Tonight, the Democrats finally had a real debate. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren faced actual disagreement and actual criticism, and the Democrats’ race to the left faced real resistance. Yes, it came from the second-tier candidates, but for the first time we heard real arguments about wiping away private health insurance, border security, decriminalizing border crossings, free healthcare for illegal aliens, free college for all, and even whether the United States should adopt a no-first-use policy regarding its nuclear arsenal.
The dynamics were fascinating to watch. Both Warren and Sanders were visibly annoyed at the challenges to their sweeping, utterly unrealistic, and often unpopular (at least with the general population) far-left policies. In the venue, however, the moderates faced the short-term problem that in a contest with Warren and Sanders, a resounding “yes!” is going to be more crowd-pleasing than the moderates’ “no” — even if “no” is the truth.
The true significance of tonight’s debate may not emerge until tomorrow. No doubt Joe Biden’s team watched the clash between moderates and progressives intensely. If their man can be on top of his game (a huge if), he has an opportunity to make a moderate case from the top of the leaderboard, to set the tone against his rivals to make a more popular and more electable message the dominant tone of the night.
We can’t draw any lasting conclusions from one night of debates, but at the very least there is a glimmer of hope that the Democratic primary won’t simply be one long sprint to the left. There’s a glimmer of hope that more responsible voices will prevail. Americans of all political stripes should not be wishing for the irresponsibility or extremism of their opponents, even if they perceive that opposing extremism increases their own chances for victory. In a closely divided country, extremists can win, and their victory will further fracture a nation that’s already in the grips of a spirit of rage and fear.
One last thought — tomorrow night’s debate is the main event. It’s always the main event when the frontrunner takes the stage. The table is set for Biden. He faces something akin to Ronald Reagan’s challenge in his second debate with Walter Mondale. A shaky first debate had raised questions about whether Reagan was too old, whether he’d lost a step. With a winning opening answer, he swept aside doubts and rolled to victory. For those unfamiliar with that glorious moment, here it is:
Biden is no Reagan, but the opportunity is right there in front of him. If he can manufacture even one single moment where he commands the stage, he’ll cement his lead and put pressure even on progressives to moderate or lose.