The Democratic debates this week offered a new episode in the race for the nomination. If the first round of debates was marked by camaraderie and cautious avoidance of open confrontations, this time, and particularly on Wednesday, we saw candidates increasingly attacking each other.
Whereas on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren formed a sort of “progressive united front,” taking hits and defending themselves and each other from the attacks of their more conservative opponents, on Wednesday, Joe Biden was the preferred target of everyone on stage. He was repeatedly called out for his sexism and racism, remnants of his past record that are becoming an unbearable weight for the 76-year-old. What appeared to be his main asset—his role as President Obama’s VP—is also his main liability. When Bill de Blasio cornered him, asking whether he had opposed Obama’s deportations, he went on a tangent and failed to respond. Cory Booker took up the opportunity and fired: “Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
The fact is, the times are changing fast in the United States, and the status quo—from the health care debacle to the country’s massive student debt to the criminal justice crisis—is untenable for most Americans. Trump’s election should have been enough proof of this, but Biden and the establishment Democrats are taking longer to get used to this new reality.
Yet, Booker and De Blasio also had their moment of reckoning. Biden himself accused Booker of hiring a “Rudy Giuliani guy” and ramping up stop-and-frisk when he was mayor of Newark. And Julian Castro, in turn, called out De Blasio for having failed to fire NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who five years ago murdered Eric Garner using an illegal chokehold.
The cross fire did not end there. Tulsi Gabbard took aim at Kamala Harris, exposing her record as California prosecutor—not a “reformer,” as she tries to portray herself, but as a tough-on-crime conservative, increasing penalties and the persecution of black and brown communities.
“There are too many examples to cite,” said Gabbard, “but 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. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”
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If anything, this was the beauty of the debate: All the credible candidates have right-wing track records, so when they criticized Biden from the left, they exposed a weak flank for their opponents to attack. Biden may have served as a punching bag for all the candidates, but almost no one left the staged unscathed.
Health Care at the Center of the Debate
Given the abysmal state of U.S. health care, it is no wonder that it took center stage in both the Democratic debates so far. Three of the candidates propose a credible fix, which includes expanding Medicare to all citizens (some would allegedly extend it to undocumented immigrants) and eliminating private insurance plans: These are Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and De Blasio. All the rest, who claim to support Medicare for all but want to keep private insurance companies, are merely latching on to a brand that attracts votes while emptying it of its real meaning. Although Biden, Harris, Castro and others strive to emphasize that, under their programs, everyone would have the chance to choose a “public option,” the truth is that keeping the insurance sector defeats the purpose of Medicare for all. The key for such a plan to succeed is, precisely, that everyone—not only those who don’t have an employer-provided health care plan—be included in the same health care system. This would guarantee a certain level of coverage and quality. Keeping the private insurance sector alive leaves the door open for dramatic inequalities in health care access: The public option will be severely underfunded, and the insurance sector will lobby for subsidies and tax breaks, offering much better service to those who can afford it and who, in addition, tend to be healthier.
On this question, as with others, Democrats overall have shifted to more progressive positions. Except for Biden—and maybe some other Republican-lite Democrat like Steve Bullock—all the candidates recognize the urgency of fixing the U.S. health care system. But tellingly, most candidates choose a middle-of-the-road approach.
The loudest applause both days of the debate, however, came when candidates said they favored Medicare for all and denounced the parasitic character of insurance companies. The writing is on the wall: The vast majority of people in this country want Medicare for all, and they want the insurance companies out. But centrist Democrats want it both ways: They want both the votes for supporting Medicare for all and the bucks from the health insurance companies for proposing to keep them.
Legitimacy and Class Interests
On practically all issues discussed in the debates, there is a position—sometimes voiced by a candidate—that reflects working-class interests. All other proposals represent the interests of capital, some more bluntly, some with a relatively “progressive” veneer. On health care, for example, Medicare for all represents in a distorted way the need for a universal health care system. Having guaranteed access to health care would no doubt strengthen the working class, allow workers to organize more freely at their workplaces and fight their bosses with their main weapon, the strike, without the fear of losing their health insurance if they were fired. But a more comprehensive working-class program for health care would go much further: It would nationalize the whole health care system under the management of workers and patients, nationalize the pharmaceutical industry and eliminate all profits reaped at the expense of people’s disease. Furthermore, it would take into account the social determinants of health, eliminating food deserts, banning harmful working conditions and so on. In sum, to achieve the best health possible as human beings, we need to transform society so that profits are no longer its driving force.
On other topics, Democratic candidates are even further away from a working-class program: On border and immigration, no matter how progressive, all candidates agree on “strong border security.” As James Hoff explains, working-class interests can be represented only in the demand for open borders, which none of the candidates is putting forward. Similarly, foreign policy is expressed only in nationalistic terms. Whether it is about beating China in the race for technological supremacy, about trade agreements or the U.S. relations with the UN, the terms of the conversation are always from the perspective of what’s best for the United States, without ever mentioning its imperialist character. Notably, U.S. financial and military support for Israel goes unquestioned. The bottom line is that, with a more or less progressive outlook, these are all positions that represent the interests of capital.
The Democratic Party is in flux. Trump’s victory in 2016 shook the foundations of the party and forced many to grapple with the need of abandoning openly neoliberal policies in favor of more progressive ones. The generational change and the disillusionment of millions in the politics of establishment Democrats are pushing the agenda to the left. But the natural tendency for Democratic politicians is to gravitate toward the center. As a result, candidates are pulled in two directions: Big donors pressure them to maintain a conservative approach, while the crisis of legitimacy pushes them to incorporate elements of a progressive agenda. One after another, most have embraced Medicare for all (at least in name), some version of tuition-free college and some cosmetic version of criminal justice reform. Warren is the most radical example of this trend: Forced by a profound dip in the polls after the “Native American” misstep, she adopted most of Sanders’ program and even outflanked him on reparations for descendants of slavery.
But the Democratic Party continues to represent the interests of capital. The fact that its candidates are forced to take up some working-class issues like universal health care or tuition-free college shows that U.S. politics is undergoing a major shift. The rising popularity of “socialism” as a vague idea but, concurrently, a bold challenge to capitalism, shapes the political conversation. The Democrats are intent on harnessing that mighty social force to tame it, use it and pillory it. The viability of today’s renewed socialist movement hinges on, precisely, its capacity to break free from the Democratic Party.