Four myths debunked in the Democratic presidential debate

Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer look to make their point on the debate stage on Wednesday night. Melina Mara/Washington Post

Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, a substantive event that managed to cover new policy ground, should permanently retire a batch of lazy narratives about the primary contest. It turns out that the Democratic Party might not be bent on self-destruction after all. There are no less than four bits of conventional wisdom that we should drop.

Let’s begin with the entire notion of “front-runners.” For better or worse, the 10 people on stage — six of whom have qualified for December’s debate — represent the universe of plausible nominees. No, the Democrats are not pining for former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (who had to cancel a campaign event in Atlanta when almost no one showed up), nor for former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. I would like to think that Democrats are wise enough to latch onto someone like wonky moderate Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., but that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

While Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, plainly the winner of the President Donald Trump/Bashar al-Assad primary, and Tom Steyer have zero chance of becoming the nominee, as many as half a dozen candidates are very much in the race. Put aside the polls 75 days out from the Iowa caucuses and look at the candidates with the gravitas, political skills and ground game to finish strongly in that contest.

Forget the never-ending media narrative that former vice president Joe Biden is at political death’s door. Realistically, Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., any of the three female U.S. senators on the stage or South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg could finish in the top few slots in Iowa. For some, that will be a moral victory (Comeback kid Kamala Harris comes in third!); for others, it will confirm that they deserve top-tier status (Buttigieg blitzes!). From here on out, candidate quality and organization will determine the Iowa winner.

Next, let’s do away with the “Democrats have moved too far left!” narrative. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is scrambling to get back into the electability zone by modifying her Medicare-for-all plan, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Buttigieg are battling for the “Midwest moderate” label, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., had his best debate defending wealth creation and international leadership based on American values. The race for the sweet spot — progressive but electable — is on.

Then there is the “Biden is a goner” storyline. To be clear, he makes plenty of small gaffes (“punching” against domestic violence, boasting of his support from the “only” black woman elected to the Senate), but none has or is likely to dislodge his core base of support, especially among African American voters who know him and appreciate his loyalty to former president Barack Obama.

Every once in a while, as he did on foreign policy questions, Biden reminds us that the prospect of an experienced insider sounds attractive to an electorate that has watched Trump blow up one alliance, government institution and norm after another. (“I’d go back in making sure we had the alliances we had. ... [Trump] has given North Korea everything they wanted, creating the legitimacy by having a meeting with Kim Jong Un, who’s a thug — although [Kim] points out that I’m a rabid dog who needs to be beaten with a stick.”) Biden might not win the nomination, but he has as good a chance as four or five of his rivals.

Finally, Klobuchar went a long way toward burying the notion that women are “risky.” It often feels that pundits have forgotten that a slew of women won House, Senate and governor races in 2018.

Klobuchar put it well when she declared, “I am the one that has passed over a hundred bills as the lead Democrat in that gridlock of Washington in Congress on this stage. I think you’ve got to win. And I am the one, Mr. Vice President, that has been able to win every red and purple congressional district as a lead on a ticket every time. I govern both with my head and my heart.”

With a well-received joke, she concluded, “And if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.” Four of the 10 candidates in the pared-down debate were women, who were asked a flurry of policy questions from four female moderators. Women have a permanent place at the highest levels of media and politics. To quote Mick Mulvaney, “Get over it.”



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(2) comments


Good article. These people had to start moving off of positions that were extreme (never electable) or just plain unrealistic. They have to steal middle of the road voters that aren't tied to any side. This is a start!


Aiming for the absolute political middle is wasteful because it is chasing after something unattainable (conversion of the right leaning) at the cost of losing enthusiasm with the mainstream of the party and votes of the left wing. But To capture the swing electorate, the key is to not turn off voters who might have voted for them by default as a way to vote against Trump. To do that all they have to do is manage to not be even worse (in each voter's eyes). So in the general election blandness will do. But to win the primaries, they have to stand out from the crowd. And to stand out from the crowd they have to resist the urge to do exactly what all the others are doing to stand out.

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