Poor John Delaney. If he weren’t a bald, middle-aged, straight-white-male centi-millionaire who used to be a congressman from Maryland, he might be getting some real traction in the moderate lane of the Democratic primary.
On night one of the second Democatic debate, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the only candidates on stage polling in the double digits, essentially tied nationally for second place. But rather than spar with one another, they banded together to fend off criticism from the other candidates, who tried to distinguish themselves as more moderate and more electable than Sanders, the self-described socialist, and Warren, the self-described capitalist who backs Sanders’s socialist plans.
But among the (relatively) moderate group, Delaney stood out because he actually made arguments while others merely made assertions.
In his opening remarks, Delaney took direct aim at Warren, Sanders, and Medicare for All. “We can go down the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us, which is with bad policies like Medicare for All, free everything, and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected,” he said. “That’s what happened with McGovern. That’s what happened with Mondale. That’s what happened with Dukakis.”
Delaney went toe-to-toe with Elizabeth Warren on free trade, but his best moment of the night came during his exchange with Bernie Sanders on health care.
Not only would Medicare for All tell “half the country that your health insurance is illegal,” Delaney said, “the bill that Senator Sanders drafted, by definition, will lower quality in health care.”
Delaney explained that Medicare for All would fund all health-care expenditures at current Medicare rates — only about 80 percent of the real cost of health care, while private insurance pays 120 percent. “So if you start underpaying all the health-care providers, you’re going to create a two-tier market where wealthy people buy their health care with cash, and the people . . . like my dad, the union electrician, will have that health-care plan taken away.”
Sanders was visibly angry at times. When Delaney noted he was the only candidate with experience in the health-care business, Sanders snapped: “It’s not a business!” Sanders’s response to Delaney’s argument about the true cost of health care was that Medicare for All would save $500 billion a year by “ending all of the incredible complexities that are driving every American crazy trying to deal with the health-insurance companies.”
“Listen, his math is wrong,” Delaney replied. “I’ve been going around rural America, and I ask rural hospital administrators one question: ‘If all your bills were paid at the Medicare rate last year, what would happen?’ And they all look at me and say, ‘We would close.’”
Several other candidates criticized Sanders and Warren as too extreme, but their comments were less substantive.
For the second debate in a row, the supposedly charismatic Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, the only candidates on stage besides Warren and Sanders polling above 1 percent, failed to have breakout performances. If not now, when are they going to get around to it?
“It used to be just Republicans who wanted to repeal and replace. Now many Democrats do,” said Montana governor Steve Bullock. It was a good line, on par with Delaney’s point: “When we created Social Security, we didn’t say pensions were illegal.” But Bullock didn’t follow through.
Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper called the Green New Deal’s jobs guarantee a “distraction,” but he didn’t take the time to explain why it was impractical.
“Do I think that we are going to end up voting for a plan that kicks half of America off of their current insurance in four years? No, I don’t think we’re going to do that. I think there is a better way to get what we all want to see, which is lower costs for health care,” Amy Klobuchar said, without explaining how she’d lower costs for health care. “But what I don’t like about this argument right now; what I don’t like about it at all is that we are more worried about winning an argument than winning an election.”
Klobuchar’s formulation seemed a bit odd: Winning arguments and winning elections ought to go hand-in-hand. If front-runner Joe Biden were as capable as John Delaney at making an argument, he’d be running away with the nomination.
But Klobuchar may have had a point. New Age author Marianne Williamson made an argument against making policy arguments: “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days,” she said. And Williamson was the most-searched candidate on Google last night.
Heading into Tuesday’s debate, it looked like neither Williamson nor Delaney would qualify for the third debate in September. As it stands, the buzz Williamson got on Tuesday seems much more likely than Delaney’s substantive performance to generate the bump in the polls and the number of donors necessary to qualify for more national debates. And that’s too bad. Delaney’s voice of reason will be missed by moderate Democrats and more than a few conservatives.