If only the Democrats could fight like the Washington Nationals. The new National League champs won four straight on the way to the World Series, with great pitching and clutch hitting. End of story. Or as Joe Biden would say, “Period!”
But alas, every month or so, we get a three-hour marathon of umpteen presidential candidates talking in 90-second bursts, and all we can do is try to parse the rhetorical mire. As Biden said On Oct. 15, “These debates are kind of crazy, because everybody tries to squeeze everything into every answer that is given.”
And will any of that night’s squeezed answers move the needle in the Democratic race as we trudge closer toward actual voting in Iowa? I have no idea (nor do you). And that frees me up to focus on the sub-narrative that I found most compelling — namely, the stellar performances of two moderate underdogs, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.
Democrats are typically torn between the aspirational and the practical. In 2019, their hearts tilt toward the aspirational (Medicare for All and other progressive dreams), but many fear — with good reason — that if they overreach, they risk alienating swing voters in key Electoral College states, thus imperiling ousting a criminal “president” and putting him on a path to jail. I doubt that Buttigieg or Klobuchar can win the nomination, but during the debate they did the Democrats a big favor by slamming the brakes on some of the most runaway aspirations.
When Elizabeth Warren recycled her summer debate performance — again refusing to say whether Medicare for All (government health care) would require a middle-class tax hike in the short term — Buttigieg pointed out that she never explains “how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan is supposed to get filled in.”
Bernie Sanders intervened to say that, yes, taxes would indeed go up, which I bet Warren did not appreciate. And Klobuchar pounced all over that and pointed out the popular public option is more doable in Congress: “The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”
That was the moderate underdogs’ big theme: Being practical and getting stuff done, rather than dreaming too big and risking a disastrous election loss. It surfaced again when Beto O’Rourke — desperate to revive a dead candidacy — decided to talk up his politically suicidal issue of gun confiscation. Or, as O’Rourke calls it, “mandatory buyback.”
Buttigieg jumped all over that, schooling O’Rourke that the gun violence crisis requires urgent, practical solutions: universal background checks “that we finally have a shot to actually get through,” a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines, red flag laws that would disarm domestic abusers and prevent suicides. In short, “We cannot wait for purity tests. We have to just get something done ... We are this close to an assault weapons ban. That would be huge. And we’re going to get wrapped around the axle in a debate over whether it’s ‘hell, yes, we’re going to take your guns’?”
Warren didn’t like all the cautious talk. Later in the debate she said that various unnamed candidates “think that running some kind of vague campaign that nibbles around the edges of big problems in this country is a winning strategy. They are wrong ... Democrats will win when we give people a reason to get in the fight.”
Did Biden (still the front-runner in some polls, but not in others) gain or lose ground? Did Warren? Who knows. But Buttigieg and Klobuchar, in the second tier, probably raised their profiles. As Democrats toy with their most progressive dreams, a some Midwestern common sense can’t hurt.
Toward the end, Buttigieg said: “I don’t agree with Sen. Warren that the only way forward is infinite partisan combat ... Think about what (a new) president can do to unify a new American majority for some of the boldest things we’ve attempted in my lifetime — (a public health care option) for all who want it ... an assault weapons ban, which would be a huge deal ... Yet there are some here on this stage who say it doesn’t count unless we go even further.”
Moments later, Klobuchar referenced the debate’s Ohio locale and said: “You know, this isn’t a flyover part of the country to me. The heartland is where I live. And I want to win those states that we lost last time ... But we can’t get any of this done unless we win.”
Amen to that.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a “writer in residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.