The Debates Were a Mess—but Big Progressive Ideas Were on Stage

A clear and shared vision among Democrats is the only way to compete against “Make America Great Again.”
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Left to right, Rep. Tim Ryan, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke take part in the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26 in Miami.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Amid the Democratic primary debate spin out there, one thing that seems agreed on is this: It was a mess. Putting 10 candidates on a stage and giving them 60 seconds to answer questions about public policy isn’t that informative. Who knew?

But maybe information wasn’t the point. Given the size of the field—24 as of this writing, including four who had neither the money nor the polling to earn an invite to this shallowest of debates—this was probably the best opportunity for some of these third-tier leaders to get a national audience to pay attention to their Big Ideas. At least for a few hours.

To that extent, did it work?

Surprisingly, yes, but maybe not in the intended way.

I’ve long argued for the need to counter President Trump’s juggernaut of viciousness and victimhood with something equally attractive to voters. It’s about branding. “Make America Great Again”—which has morphed into “Keep America Great”—was good marketing for a product that had no substance aimed at consumers who weren’t looking for substance.

We got glimpses of a promising counter brand Wednesday and Thursday nights. It’s not so much about a catchy slogan, one not focus-grouped into vapidity (looking at you, “Forward Together”). It’s about crafting a shareable identity that can serve as the receptacle for policies, preferences, themes, and personality.

On Wednesday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was really the only candidate who owned that: Fight big corporations on behalf of the average person. She may have dozens of specific policy proposals (I’ve checked—there are a lot), but they all come back to this goal of reforming the U.S. economy and wresting power back from the ultra-wealthy. Her message was unambiguous, and it’s probably one of the reasons she’s been rising in the polls, and also why pundits on the right are so nervous about her. They know 2020 could represent a battle between the oligarchical capitalism that has benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else and a movement to upend that pyramid scheme.

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The wealthy interests have been happy to work in the shadows so that the public never knows they’re getting fleeced, but Warren’s been out there telling everyone what’s going on. She gets it, and that scares them. Sen. Bernie Sanders has a similar brand, although his debate performance on Thursday lacked specifics. His “political revolution” line from 2016 was brought back for his closing remarks, and “take on the special interests” was a common refrain.

While the policy debate did not reveal major rifts among the candidates, it did show how far progressive policy has become accepted by the Democratic Party. If you run down what might be considered the progressive wish list of policy proposals—Medicare for All (or at least a single-payer/public option), addressing climate change, ending police violence against Black communities, stopping endless war, and so on—the debate stage saw all of them trotted out in one form or another. Some of the memorable dust-ups involved not whether a single-payer national health plan was a good idea, but whether it should supplement or replace private insurance (as Mayor Pete Buttigieg quipped, “Medicare for All If You Want It.”) Or whether we should provide college education for free or just massively expand the availability of loans and make them easier to pay them off.

No one saw the status quo as worth defending.

During a time when the Trump administration is doubling and tripling down on policies of cruelty, mandating that immigrant children be separated from their families and jailed at the border, the Democrats were debating how quickly they could sign an executive order to end the detentions or even, as former HUD Secretary Julián Castro proposed, decriminalize undocumented border crossings entirely. The frame of the debate is now firmly in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and even some of the more-centrist candidates on the stage would have been considered hardcore liberals just 20 years ago.

The mainstream media points out how far to the left the Democratic Party seems to have drifted, but they are shortsighted.

Even if a centrist like Joe Biden ends up winning the nomination and the White House, this is the party he’ll have to work with, and the currents pulling leftward are going to be quite strong.

The mainstream media point out—with some performative alarm—how far to the left the Democratic Party seems to have drifted, but they are shortsighted. They usually fail to note that many of these “new” progressive policies have been kicking around since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Secondly, the only alternative remaining is Trump’s policy of governance-by-grievance, whose unifying philosophies are what makes Trump and his ilk richer or which disadvantaged group he can inflict more pain on. The so-called “constitutional wing” of the Republican Party—and with it, the idea that it could make effective policy—has been completely subsumed by the cult of personality around Trump.

In the end, we saw progress up on the debate stage. When the most conservative argument emerging from the debate field is to make Obamacare stronger and allow the government to compete with private insurers, that shows we’ve come a long way. We’re already there, in fact. We just need to take back power.

And that brings me back to the brand question. A clear and shared vision has been slow to emerge with everyone except Warren, if only because she’s put in the work on the policy end. You can’t lead the creation of a federal agency to defend consumers against predatory financial institutions without deeply understanding the dynamics of the capitalist system, apparently. I also felt Buttigieg’s nuanced responses countered the prevailing argument that you need sound bites to win a debate. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made combatting climate change his signature issue and nonetheless provides an answer to the question we’d ask of any candidate: “What do you stand for?” Author Marianne Williamson was able to point out that we’re fighting against the idea of Trump: “Make America Great Again” as a message of hate.

Those are starting points. There may be some coalescing of this over the next 17 months into a coherent vision for America.