Let the debates begin: Time for progressive candidates to seize the moment

The Democratic Party needs real debate on identity and mission. Even in this atrocious format, it's a huge moment

Published June 24, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); Former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (AP/Getty/Salon)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); Former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (AP/Getty/Salon)

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On Wednesday and Thursday, 20 Democratic candidates for president will file onto the stage of a Miami theater for the first formal debates of the primary season. There are so many contenders that the DNC and hosts NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo must platoon them in, 10 per a night. Each debate lasts two hours and has two moderators, three panelists, commercials and theme music, leaving each candidate, on average, nine minutes of airtime. It's not the ideal format for a party desperate for a real debate.

The debate the party needs has been brewing since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 crusade. On one side is everyone who’s ever held a party leadership post, nearly the entire donor class, and most pundits of major media outlets sympathetic to Democrats. On the other side are progressive voices, louder and stronger than the party has heard in some 50 years; some old, many young.

The elites say the party’s veering too far left to draw the swing voters it needs: educated white suburbanites Trump drove away from the Republican Party; white blue-collar voters Trump lured away from the Democrats. They think global finance capitalism needs a paint job, not a gut rehab, and that a return to bipartisanship in Congress and foreign affairs can cure most of what ails us.

Progressives believe the elites’ donor-driven centrism is what gave us Trump, and that to persist in it would seal the party’s and the country’s fate. They believe every big system is badly broken: energy, health care, transportation, the banks, national security, the democracy itself. They’re especially attuned to climate change and to how race, class, gender and sexual identity intersect to perpetuate oppression and injustice. They think more about rallying the base than mollifying the center.

The two sides have very different views of one another. The elites conflate all strains of populism. To them, Sanders, Trump, William Jennings Bryan and Hitler all pandered to the same highly combustible mob. They attribute Hillary Clinton’s loss to many mostly external factors — but what fires them up is their belief that she was viciously attacked by Sanders, then left to die by his supporters who all then decamped to Jill Stein. (If Clinton had gotten every Stein vote, she’d still have lost Ohio and Florida. She’d have needed nearly every one of them to snag Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.)

Progressives see the specter of Trump and the success of young firebrands like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drawing the left into the party; they think we should make our guests feel more at home; that we should fret less over the half million or so Bernie voters who went to Stein and more over the 8 million Obama voters who went to Trump, and the 4 million more who stayed home.

Progressives see elites as purveyors of what Justice Anthony Kennedy called "soft corruption"; the pay-to-play politics on which global finance capitalism runs. Progressives and elites both worry about white working-class attitudes on race. Elites plot to win those voters back with a guy they cotton to culturally (Joe Biden). Progressives think the way to get them and keep them is to address their real economic grievances and reform a corrupt political system they’ve come to loathe.

Since 2016, Democrats have let these differences fester without resolution. Despite a few high-profile cases (Ocasio-Cortez in New York; Ayanna Pressley in Boston), 2018 saw few primary challenges to incumbents; even losing to a fascist wasn’t enough to spur a docile base to all-out rebellion. Party leaders fear robust debate, but the surest path to victory is for progressives to force one, and then to prevail.

The debates kicking off Wednesday in Miami are their best chance. Sanders and Warren must lead the way; most of the other candidates are as fungible as a carton of tennis balls. Comedian Erica Rhodes says that in the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes. Some candidates will get their 15 minutes during the debates. If the issues get the exposure they need, it won’t matter.

When it comes to policy, progressives prefer all-you-can-eat buffets to ordering à la carte. Voters want leaders to set priorities, identify urgent tasks and say where they will or won’t compromise. The easy call is where to stand firm.

We face three great crises: the slow death of our middle class, the near death of our democracy and the imminent collapse of our environment. We shouldn’t give an inch on any of them. Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez unwisely rejected a call for a climate change debate, but we need full-length debates on all three issues — because they’re so vital and because they’re issues on which Trump is vulnerable and easily exposed.

In a debate on the fate of the middle class, Democrats can frame the economy in a way that speaks to working families. Democrats hate watching Trump take credit for an ever-lengthening Obama expansion, but the issue is how our economy distributes its rewards. People want employers to pay a living wage and the rich to pay taxes, including a wealth tax, a stock transaction tax and equal taxes on active and passive income. They want overtime pay and relief from crushing student and consumer debt. Trump doesn’t even pay his own taxes. Talk about easy pickings.

As for democracy, Trump talked more about corruption in 2016 than any other issue, including trade and immigration. In office, he established himself as the most corrupt president ever. Fascists the world over run the same play: Attack corruption to topple a center-left government. Vow to drain the swamp. When you win, make the swamp even swampier. It shouldn’t work as well as it does.

Like the middle-class squeeze, corruption comes pre-sold to voters. In every poll that asks voters to pick the issue they care about most from a list that includes it, corruption finishes first. It was the main theme of three historic candidates: Obama (fix Washington); Sanders (the system is rigged); and Trump (drain the swamp)

Trump, his family and many of his top hires are brazenly corrupt. Democrats need only make the case and act as if they mean it, which unfortunately eliminates every candidate now scouring Wall Street for donations. Even more than Sanders, Warren owns the issue, owing to her diligent work and other candidates’ craven indifference. In debates, she should connect it to every question she’s asked.

