And so, the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 cycle comes to an end, two nights with twenty candidates between them, everyone reciting their stump speeches at the cameras, desperately interrupting each with raised fingers to get more time, and occasionally forced to answer inane questions from Chuck Todd. But though each debate featured ten different candidates (supposedly randomly divided, though Elizabeth Warren probably felt the draw was a bit lopsided), there was one candidate who managed to seem like he was on stage twice, physically behind the podium just once, but ideologically dominating the atmosphere of both nights — and that candidate was, of course, Bernie Sanders.
Consider this: on night one, moderator Savannah Guthrie began by asking Elizabeth Warren about her range of policy proposals, from free college to government health care to the cancellation of student debt to the breakup of major corporations, and what followed was roughly twenty minutes of everyone debating the merits of these proposals. On night two, then, a similar dynamic played out: Savannah Guthrie began not with a question for Joe Biden, the supposed frontrunner (at least according to the polls, though as I’ve argued before, polls are not as important as broader narratives), but with a question for Sanders that mirrored the question she asked Warren the previous night, focusing on his proposals for universal health care and free college. What followed, then, was another twenty minute discussion of Bernie’s plans, framed by a larger debate over capitalism and democratic socialism.
What the opening minutes of both debates thus had in common was very clearly the influence of Bernie Sanders. It was his policy ideas that took center stage, ideas that he alone brought up in 2015 and 2016 in his valiant campaign against Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal centrism — policies like breaking up big corporations, taxing the wealthy, and of course, Medicare for All, all of which before his campaign were considered too radical but which have now become mainstream views in the Democratic party.
Warren, of course, has her own history of progressive activism, specifically when it comes to challenging corporate power — but it should be noted that it wasn’t she who decided to run against the Clinton machine in 2015. Instead, Warren not only sat out that race but also, to her discredit, refused to endorse Bernie (despite supposedly sharing his policy ideas) and eventually backed Clinton instead. This might have seemed smart in 2016, when it looked like Clinton would inevitably be President, but in a post-Trump world in which the Democrats must articulate an ideologically thorough vision that can bring back working class voters who either stayed home in 2016 or voted for Trump, Warren’s earlier hedging has led to her losing the ideological high ground to Sanders. The ideas that she was articulating, however forcefully, in that first debate and all the plans that she puts forth, however thorough they may be, are entirely based on Bernie’s vision.
Most telling, though, is that democratic socialism was the central ideological battleground of both debates. Without Bernie Sanders, could anyone have imagined that a group of Democratic candidates would be debating the merits of this ideology? And let’s be clear — for all her progressiveness, Warren still has an old-fashioned resistance to the democratic socialist label, not only insisting that she’s a “capitalist to [her] bones” but also literally leaping to her feet and applauding Donald Trump when he declared during his 2019 State of the Union that “America will never be a socialist country.” What Warren doesn’t realize is that by rejecting the label of democratic socialism, she’s acknowledging that she is not the ideological force dominating the 2020 Democratic primary debates.
Even Bernie’s physical demeanor during that second debate reflected his ideological dominance. When he spoke, he waved his hands with that now-characteristic orchestra-conductor affect, and when he was silent, he stood smugly, leaning against his podium and looking around him with a pleased expression as the other candidates played their instruments to his beat: Kamala Harris did her best to position herself in Bernie’s ideological shadow, criticizing the Trump tax bill that “benefits the top 1% and the biggest corporations in this country,” a talking point that sounds exactly like something Bernie’s would say. Kirsten Gillibrand, meanwhile, talked in her first speech about corporate greed, which is of course another Bernie talking point, and then later in a discussion of Medicare for All reminded everyone that she wrote one of the provisions in “Bernie’s bill” (the very phrase already acknowledging his influence). Even Biden, the ideological centrist who recently promised a group of wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change,” found himself parroting Bernie’s language by criticizing Wall St. and talking about the problem of “enormous inequality.” And even the nonentity Michael Bennet, who spent much of his time attacking Bernie’s democratic socialism, acknowledged that he “agree[s] completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge we’re facing as a country is.” Andrew Yang, meanwhile, despite a completely lackluster performance (hate to say it, but he should have worn a tie), has of course centered his whole campaign on a single socialist issue (though he seems to approach it with a more tech-libertarian slant) — and even Marianne Williamson (when she wasn’t making strange references to New Zealand) argued that corporate power was a major problem.
It should be noted this isn’t just something that I, an avowed Bernie supporter, am arguing: CNN and The Atlantic (hardly leftist publications) both acknowledged that Bernie’s vision dominated the debates, with CNN stating that “Sanders sets the bar in Democratic Health Care Debate” and The Atlantic declaring that “Bernie Sanders’s Ideas Dominated the Second Debate.” Even Vox, the twenty-first-century broadsheet for neoliberalism, admitted that “Bernie Sanders’s ideas” won the debate (even though they then tried to argue, bizarrely, that Bernie himself still lost).
We should acknowledge, of course, that Kamala Harris’s attack on Biden was the standout exchange of the night — she seized the moment from a bumbling Chuck Todd with a forceful interjection, set up her argument with the beautiful underhanded jab that she didn’t think Biden was racist, and then proceeded to slowly and methodically eviscerate him, shifting fluidly from a prosecutorial forcefulness to a moving personal anecdote and then back again to forcefulness, pushing Biden to defend his record (which he did with singular ineptitude) and making it highly unlikely now that he’ll win the nomination (if his poll numbers don’t plummet as a result of that abysmal performance, then I have no faith in the Democratic electorate). That exchange is a moment that will be played on T.V. for weeks (which is quite a long time in a news cycle in 2019), and Harris deserves all the credit.
More broadly, though, how do you decide who wins a debate? Is it the person who has the best individual moment, or the person whose ideology permeates most of the discussion? In the Republican debates of 2015 and 2016, there were many individual moments that got lots of playback on T.V. afterwards, perhaps most memorably Chris Christie’s hilarious takedown of Marco Rubio. But Trump still won, despite all the soundbites others may have landed — and that was because Trump’s dark vision for the country, his racism, his misogyny, his neo-fascist nationalism, set the stage for almost every issue the candidates discussed. In a similar, though ideologically inverted, way, Bernie’s idealistic vision, of a country where everyone has health care and free college and no student debt and corporations no longer control our lives as they currently do, dominated the discussion in these first debates of 2020. And nothing proves it more than Bernie’s closing statement — at the end of the night, when everything had been said (except for one last, unremarkable speech by Biden), Bernie reminded the audience, as well as everyone on the stage, looking left and right as he did to meet the eyes of his fellow candidates, that nothing they’ve discussed will matter if corporate power is not dismantled. It was an essential moment, because it put the whole debate in perspective. None of the plans that anyone discussed will ever become reality unless the power of Wall St., the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and the military industrial complex, which have together dominated American politics for the last thirty years, are brought under the popular will — because they will oppose any major progressive change anyone tries to implement. Thus, in forty five seconds, Bernie brought the debate full circle back to his vision, to where the whole thing had begun two hours before.