November 21, 2019
The South Bend mayor was in his typical form in the Democratic debate: heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics‘His statements, like his affect, seemed to have been designed by an algorithm to make no commitments and risk no offense.’ Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty ImagesOn Wednesday afternoon, the Biden campaign made a mistake: it prematurely sent out an email meant for later in the evening, after the Democratic presidential debate. “I’m leaving the fifth Democratic debate now,” the email opened, referring to an event that had not yet begun. “I hope I made you proud.” The email alluded to potential attacks on Warren, with the pointed line: “We need more than plans.”Those attacks from Biden never materialized. In fact, his performance was clumsy, light on substance, and studded with unforced errors much like that of his campaign’s misspent email. In the most memorable and upsetting moment of the night, Biden responded to a question about the MeToo movement and male violence against women by saying: “We need to keep punching at it, and punching at it, and punching at it.” The comment embraced the logic of violence as a means of dominance and control while pretending to condemn that same pattern. The audience laughed uncomfortably, and Biden did not seem to understand why. “I’m serious,” he said.The night may have been the worst in a series of embarrassing debate performances for Biden, and though he remains the frontrunner in many national polls, it is difficult to imagine these moments propelling him to the nomination, let alone the White House. Instead, the surging candidate of the moment is Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a non-committal moderate who has pulled ahead in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.Last month, when Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren was newly in the lead, that month’s debate featured strenuous attacks on her from the left and right, and many observers, including me, predicted that Buttigieg would face similar scrutiny this time around. But he did not: the other contenders pulled their punches and for most of the debate made only oblique references to his inexperience and dismal poll performance among the crucial demographic bloc of black voters.It is not clear why Buttigieg was not subject to the attacks that Warren was, but it is hard not to suspect that the other candidates were more comfortable attacking the progressive and outspoken Warren, a woman who has defined the terms of the ideological debate in the primary thus far and shifted the party decidedly to the left, than they were attacking the soft-spoken male polyglot from South Bend.For his part, Buttigieg was in his typical form, seeming to adapt to his new role in the top tier of early state candidates as if he has been expecting to be president since childhood. His answer to every question was plotted and delivered in a slow, emotionless recitation, as if he had practiced his sentences before, in a mirror. He was heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics, as befits the darling of the donor class. He pledged to bring the country together but did not explain how. His statements, like his affect, seemed to have been designed by an algorithm to make no commitments and risk no offense.Buttigieg did, however, manage to punch left, with a strange claim that programs such as Medicare for All, student debt forgiveness and free college are divisive, despite the huge numbers of Americans they would benefit. To bring people together, he reasoned, Democrats need to adopt lesser agendas that would leave many people behind. The left-punching mantle was taken up by his fellow moderate Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, who claimed, falsely, that free college proposals like Warren’s have no financing plan. The trend was not new to the debates, but is symptomatic of a broader phenomenon of the Democratic party: the base has made increasingly loud demands that Democratic candidates follow them left, and the progressive wing of the party is following them there, to the establishment’s great chagrin.But the base was not neglected by everyone on stage. In one of the night’s biggest applause lines from the Atlanta audience, Kamala Harris emphasized the importance of black women to the Democratic electoral strategy, and lamented that these voters have been largely ignored. It was a subtle dig at Buttigieg, who has virtually no black support and who faces bleak electoral prospects in the early, majority-black primary contest in South Carolina. But the statement from Harris was also a moral reminder to Democrats to remember, acknowledge and work for black women, the voting constituency that most consistently drives them into office and is most consistently ignored or taken for granted in their policymaking.It was one of a few moments of moral reckoning over race and gender injustice on the stage. In a moment enabled by the uncommonly deft and conscientious intervention of the evenings’ four moderators, Warren brought the humanitarian crisis at the border into vivid relief. Klobuchar and Harris made appeals to women, with Klobuchar pointing out the double standards for women’s performance in professional settings and Harris emphasizing the injustice of women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare and eldercare alike, often without access to any help from the state at all. The candidates were asked about the imperiled state of abortion rights in the country, with Warren emphasizing that abortion rights are human rights and economic rights. A question about MeToo yielded only that embarrassingly tone-deaf comment from Biden, but the mere fact that it was asked was a reminder that that party’s base is largely female.It will be women who decide who will become the Democratic nominee, and women who will propel that nominee into the White House.
Pete Buttigieg is the darling of the donor class. The debate was a reminder why
* Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist
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