Easily the most raucous of the many the party has hosted so far, last night’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas will probably be written up by mainstream pundits with ample references to viral moments, one-liners, and iconic clashes between candidates — none of which anyone will remember a week from now. But behind all the drama and window dressing were fundamental questions about who should actually wield power and on whose behalf it should be exercised.
With Bernie Sanders leading in the polls ahead of this weekend’s critical Nevada caucus, and Michael Bloomberg starring in a rare moment of public accountability since entering the field, the polarity between the two, and the starkly opposing visions of politics each represents, was at the heart of the debate.
While it’s too early for anyone to pronounce the Democratic primary contest a two-person race, it’s now clear that Sanders is the candidate to beat, and that Bloomberg’s primary objective is to stop him by spending as much of his own money as possible. In various ways, every other candidate, from Pete Buttigieg to Elizabeth Warren, sought to pitch themselves as somewhere in an idealized middle, wherein a sensible compromise exists between the social-democratic populism championed by Sanders and the tyranny of wealth represented by Bloomberg (who faced well-deserved attacks from all sides and was predictably terrible throughout).
However their performances are ultimately rated in the usual debriefs by pundits, none really made this case for a middle ground successfully. That’s largely because a good case for that middle ground doesn’t exist, and those unwilling to join Sanders in offering a decisive break from the political and economic status quo have been regularly forced into unsustainable, triangulating positions as a result.
Buttigieg wants to talk about breaking with Washington’s staid and insidery ways, while raising funds from billionaires and laundering talking points originally written by insurance-industry lobbyists. Joe Biden offers vague gestures to progress that mostly default to partisan nostalgia for the eight years in which he was vice president. Amy Klobuchar talks about experience and getting mostly unspecified things “done.” Warren, for her part, swung dizzyingly between satisfying attacks on Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar from the left, and attacks on Sanders from the right that could easily have come from any one of the three.
The unspoken reality of Bloomberg’s presence in the race is that concerted efforts by every other Democratic campaign, aided by much of America’s media, have failed to stop Sanders’s growing momentum — leaving big donors and corporate patrons anxious about the prospect of a populist insurgent capturing the Democratic nomination. Unless something dramatically changes in the coming weeks, Sanders is likely to win the most pledged delegates and emerge as the clear winner.
The most revealing moment in the debate therefore came when every candidate was asked whether unelected superdelegates should be allowed to decide the nominee if no candidate wins a majority of delegates on the first ballot — effectively ignoring the candidate who received the most votes and overruling the expressed will of the Democratic primary electorate. Everyone except Sanders replied with some version of “we should let the process play out,” a clear indication that the Democratic establishment is still keeping one last Hail Mary in its pocket as a final check on the electorate if enough voters dare to vote the wrong way.
Democracy is a broad and widely contested principle. But a group of unelected party apparatchiks handing victory to a candidate with fewer votes would represent an indisputable violation of it — particularly as a means of overruling a dynamic popular movement powered primarily by working-class activists and small donations. In an environment where millions rightly feel their country is ruled by the wealth and power of a handful of political and economic elites, it would be nothing short of a suicidal act for the Democratic Party. And yet it was a potential course of action left open by every politician on the stage save one.
If, as seems increasingly likely, the race ultimately pits a working-class movement against a billionaire-fronted counterrevolution, Democratic voters are going to learn an awful lot about whose side their leaders are actually on.