Who Won the Democratic Debate?

Mom and Dad are fighting

Pete loves debate-watching

Did you all watch the Democratic debate last night? It was actually… pretty good? Turns out not having 45 people on stage really helps.

The on-air CNN pundits seemed to generally conclude that Warren won the night, and I agree that she was incredibly strong. But Bernie was great too, wasn’t he? He’s almost a parody of himself (“I’m going to tell you that, but first I’m going to tell you something else”) but it’s actually pretty compelling — and incredibly charming. And for as much as Pete Buttigieg is not my candidate — I will never get over a 37-year-old mayor of a large town who cannot win statewide office deciding he should be president — I thought his performance was good: He was thoughtful and articulate, and raised a series of issues (like cybersecurity) that the others hadn’t touched on (at other points, he gave a series of non-answers amounting to “this is a key question for my generation, and as president I will address this question.” Ok). Klobuchar was off at the beginning — so nervous her hair was shaking — and she hilariously forgot the name of Kansas’s governor, literally saying, “and her name is… someone I am proud to know well… Kelly… thank you” (I am sure Gov. Kelly Thankyou was thrilled), but she recovered after that and was back to her top mom jokes (tell the joke, then explain the joke). Joe Biden was… man, Joe Biden. Even on foreign policy, where he’s far and away the most knowledgable on that stage, it was hard to follow his stumbling, bumbling train of thought. Clearly lots of information in that noggin, but it just doesn’t seem to be connecting, nor able to flow freely out of his mouth. Tom Steyer was everyone else’s hype man, raising his hand and begging to be called on so that he could say, “I agree with Sen. Warren.” He again wore a notable tartan tie.

This is the time in the cycle when things get ugly, and that is indeed what’s happening between Warren and Bernie. I wrote about the latest tensions here. It seems that the backstory goes like this: The Bernie team, and the close-to-the-campaign legions of Bernie fans for whom Jacobin is the main mouthpiece, have for months identified Warren as the biggest threat to Bernie. Many of the same people who in 2016 hated Hillary and were indignantly claiming “I’m not sexist, I would vote for Warren” are now casting Warren as Hillary 2.0 — something that doesn’t compute policy-wise, but makes sense if your only metric of progressivism is level of fidelity to Bernie Sanders. There has been an enormous anti-Warren sentiment building in the online left, again led by Jacobin, and fueled by several members of Bernie’s staff — all while the campaign officially denies it’s happening. That all came to a head with POLITICO published a piece on a script that Bernie campaign members were apparently using to go after Warren, tarring her as an out-of-touch elitist. Sanders himself denied involvement, claiming that a few rogue staffers were using the talking points (never mind that their own communications director was using the exact same talking points on podcasts and in interviews). “We have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t,” he said.

Then they admitted it: The campaign gave the script to teams in at least two early voting states.

The script was a scandal because Bernie and Warren had an informal nonaggression pact, both correctly concluding that two progressive candidates in the race was better than one. They are aligned on most things. They are friends. It makes a lot more sense for them to be united against the Joe Bidens and Pete Buttigiegs of the race than to tear each other to shreds. In Bernie’s defense, the script was not all that shocking — certainly in line with what you would expect in a competitive primary where candidates are working to differentiate themselves from each other. In Warren’s, it broke their agreement, undermined their shared goals, and damaged what she thought was a friendship of mutual respect.

In the aftermath of that story, CNN broke another one: That in 2018, when both candidates knew they would be running in 2020, Sanders had told Warren he didn’t think a woman could win the election.

Sanders denies he said that. Warren says he did.

Sanders’s defenders say he couldn’t have possibly said that because he wanted Warren to run in 2016, and a few decades ago he told a group of children that a woman could be president. But that is… not really evidence that he said a woman couldn’t win in 2020, in the aftermath of the 2016 Clinton/Trump debacle. A whole lot of people who strongly support women running for office also think that Clinton’s loss proves that a woman can’t win right now, or can’t beat Donald Trump — it’s a line I’ve heard again and again (and one I fundamentally disagree with, but that doesn’t mean the argument isn’t out there).

Is Sanders lying? Is Warren? Do they simply remember the conversation differently?

I suspect it’s the third option, although I’m not sure it matters — although it is a revealing moment. Sanders superfans are going all in, calling Warren a liar and claiming she made this up entirely. I find that doubtful. I also don’t think that Bernie is a raging secret sexist. But I think it’s clear that he — and many of his loudest supporters — operate from a class-first politic that downplays the importance of race and gender in one’s experience of the world, and find discussion of those issues to be a little tedious and distracting from The Cause. That’s a tension as old as the American left.

I’m off of Twitter this month, which is honestly the only reason I am writing about Sanders / Warren at all. Even the gentlest criticism of Sanders results in such an absurd inundation of hate-tweets that it’s usually just not worth it. And it’s frustrating, too, to see any discussion of that dynamic written off and denied with the claim that lots of people are awful on Twitter, and every campaign has its superfans who go on the attack. Let me tell you: I’ve written critically about nearly every candidate in this race, and I have never experienced attacks like the ones from the Sanders side. They are enormous, they are unrelenting, and they are personal in a way that is really, really disturbing. When I criticize Sanders, his fans don’t just counter my arguments. They assign ridiculous motives (“you want people to die”). They go after my family. They scour my Instagram for photos of my home and my life (I was on a boat once! Clearly I am a secret millionaire swimming in piles of money like Scrooge McDuck while everyone else dies from not having Medicare for All, which is why I am… a long-time advocate for universal healthcare and higher taxes on the rich? I don’t know). It’s all totally counterproductive, if your goal is to win support. It’s incredibly productive if your goal is to intimidate and silence anyone who is even thinking of saying something vaguely critical of Bernie Sanders.

After this election is over, I hope that a moment will come for some serious soul-searching on these scorched-earth tactics.

(It won’t).

But even with the online bad behavior on behalf of Bernie, I don’t think Bernie himself is the devil, or an unrepentant liar, or a terrible person who should never be in office. Policy-wise, I’m on board with him 95%. I wish he would step in and do something about the now-notorious harassers and attack dogs who have given his entire campaign an ugly reputation — I wish he wouldn’t have hired some of the people who were those harassers and attack dogs in 2016 — but it’s also fundamentally counterproductive to cast Sanders, who is running one of the most progressive campaigns in American history, as an enemy.

It’s also dangerous to cast him as the one and only true savior.

Every candidate has flaws. Every candidate is human. These are people running for president of the United States, people who believe they and they alone are best suited to lead the free world. They are narcissists to a one. They are human, and they are power-seeking, and that means they will all have moments of venality, vanity and arrogance. To a one, they will make mistakes. To a one, they will sometimes do the wrong thing. Which is why, to a one, they are not beyond critique. If you haven’t been disappointed at least once by your favorite among them, and if you aren’t prepared to be disappointed again, you either aren’t paying attention or you’re in a cult of personality.

Neither Sanders nor Warren is a sociopathic liar. Neither Sanders nor Warren is going to save the world and the future of humanity. Neither Sanders nor Warren is a manipulative phony.

This could be an incredible moment in lefty politics. A Sanders or Warren candidacy would be the most progressive campaign in American history. It would not be more of the same. It would be a real opportunity for positive change. While these two duke it out — while some of their supporters tear each other to shreds — look at who’s still leading the polls: Joe Biden.

Eye on the prize.

xx Jill