The Centrists Are Winning the Year, but the Left Won the Decade

Lessons from Tuesday’s Democratic debate.

The candidates as seen from the left side of the debate stage
The candidates onstage in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

In the seven months since the Democratic Party began hosting its 2020 presidential debates, the conversation among the candidates has pivoted to the center. But beneath that pivot, something bigger is going on. The party’s culture and its parameters of debate—its definition of what counts as progressive or moderate—have been shifting to the left.

Tuesday night’s forum in Des Moines illustrates the shift. The highlight of the night was a confrontation between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Warren claimed that Sanders had told her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. Sanders denied he had said this. The question of whether a woman can win feels retrograde. It implies that men hold power and women have to ask for it. But the dynamics of the conversation onstage suggested that the balance of power between the sexes is changing.

A woman—Abby Phillip, a CNN reporter and debate co-moderator—raised the question of what Sanders had said. In response, he tried to change the subject. Warren, instead of letting Sanders go, dug in and pressed the issue. So did the other female candidate on the stage, Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The two women pointed out that unlike their male rivals, they hadn’t lost any elections. Warren added that “since Donald Trump was elected, women candidates have out-performed men candidates in competitive races. And in 2018, we took back the House; we took back statehouses, because of women candidates and women voters.”

The male candidates didn’t dispute any of these jabs. Sanders, who had argued about other issues during the debate—and who quarreled with Warren about his election to Congress in 1990—bit his tongue rather than fight with Warren about gender. Former Vice President Joe Biden boasted that he had campaigned for two dozen female Democrats in 2018—“the best group I’ve ever campaigned for, in terms of competence.” In an interview after the debate, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews agreed with Klobuchar that an all-male Democratic ticket was impossible. Women wouldn’t stand for it, said Klobuchar.

The debate also exposed a shift in racial clout. Phillip reminded another candidate, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, that “a key part of your mission in this primary” was “to prove to Democratic voters that you’re strong enough to take on Donald Trump.” In that regard, said Phillip, Buttigieg had a problem: “Polling shows you with next to no black support—support that you’ll need in order to beat Donald Trump.”

Phillip’s characterization was misleading. The latest national poll, taken from Sunday to Wednesday, shows Buttigieg drawing support from 8 percent of whites and 3 percent of blacks, roughly the same ratio as Sanders (21 percent to 9 percent) and better than Klobuchar (5 percent to 0 percent). What’s significant, however, is how the question was framed. Phillip was asking about electability. Instead of scrutinizing a black candidate’s support among whites, as journalists did to Barack Obama 12 years ago, she was pressing a white candidate about his support among blacks.

This has been the thrust of an ongoing propaganda campaign against Buttigieg by critics on the left. They argue that he isn’t getting much support from blacks, and therefore all Democrats should doubt his electability. The campaign is self-fulfilling: By planting the idea that Buttigieg has a “black problem,” his critics can discourage blacks from supporting him, thereby weakening his poll numbers and substantiating their narrative. But the success of the narrative shows that the power equation in the Democratic Party has changed. In 2020, if a candidate isn’t getting enough support from black voters, he’s seen as not just obtuse or derelict, but unelectable.

On policy questions, you can see a similar tectonic shift. Seven months ago, in their first debate, Warren and Sanders demanded “Medicare for All,” while more moderate candidates such as Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar muted their dissent. By November, the balance of power had tipped toward the moderates, and by Tuesday, it had completely reversed. “I will defend the Affordable Care Act,” said Warren, as Klobuchar declared victory. But the proposal advocated by Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Biden—a “public option” that would let each person choose whether to keep her private insurance or switch to a government-run plan—was considered unacceptably left-wing 10 years ago. The centrists are winning the year, but the left has won the decade.

On issue after issue, the Des Moines debate underscored this pattern. Buttigieg and Klobuchar opposed free college for everyone, but they endorsed it for everyone except the rich. Warren offered to reduce the national debt, but she proposed to do it through corporate taxes. Sanders resolved to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but he said he would pursue this by restoring the 2015 agreement Trump had abandoned. And while all the candidates praised the armed forces, they also denounced the Iraq war. Two candidates—Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer—saluted Rep. Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress who voted in 2001 against authorizing the war in Afghanistan.

The United States has evolved. Men still debate the status of women, but now they’re more afraid of alienating female voters. Black voters are still neglected, but now they have more clout in the party. Voters still prefer compromise, but the compromises are more progressive than they used to be. The more things stay the same, the more they change.