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The Second Democratic Debate Proved That Bernie Really Has Transformed the Party

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“Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.” Joe Biden may have been talking about the timer, but his hapless performance in his first Democratic debate imparted an ironic twist to the words. This week’s debate is but one of many, but it may well mark a turn in Biden’s prospects. Slow, old, he seemed to have lost his fastball, and surely sowed doubts about the sole rationale of his candidacy: that he is the one who can take on Donald Trump.

Kamala Harris silenced the stage early in the second night’s debate, saying: “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.” That pre-packaged line is of course wrong. Debate audiences tend to be more engaged voters. Most watch the debates like NASCAR fans watch the speedway: They may enjoy the jockeying of the cars, but they are waiting for the collision. What’s actually said in a debate—particularly about policy—has less import than the legend that gets formed about it in the days following in social and mass media. The put downs and bust ups are more memorable than the policy positions. Here are five takeaways from the debate this week.

Bernie’s World

“First of all, I agree completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge we’re facing as a country is, 40 years of no economic growth for 90% of the American people…and the worst income inequality that we’ve had in 100 years.” Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who has framed his campaign in opposition to Sanders’ reform proposals that he scorns as “candy,” acknowledged the force of the Sanders critique. Sanders, like Elizabeth Warren on the first night, was not particularly assertive in the debate. He didn’t interrupt or elbow his way into conversations, and didn’t unleash a memorable one-liner. As always, he stayed relentlessly on message.

Yet Sanders’ ideas now frame the debate in the Democratic Party—an extraordinary victory for progressives. Even Joe Biden now endorses a $15.00 minimum wage, tuition free college, a Green New Deal, and—in reaction to Sanders’ call for Medicare for All—a public option in Obamacare. With Sanders and Warren leading the way, the Democratic candidates are forced to address the glaring, structural inequities and failures of our current system. Biden would prefer a campaign focused on a restoration to normalcy after Trump. But even the moderate Democrats agree there is no going back. Trump is a symptom not a cause, beating him is necessary but not sufficient. As Warren put it, “When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country. Conservative pundits like David Brooks fret that Democratic populism will leave “moderates homeless.” In fact, the populist energy driving the debate gives whomever emerges with the nomination a far greater chance against Trump.





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