The final Democratic debate ahead of next week’s New Hampshire primary bore many of the hallmarks of those that preceded it: Joe Biden continued to lie about Iraq and his nonexistent involvement in the Civil Rights Movement; pundits loved Amy Klobuchar; both Hillary Clinton and Michael Bloomberg got airtime even though neither was on the stage; and several of the moderators were openly hostile to Bernie Sanders.
All told, it was yet another one of those nights.
But as the race heads toward another critical contest in a few days’ time, one of the unspoken structuring dynamics was undoubtedly the aftermath of last week’s Iowa caucus — which saw Pete Buttigieg outperform Biden and Warren, and a victory for Sanders. Sanders’s de facto emergence as the race’s front-runner, coupled with Buttigieg’s palpable determination to become the default anti-Sanders choice, made some kind of clash all but inevitable, and when the moment finally came, it went much as you’d expect.
Asked by host George Stephanopoulos about Michael Bloomberg’s presence in the race, Sanders delivered a characteristic denunciation of money in politics that called out Buttigieg by name:
Our campaign, unlike some of the folks up here, I don’t have forty billionaires — Pete — contributing to my campaign, coming from the pharmaceutical industry, coming from Wall Street, and all the big money interests . . . If we want to change America, you’re not gonna do it by electing candidates who are going out to rich people’s homes begging for money. The way we’re gonna do it is by building a mass movement of working people who are prepared to stand up, not take money from these billionaires . . .
Buttigieg’s argument had two basic thrusts, the first of which was that raising large sums of money will be necessary in order to defeat Donald Trump:
We are going into the fight of our lives. Donald Trump and his allies according to news reports have raised twenty-five million dollars today. We need to go into that fight with everything we’ve got.
This claim — transparent political opportunism masquerading as hardheaded political realism — is quite easily dispensed with given that Buttigieg is badly losing the fundraising war to Bernie Sanders — whose campaign continues to demonstrate that popular policies and the right candidate can attract enough small donations to outperform the conventional, big money–infused Democratic model. Though Buttigieg’s aggressive courtship of America’s richest people has reportedly netted him some forty contributions from billionaires and their spouses, he ultimately trailed Sanders by nearly $10 million in the last quarter of 2019. A candidate does not, it would seem, need to court billionaires in wine caves after all.
The second (and altogether more ridiculous) portion of Buttigieg’s defense, however, also warrants a mention.
If we want to bring about any of the changes that everyone is talking about so elegantly up here, we need to put together the majority that can decisively defeat Donald Trump, and in order to do that, we need the politics that is defined not by who we reject but how we bring everybody into the fold. And if you are low-income or if you’re able to contribute a lot . . . we need you to join us right now. I will not pursue politics by telling people they can’t be at our side if they’re not with us 100 percent of the time. This is a time for addition, not rejection. For belonging, not exclusion.
It’s grotesque, though unsurprising given the source, to hear the language of inclusion and belonging leveraged in defense of America’s billionaires and their right to flood the democratic process with campaign contributions. No one who isn’t willfully deluding themselves can seriously believe the nation’s richest people — particularly those who help manage and run profitable industries — give so much money to politicians out of civic nobility. And no one should struggle to imagine a majority electoral coalition that excludes or alienates America’s billionaires, who are only a few hundred in number.
But in the midst of an important debate that often skirts around or muddies the issue of big money in politics, it was paradoxically refreshing to hear Buttigieg mount such a spirited and unapologetic defense of the indefensible.
With any luck, voters in the upcoming primaries and caucuses will treat it with the contempt it deserves.