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Sadly, a truce between Sanders and Warren seems unlikely. That only benefits Biden | Nathan Robinson | Opinion


Tuesday night’s Democratic debate was mostly “low-key” – a kinder description than “boring”. With the except of the moment everyone came to see, candidates largely repeated their standard talking points. I wouldn’t say that anybody won, except CNN and its advertisers.

We were all waiting to see what would happen between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren had recently alleged that Sanders told her privately that he didn’t think a woman could win the presidential election, a statement Sanders vehemently denied making. Would she renew her allegation? Would they argue about what was said?

Bernie received the first question on the topic. He once again issued an emphatic denial, and pointed out how absurd it would be for him to say such a thing, given that he asked Warren herself to run in 2016, and given that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Then it was Warren’s turn. The moderator’s question presumed that Sanders wasn’t telling the truth (“What did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”) Warren accepted the characterization, saying she disagreed with Sanders’ opinion, but did not elaborate on what she was alleging Sanders to have said to her. Instead she gave a general pitch for the power of female candidates, and touted her own electability, saying she was the only candidate on stage to have beaten an incumbent Republican within the last 30 years. (The latter statement wasn’t true, and it led to the only direct Warren-Sanders confrontation of the night. Sanders responded that he had beaten an incumbent Republican – which he had, 29 years and two months ago.)

The moderators did not press Warren on what had transpired, or whether there could have been a misunderstanding. So we didn’t come away with any better sense of what was said in that meeting. What we do know is that both candidates have been hurt by this: many Sanders supporters now despise Warren for launching a damaging attack weeks before the Iowa caucus, and Warren’s supporters believe Sanders is a sexist. At the end of the debate, Sanders offered to shake Warren’s hand and Warren rebuffed him, suggesting that she does not intend to revive any “truce” between them.

That’s why Joe Biden had the best night of anyone on the stage, even though he put in one of his worst performances. Biden seemed lethargic and said very little that was memorable. But he did what he needed to do, which was escape completely unscathed. Bizarrely, even though Biden is the frontrunner, neither Warren nor Sanders launched a major attack on him. It has been strange to see how lightly the candidates have treated Biden given his appalling record and electoral weaknesses. He was the clear beneficiary of the tension between the two progressives, and the fallout from Warren’s attack on Sanders might well lead to Biden winning Iowa.

Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer will probably both be praised for their performances. Both were composed and articulate, though they mostly benefit from being given equal time to the race’s actual frontrunners. Klobuchar, as usual, attacked single-payer healthcare and free college as pipe dreams. Steyer gave an unexpectedly forceful attack on the private health insurance industry, backing up Warren and Sanders in making the case that corporate profiteers in healthcare are the problem.

But the prominence of Steyer and Klobuchar was a reminder of the absence of Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard. Both Yang and Gabbard have livened up these debates and provided useful alternative perspectives – Yang with his pitch for a universal basic income and Gabbard with a critique of militarism. It seems unjust that Steyer, a billionaire, can fund his way into these debates while the others are kept out. (Cory Booker, who just suspended his campaign, is also missed.)

The CNN moderators were vicious, far beyond ordinary criticism. Sanders came in for the worst of it – he was asked how voters knew he wouldn’t bankrupt the country (the US can’t go bankrupt) and about whether he owed the American people an explanation on Medicare for All’s costs. But the moderators aggressively questioned others, too – Klobuchar over her uninspiring “pragmatism” and Pete Buttigieg over his inability to generate support among black voters.

Much of the debate was turned over to uneventful discussions about troop levels, impeachment and trade deals. Biden said he would not meet with Kim Jong-un without preconditions, putting him to the right of Trump on North Korean diplomacy. Klobuchar pitched impeachment as a “decency check” for the country – which, in a proudly indecent country, is unlikely to excite too many voters. The healthcare section relitigated the tedious “how will you pay for it” debate, even though we have obvious answers to this question. Buttigieg was asked why he didn’t believe in “free college” if he believed in free public high school, and replied that everyone is expected to finish high school. This didn’t make much sense – we don’t expect everyone to use the public library, but we give it to everyone equally. Unfortunately, the discussion didn’t get much further.

Ultimate takeaway: Biden didn’t do well, but I guarantee he is smiling tonight.



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