Populists Versus Pragmatists: Warren Wins


Did Warren win the debate?

Let’s cut to the chase: after tonight’s debate, Warren is now queen of the left, and Bernie is playing second fiddle in the populist orchestra. 

These debates are supposed to be more spectacle than substance, an opportunity for candidates to deliver rehearsed talking points, scripted emotion, and pandering promises. But a funny thing happened tonight on the way to vapid superficial Neverland: a real debate seemed to break out in the midst of the artifice, the fakery and all the performative posturing. 

A central dynamic emerged almost at the outset and it carried through the entirety of what was a long and surprisingly substantive evening: it became a battle between left populism and liberal pragmatism. The first half hour-plus focused exclusively on a back and forth over health care, specifically whether Medicare for All was good policy and good politics, or whether a public option was more realistic, and the exchanges highlighted the fault line between those who believe we should focus on what is possible and those who think we should focus on what is ideal. 

Maybe I have City Council races too much on the brain, but that dynamic – which pitted more moderate candidates like Delaney, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Klobuchar and Buttigieg against Warren and Sanders – seemed recognizably similar to the political battle we’re currently having in Seattle between left populists and progressive pragmatists in Seattle. (Tonight’s one real exception to this populist/pragmatist split was Marianne Williamson, who is, uh, hard to pigeonhole). 

Now, it wasn’t as good a debate as it could have been because, too often, the moderation got in the way. Jake Tapper cemented his standing as an arrogant, self-important, inside-the-Beltway media ass, as he repeatedly stepped on and cut off potentially emotional moments from the candidates (mostly contrived and overwrought emotional moments, but still). His repetitive “will you raise taxes on the middle class?” gotcha question about Medicare for All was dumb, a textbook example of how the Beltway political and media class create false narratives. If he wanted to ask a Medicare of All gotcha he badly missed his mark – he should have pressed them on if they are willing to take away private coverage from people. 

Nonetheless, the intrusive moderation aside, tonight’s debate was an interesting, and clarifying, encounter, with sharper exchanges and much more authentic back-and-forth across the populist/pragmatist divide. 

Bottom line takeaway: Elizabeth Warren won the night. She dodged some punches and threw a few of her own. She was disciplined, relentless, forceful, and on message. And it’s a simple, easy to digest populist message about corporate power corrupting government and corroding the system. It has all the subtlety of a jackhammer shattering concrete, but of course that’s a positive, because in tribalized, polarized America nuance doesn’t sell. If it did, Trump wouldn’t be president. 

My second takeaway of the night: Bernie seems like he’s done, finished, kaput in the battle for the left lane, a loser in the comparison to Warren. Not because she bested him in combat. Quite the contrary, she stood next to him and fought shoulder-to-shoulder with him to defend left populism (single payer, free college tuition, breaking corporate power). 

No, simply put, she outshone him. Where Liz seemed disciplined, Sanders seemed repetitive. Where Warren seemed forceful, Bernie seemed flailing. At one point, as Warren sparred with the moderates on the stage, Sanders said “Elizabeth is absolutely right” about the evils of corporate power, and at least for me that moment crystalized something both odd and important: when she defended him, it made her look strong, when he defended her, it made her look stronger. On Team Populism, it was obvious Bernie was her wingman, not the other way around. 

But if Warren is now established as the queen of Populist Progressiveland, tonight’s performance also reinforced that she is going to continue to have a problem breaking out of the educated white progressive ghetto she is currently locked in. She repeatedly – and effectively – fended off the more moderate candidates who were poking at her by denouncing their ideas and rhetoric as “Republican.” That worked on the debate stage, but it doesn’t change the basic reality that if that accusation is true, then a majority of the Democratic Party is comprised of Republicans. 

Warren offered no bridges, no olive branches, to more moderate Democratic voters who are worried that ideological purism could hand the election to Trump – that may well come back to haunt her in the nomination battle (or possibly, the general election). It certainly creates an opening for Biden, who will take the stage in Round 2, but it remains to be seen if he can capitalize on it. 

A few random thoughts about some of the other contenders on the stage tonight:

  • I am told by smart people that Hickenlooper was an excellent and popular Denver mayor and Colorado governor. And I could see him winning election and serving as a solid Senator for Colorado, if he decides to drop out of the presidential race and take on Colorado incumbent Republican Cory Gardner in 2020. But he’s utterly unconvincing as a potential president.
  • Amy Klobuchar is the female Hickenlooper (or sorry, Hickenlooper is the male Klobuchar). A solid, sensible person, she had a couple of nice moments, but she lacks the dynamism, the personality and the charisma to win the nomination, or to be president. 
  • Steve Bullock, the Montana governor who was left out of the initial debates a month ago, did surprisingly well, and arguably outpointed Buttigieg for the title of “best of the pragmatists.” He was clear and convincing, and he smiled a lot. Unfortunately, early on I was struck with the thought that he looks and sounds a lot like Dana Carvey. And from then on I couldn’t get that comparison out of my head. I kept expecting him to say things like, “wouldn’t be prudent to give everyone who shows up at the border health care…”
  • Buttigieg was quite good. He seemed more comfortable this time around, and his answers were smoother. If he was 20 years older and a little more experienced, he might be running away with the nomination right now, but as things stand he didn’t do enough to break out. 
  • O’Rourke was better than last time, though that’s a very low bar. The soft bigotry of low expectations.He benefitted from not having Castro on stage with him this time, for sure. Also, thankfully, no cringeworthy pandering in Spanish. Still, he’s not going anywhere, except back to El Paso.
  • Delaney was the most forceful of the moderates, and he made some substantive points – he’s right that Warren’s wealth tax is a nearly impossible political lift, whereas raising the capital gains tax is far more plausible – while challenging Warren and Sanders, but Warren easily outmaneuvered him rhetorically and he sometimes came across as too aggressive. Plus, 21st century America is not ready for a bald president.
  • Marianne Williamson had a great night. Really, she did. It will have near zero impact on the presidential nominating contest, but on some astral plane that is a very, very important development.
Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik is a political and public affairs consultant in Seattle. In a previous life, he was a staff writer and political columnist at the Stranger, and did a stint as a Washington State correspondent for Time Magazine and for the Boston Globe, back in the olden days when such positions still existed.


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