. There are many tens of millions of people who are happy with their employer-provided health insurance, and if you tell them you’re going to replace it with something better, some of them will naturally be skeptical. In a must-win election against Trump, I don’t see any justification for the risk of losing millions of votes among the “satisfied insured.” On Tuesday, Warren, a crackerjack debater, successfully repelled the moderates’ reasonable objections to her (i.e., Sanders’s) health care proposal. I don’t think she would be so successful against a relentless, months-long Republican campaign alleging she wants to take people’s health care away. There are plenty of solid progressives, like John Judis and Paul Krugman, who agree with me. Krugman on Twitter succinctly expressed my own sentiments:
I found last night’s debate bitterly disappointing. I had hoped that Warren would use the occasion to start climbing out of the hole she’s stumbled into on health care. Instead she dug it deeper. “
I strongly suspect that Warren feels compelled to adopt a maximalist position on health care in order not to lose support on the left to Bernie. That’s too bad. As I have argued, it is possible to push for a truly transformational, left-progressive agenda, as Warren is doing, without adopting politically toxic positions on issues like health care and immigration. I can only hope that Warren will still somehow find her way, but I’m less optimistic than I was before Tuesday.