The most crowded debate in the modern history of American presidential politics probably caused more confusion than clarity Tuesday.
None of the 12 Democratic candidates defined a clear vision and an efficient message with which to sell it. For Americans desperate to rid the White House of President Donald Trump, Tuesday had to raise more worry than hope.
Democrats on the Ohio stage consisted of former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
“The way you win an election at this time in history is not the same old, same old. You have to inspire people. You have to excite people,” Sanders proclaimed.
Others had a similar vision about the need for vision, as Trump packs stadiums with supporters inspired and excited by ad-lib messages that enrage his detractors.
Candidates argued for the impeachment of Trump. Yang supports it but admonished his peers about a collective obsession with merely opposing the man in office.
“We shouldn’t have any illusions that impeaching Donald Trump will, one, be successful or, two, erase the problems that got him elected in 2016 … ,” Yang said. “Why did Donald Trump win your state (Ohio) by 8 points? Because we got rid of 300,000 manufacturing jobs in your towns. … The fact is, Donald Trump — when we’re talking about him, we are losing. We need to present a new vision.”
Everyone on stage talked about an ages-old political vision that plays on envy for the rich. They talked about income inequality, without explaining how a rich person’s gain is a poor person’s loss.
All candidates would soak the rich with taxes. Sanders confirmed his belief that billionaires should not exist.
While emotionally appealing, the Democratic field’s tax-the-rich mantra discounts that the top 50% of earners pay 97% of individual income taxes. It ignores that the top 1% pay a greater share of the government’s income tax revenue than the bottom 90% combined.
Warren pitched her vision of a wealth tax. She tried to compete with Yang’s promise of $1,000-a-month passive income for all by promising an extra $200 to everyone receiving Social Security.
Buttigieg and others went after Warren throughout the night, clearly viewing her as the front-runner who needs to fall. The mayor, in the role of a moderate, called Warren out for threatening to kick 150 million people off private health care plans to create Medicare for all. Buttigieg and others demanded to know if Warren would raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it.
Warren declined to answer “yes” or “no” on the middle-class tax question, paving the way for Sanders to one-up all health care promises like the guy who doubles the prevailing bid in an auction.
“As someone who wrote the damned bill,” Sanders bellowed. “ … Premiums are gone, co-payments are gone, deductibles are gone … all out-of-pocket expenses are gone.”
Thanks, Senator, because those expenses are genuinely burdensome for most insured consumers. Of course, they are also the mechanism that keeps everyone from overwhelming a limited health care system by demanding health care the moment someone sneezes.
Biden explained that the health care promises of Warren and Sanders would cost more each year than the federal government’s existing budget.
Through it all, Booker repeatedly questioned the wisdom of spirited disagreements among a group of people with one common goal: defeating Trump.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with or being friends with everybody on this stage, and tearing each other down because we have a different plan, to me, is unacceptable,” Booker said. “I have seen this script before. It didn’t work in 2016, and it will be a disaster for us in 2020.”
In addition to beating up Trump and others among the top 1%, candidates generally defined people with problems as victims of someone enjoying more success. No one spoke about the freedom that comes with self-sufficiency and hard-won success. It is not their thing. The government will provide, even if Democrats nominate one of the more moderate candidates.
Debate moderators could not get a straight answer when asking what “vision” would help Democrats beat Trump. The question seemed to stump the candidates equally.
Booker did not seem to know why but understood the group lacked inspiration. He said Democrats must stop defining themselves only by what they oppose.
“We need to win this election by talking about who and what we are for,” Booker said.
After six debates, Democrats have failed to define who and what they are for. They might get there and have lots of time to do so. They might learn that messages of grievance — devoid of realistic sounding solutions and hope — provide a weak platform for inspiration.