The issue on which we’ll all be judged is climate change. Perez and his consultants shouldn’t be so afraid of it. We’ve come a long way since Obama told his first cabinet to tread lightly on it for fear of scaring voters. Trump calls it a hoax, but only 3% of Americans agree with him. More than 60% know that it is real, that it is man-made, and that it poses a profound threat to our entire planet.

Fewer know the opportunity we’re missing. Democrats should tell them about it. Under Trump, we’re the only nation rolling back fuel efficiency standards, making war on our own solar industry and betting big on coal. When we led the world into the information age, we profited handsomely. It’s not too late to help lead it into a new age of renewable energy and sustainable living — and profit even more.

Climate change needs more explaining than corruption or middle-class peril. But the weather is educating the public. We once had to defend computer-modeled prophecies. Now we describe things that have already happened: dead coral reefs and moose, parched forests; rising seas. It’s a progressive party’s job to explain new ideas. If Democrats aren’t up to the task then, by definition, they no longer are one.

As the party won’t devote whole debates to single topics, candidates must elevate the issues while caught in chaotic crossfires: We'll see 10 candidates facing five inquisitors in 90-second artillery exchanges. All pin their hopes on winning the soundbite sweepstakes, a contest that mostly produces losers. All will be eager to showcase some personal trait that uniquely fits them for the job. It’ll be a miracle if as many as half keep in mind their collective duty to weave a larger case for their party.

As important as any blueprint the candidates are likely to put on the table will be their answers to questions on the crises of the day. Two they can expect are on impeachment and on Trump’s near-stumble into a pointless war with Iran. All will loudly denounce Trump. Most will more quietly hedge their bets regarding what they themselves would do.

As to impeachment, Robert Mueller’s abdication of his duty to name Trump’s crimes and Nancy Pelosi’s gutless delay tactics now make it more difficult. A foreign power subverts our democracy, puts a fool in the White House and gets off scot-free. How is it possible? Democratic candidates must tell the people that they know Trump committed impeachable offenses and that the House must conduct an impeachment inquiry. It’s the only way to build an unredacted, fully public record of Trump’s crimes, and the only way to stop him from stealing the next election as he did the last.

On the world stage, Trump appears a clown to all but his fellow right-wing kleptocrats. Time has made him a dangerous clown. He learns nothing from each failure, not even that he failed. So he lurches from one confrontation to the next, painting himself into corners, becoming ever more enraged. One day pride may dictate he follow through on a threat, or a nation so threatened may choose to strike first. Last week in Iran, we came within seconds of such a tragedy.

We need more than earnest mumblings about old alliances and the prerogatives of Congress. For that we have Lindsey Graham. We need more than a stern rebuke of Trump; for that we have every Democrat alive. We must end secrecy and deception in national security, along with all attempts to export democracy by force of arms. We must affirm our commitment to the UN and to the renunciation of violence in the resolution of human conflict. In this as in so many matters, the tendency will be to underestimate what the American people are ready to hear.

Progressives will attend closely to Sanders and Warren on Iran. More than any other presidential candidate this year, Sanders has questioned basic tenets of American foreign policy. Warren, who once cited Madeleine Albright as a foreign policy adviser, is more guarded on the topic. For every candidate, the risk lies less in speaking up than in having too little to say.

Elites think that practicality means sublimating intra-party differences in order to raise the most money possible by the easiest means available to buy the best ads imaginable. They’re not just fighting the last war; their fighting as if their side won the last war. Biden looks more like Hillary Clinton every day: the gaffes, the nostalgia and, above all, the reliance on high-dollar fundraising and the seeming belief that it’s enough to harp constantly on Trump’s grotesqueries. Elites worry only about the gaffes. It’s a road to ruin.

In debates, progressives can reclaim the party’s heritage. There’s no use in negotiating core issues of political identity privately with elites who scorn them. They must outflank the elites by proving the appeal of their message in full public view. For that, there’s nothing quite like a presidential debate stage.

Progressives must stand fast and speak boldly about economic justice, political corruption and climate change. They must be forceful and clear on issues like impeachment and interventionism. But they must also think about where and when to compromise. Letting differences with elites just fester creates a policy vacuum that Donald Trump eagerly exploits. Issues ranging from trade to immigration to education and health care need a public thrashing out, and the debates are just the place for it.

The danger is that all the candidates just play to the base and that the debates devolve into battles where each seeks to outdo the others in displays of moral indignation, disdain for Trump and general wokefulness. In both parties, politicians of all factions traffic more than ever in vague symbols, empty gestures and cheap catharsis. Elizabeth Warren's campaign teaches us how hungry voters are for substance.

By seizing the day, progressives can do more than win a debate over the direction of the Democratic Party. They can create a new political center and set a whole new direction for the country. Let the debates begin.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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