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Last Night’s Debate Was a Throwback to a Darker Time

Sometimes it’s hard to remember what Democratic Party politics was like before Bernie Sanders threw his hat into the ring four years ago. Last night was a grim reminder.

Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden (second from right) speaks while Sen. Kamala Harris (right) and Sen. Cory Booker and former housing secretary Julian Castro listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Scott Olson / Getty Images

As you think back to last night’s debate, imagine for a moment that its lineup of candidates, instead of being half the 2020 Democratic roster, had instead been its entirety.

Imagine a former vice president, a former prosecutor, a former cabinet member, a governor, several members of Congress, and the obligatory novelty candidate. Virtually the entire field is funded by corporate money, from Wall Street to big pharma, as they tout various progressive half-measures that most of them plan on swiftly abandoning should they win the nomination or, eventually, the presidency. Almost all are centrists with a history of coddling power and punishing the marginalized, who have suddenly turned left for the primaries, and will likely turn right back around once the nomination is sewn up. Each attacks the other’s record knowing full well they share similar flaws and unsavory histories that will in turn be exposed, but with the understanding that this commonality means voters ultimately have nowhere to go. A lonely, flawed progressive or two serves as the voice of the party’s grassroots, but with their polling in the doldrums, they are largely ignored and will go nowhere.

In other words, last night served as a peek into an alternate timeline, one in which Bernie Sanders never ran for president in 2016 and nothing really changed in the Democratic Party; a world in which the party remained exclusively a vehicle for staid, corporate-funded liberalism, and the broad Left was forced yet again to choose from a menu of unsatisfying options that, for the most part, don’t share their values or vision for the world.

If nothing else, it served as a reminder of how dismal Democratic politics largely were until the most recent presidential election. With Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren paired up in the first night in hopes of generating conflict and, thus, ratings for CNN, Night Two left it entirely up to different flavors of centrist to carry the load.

It’s not that the debate was dull. In fact, the candidates spent almost the entire running time attacking one another’s records and policies in remarkably harsh terms, terms that would have sent the delicate, supposedly conflict-abhorring 2016-era pundit class straight to the fainting couch. And those criticisms were hardly mere shallow sniping. All exposed the various hypocrisies and disquieting histories of their targets.

But with each attack, you recalled again and again exactly why almost every person on that stage was an unreliable, if not entirely untrustworthy, fighter for progressive ideas. Biden and Harris bickered over their respective health-care plans, both of which are flawed, watered-down versions of the Medicare for All proposal actually desired by the Left and the Democratic grassroots, calibrated to thread the needle between retaining the support of as many voters as possible while alienating the fewest number of well-off donors. Harris accurately pointed out that Biden’s plan left millions uninsured; Biden justifiably attacked Harris’s for its nonsensical ten-year phase-in. Colorado senator Michael Bennet piped up to say he didn’t like either plan. Others made vague gestures at reforms. All three are awash in pharmaceutical and health-care industry money.

No sooner had Harris and Cory Booker assailed Biden for his leading role in midwifing the system of US mass incarceration and, in Booker’s words, use of “tough-on-crime phony rhetoric,” than we were reminded of their own spotty records on the matter. Booker became mayor of Newark by pledging a zero-tolerance, broken-windows-style approach to fighting crime, and he oversaw a police department rife with abuse and heavily committed to the racist “stop and frisk” policy, which Biden alluded to in his retort. Slow to make changes and resistant to activists’ demands, Mayor Booker only changed course on police policy after the Justice Department stepped in, and once he started running for his current Senate seat.

Harris in particular was dealt several body blows over her hypocrisy on this issue, as Tulsi Gabbard singled out a few instances from Harris’s long, terrible record: her sidelining of evidence that would have freed people from prison, her resistance to freeing inmates for fear of losing them as cheap labor for the state, and the fact that, as Gabbard put it, “she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”

This was a pattern. Former secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro, who has positioned himself as a leading voice on immigration in this race, was criticized by Biden for his silence on the issue when he was a Cabinet member in the Obama administration. Indeed, in the past, Castro had called for beefing up security at the border and within the country, and had told Charlie Rose he favored a tougher system to verify employment status, penalizing any undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship with a fine and making them learn English. To his credit, Castro at least appeared to acknowledge the truth of Biden’s claim, saying that he had “learned the lessons of the past.”

Even Bill de Blasio, who has cultivated an image further to the left and who, perhaps unintentionally, served as a kind of surrogate for the absent Sanders and Warren, didn’t come out squeaky clean, with protesters chanting “fire Pantaleo” as he spoke. De Blasio has come under fire for placing insufficient pressure on the NYPD to fire Eric Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo, who has gotten away with murdering Garner with little to no consequence.

The debate was a throwback to a time when every election saw left-wing and progressive voters thrown into the wilderness. It hearkened back to the many, many years in which they were forced to pick between a cynical hypocrite and one who had simply failed to adequately challenge power when they had the chance; when they had to figure out which corporate-funded candidate was least likely to disappoint them in power; when the choice before them was no choice at all. How fortunate that, as Night One demonstrated, those days are coming to an end.