Joe Biden won the debate, and he wasn’t even on stage

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during the National Urban League Conference, Thursday, July 25, 2019, in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP Photo)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during the National Urban League Conference, Thursday, July 25, 2019, in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP Photo)

Imagine that you’re a swing voter — perhaps one of the estimated nine million people who swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 – and you live in one of the few swing states, notably Pennsylvania, that will decide the race in 2020. Imagine that you tuned into last night’s Democratic debate with an open mind, hoping to find a middle-of-the-road presidential candidate, someone who can actually win.

But alas, here’s what you heard from the leading candidates on stage: Take away the private health insurance of roughly 160 million Americans, raise middle class taxes to pay for government-run health care, provide public health benefits to undocumented immigrants, decriminalize illegal border crossings, offer free college, give federal payments (reparations) to African Americans who are descended from slaves … In the words of former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, one of the many moderates on stage, “You might as well Fed-Ex the election to Donald Trump.”

The biggest problem last night — aside from the pie-in-the-sky progressive wish lists ballyhooed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, aside from the real risk that their agendas constitute political suicide — was the cacophonous format. Thanks to the luck of the draw, the 10 candidates on stage included a disproportionate number of moderates who are polling at close to zero percent, and who are thus poised to be axed from the next round of debates in September. Those debates, with tighter entry criteria, will cull the herd.

Fairly or not, likely Democratic primary voters are telling pollsters that they have little interest in Hickenlooper, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, or ex-House member John Delaney. But those candidates made a lot of noise last night, and a lot of what they said was right. As Delaney pointed out, any plan to eliminate private health insurance is a political loser: “Why do we have to be the party that takes something away from people?”

Basically, by jousting with Warren and Sanders, the quintet acted as surrogates for Joe Biden. Biden wasn’t on stage last night — he tops tonight’s 10-candidate roster — but in a sense he won the debate anyway. Thanks to the doomed moderates, who so often put Warren and Sanders on the defensive, Biden didn’t need to lift a finger to make the case for steady, achievable incrementalism. Which, by the way, happens to be popular among grassroots Democrats, as evidenced by the fact that Biden continues to bury his rivals in the polls (including a 19-point lead over Warren in the latest Quinnipiac survey).

And there’s solid polling evidence that the Warren and Sanders agendas (which roughly overlap) are viewed skeptically by voters outside the most liberal Democratic bubble. Last night, MSNBC reported that solid majorities of Americans oppose the elimination of private health coverage, federal health care for undocumented immigrants, decriminalization of illegal border crossings, and reparations. Most notably, “Medicare for All” sounds great in theory, and the phrase looks good on a poster, but when the nonpartisan Kaiser Tracking Poll told its respondents that “Medicare for All” could eliminate private coverage — as Sanders and Warren envision — public support collapses: 37 percent yes, 58 percent no.

There’s even resistance within the Democratic electorate, which is not monolithic. According to a CNN analysis of the 2016 primary exit polls, only one-fourth of all Democrats identified as “very liberal.” Meanwhile, CBS News has been tracking Democratic sentiment in the first 18 primary states, and has found that a sizeable share of likely voters are “moderate-to-conservative.” Kabir Khanna, the senior elections manager at CBS, reports: “The very liberal are more or less evenly split (51-49) on replacing all private health insurance … Somewhat liberal Democrats were firmly opposed (68-32) to the elimination of private insurance; the moderate and conservative Democrats were slightly more so (70-30).” And on the issue of giving federal health care to undocumented immigrants, the very liberal group said yes (75-25), but the somewhat liberal Democrats were split, 52-48, and the moderate-conservative group said no, 61-39.

Last night, when the moderate candidates on stage voiced their objections to the Warren-Sanders agendas (in Steve Bullock’s words, “I’m not going to rip away quality health care from individuals”), Warren admonished them for using “Republican talking points.” She was wrong. They were raising legitimate concerns that candidates who go too far leftward may not be electable. Swing voters — including labor union members who like their private health plans — will not be drawn to a program they deem too risky for them, regardless of how often Warren or Sanders promises that coverage will be better and cheaper under a government plan at the end of the rainbow. (Assuming there is ever a rainbow at all. Explain to me how this plan will ever pass a Republican Senate, or even a Democratic Senate where the Republicans can filibuster it.)

Warren’s fans loved it when she told one of the moderates: “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” Some commentators said she “won” the night by crafting such a great soundbite. I beg to differ. In the wake of our national emergency, with Trump running roughshod over truth, justice, and the American way, ousting him should be the Democrats’ top priority — with policies that are politically achievable, policies that don’t scare voters away. The “revolution” can wait. And when Joe Biden is finally on the same stage with Warren and Sanders, he’ll need to make that case, as the moderate minions did.

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