Voters got a good look over two nights at 20 of the Democrats running for president. (Remember, there are others!). I’ll go out on a limb to say there are a handful of serious contenders: former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. There is another group who used the debate to create an opening (but still have a long, long way to go): former HUD secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.). The rest? It would take a minor miracle for any of them to become competitive.
The debates showed Biden’s vulnerabilities and a full flowering of Harris’s considerable political skills. We saw Sanders as a stale socialist, unchanged since 2016, and still scowling and yelling. However, this is one debate and the memory of it will slowly fade. Where the race goes from here remains unclear. In the weeks until the next debate, we may get answers to these critical questions that may determine not just the nominee, but the ability of that nominee to beat President Trump:
What precisely is Harris’s position on Medicare-for-all, and is she prepared to defend kicking millions of Americans, including union members with generous plans, off private insurance? The issue is far from academic. If you worry that Trump will win reelection by painting the opposition as “socialists,” you should be concerned if Democrats start to lead with their chins and give credence to the president’s attacks. Moreover, at least Sanders fessed up that Medicare-for-all means raising taxes on people who aren’t “rich.” Will Harris and Warren? If supporters are confident that Medicare is superior, why not adopt the public option and let private insurance melt away (which is exactly what originally frightened Republicans)? Everything from the survival of rural hospitals to funding needs to be thought through if Democrats want to hold fast to Medicare-for-all.
Where do the candidates go on immigration? Democrats are on solid ground when condemning Trump’s vile abuse of migrants and holding him responsible for making a bad situation worse. However, “decriminalizing” illegal immigration will become another talking point in the GOP’s caricature of Democrats as proponents of “open borders” — a false charge to date. (By the way, it is utterly unnecessary to change the existing law, which was on the books under President Barack Obama but was not enforced against people who hadn’t committed other serious crimes. And it’s especially unnecessary if you are going to redo the entire immigration system anyway.) Extending Medicare-for-all or a public option to illegal immigrants is another high-risk proposition that Trump will rip apart. There are very good reasons — e.g., public health — to cover people here, living in our communities, but Democrats will need to respond to obvious concerns that such a move would reward and increase illegal entry.
Who has a worse problem with age/living in the past, Sanders or Biden? There is a good argument that Sanders is past his due date. He hasn’t changed a thing (not even the yelling) since 2016, and now faces younger, more progressive opponents than Hillary Clinton. Moreover, his insistence on answering every question with an attack on Wall Street and a defense of Medicare-for-all feeds the view that these are the only topics — not guns, not race, not abortion — that he truly cares about. If progressives have fresher, more interesting and diverse alternatives, why stick with Sanders?
After the debate analysis, can the second-tier candidates who “popped” maintain momentum? The hardest thing to do for a lesser-known candidate who broke out in a debate is to convert that coverage into better poll numbers, a bigger campaign organization and new donors. Castro, for example, got himself on the map primarily on the strength of his immigration plan. But we don’t yet know whether he can stand up to greater scrutiny, or whether he has the staff to take his campaign to the next level. It will be interesting to see, for example, whether we see the calmer, more controlled and presidential Booker that we saw in the debate out on the campaign trail.
Can Buttigieg get past the race issue? The South Bend mayor gets points for candor and refusing to pass the buck when he confessed that he had failed to integrate his city’s police force, but he is still stuck with his record on policing, which is a red flag for many voters. African Americans, in particular, were wary of him before, but any momentum he might have picked up from his “Douglass Plan” or from trips to South Carolina might be undone unless he can bring the latest police incident to a satisfactory resolution and make true progress on racial criminal justice in his own police force. If he does so, he might have a plausible case that he can do this on a national level; conversely, if South Bend’s police department leaves him stymied, it will much more difficult to make the case that he is ready for tougher, national problem-solving.