I had barely walked in the door from a long car trip when the second round of Democratic presidential debates began. So I grabbed the nearest note pad and sat down to begin assessing the candidates in the Democratic field. Unlike the first round of debates, which were too dizzying to make sense of, the presidential candidates are beginning to come into focus in this second round.
Most Americans are centrists, so it was heartening to see several of the lesser-known candidates pointing out the dangers of falling into line behind the so-called “progressive” policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. To my mind, at least, these two appeared to function last night less as rivals than allies, a relationship visually reinforced by their position together at center stage. The main axis of the debate, no matter what topic the candidates were discussing, had to do with whether the policies Sanders and Warren are advocating are either fair or achievable, or genuinely appealing to Americans at large. Particularly controversial is their embrace of Medicare for All, which in their formulation would do away with the nation’s current reliance on private medical insurance.
As the night wore on, Warren, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and John Hickenlooper all drifted lower in my estimation, partly because the challenges that Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, and Tim Ryan mounted against Warren and Sanders were sensible and to my mind represented the interests of a wide swath of the electorate. These more moderate and pragmatic candidates circled back time and again to the issue of what was achievable and what kinds of government help the public will truly appreciate and need. Whereas Warren and Sanders thundered away, waving their arms and insisting that nothing but radical change could rescue the nation, Klobuchar, Ryan, Delaney, and Bullock voiced innumerable objections, in some cases questioning the desirability of the outcomes; in others, skeptically probing progressive assumptions; in still others, arguing that progressive policies were unworkable and would fail.
Governor Bullock of Montana, who entered the race only belatedly, made a good impression, if only because his presence reminded viewers of how important it will be for Democrats to choose someone who can do well in the “new West” and in purple states. Amy Klobuchar improved over her first debate performance, exuding confidence and holding to a spontaneous style. She easily eclipsed Beto O’Rourke, who was trying too hard to look and sound presidential, and Pete Buttigieg, who, in trying to differentiate himself from the competition, ended up marginalizing himself as a niche candidate representing the young. Some viewers were turned off by Klobuchar’s touting her own record of electoral achievement, but others will take to heart her underlying message, which is that, to beat Trump, Democrats will need to nominate someone who can capture more votes in the moderate Midwest than Hillary did.
John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland, came across as accomplished, thoughtful, and in command of the facts. I was glad to see him standing up to Warren and Sanders and objecting to plans that will pull the Democratic party completely off the rails. He managed to stay calm and listened politely while Elizabeth Warren lectured and whined her way past rules meant to prevent any one candidate from hogging an undue portion of the available time.
Which brings me to Marianne Williamson, who, despite not being an ideologue, perfectly articulated the central ideal of republican government both on the debate stage and in a post-debate interview with CBS. She comes across as an authentic voice for using government to help individuals reach their full potential, which can only happen when the political class remembers that its job is to help “the people.” Though she is not likely to become the party’s nominee, her impassioned and spontaneous riffs on environmental injustice and the dark psychic force of hatred that Donald Trump is unleashing stirred listeners’ hearts as nothing else did. Somehow, this off-beat outsider is channeling the old soul of the Democratic party, delivering jeremiads to the complacent and prodding Americans everywhere to “stay woke.” I found her refreshing and wouldn’t be surprised to see her star burning brighter for a while.