There are less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses, and it now seems likely that the vote will take place while the news is focussed on Iran and the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, over his effort to solicit electoral interference from Ukraine. The moderators of the Democratic Presidential debate in Des Moines, on Tuesday night, devoted the first hour to foreign policy, and in that hour the primary itself took on a slightly different tone. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer opened the debate by announcing, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, that America finds itself “at the brink of war,” and the conversation that followed centered on Iran, troops, and trade. These are topics that lend themselves to a Democratic consensus, and as Blitzer and his co-hosts, Abby Phillip and Brianne Pfannenstiel, quizzed the six candidates a mostly dutiful agreement emerged: everyone wanted strong labor and environmental conditions attached to trade deals, to pull many troops back from the Middle East, to take a more considered and less frankly frightening approach to Tehran than President Trump has. Everyone touted his or her experience, even Tom Steyer, who could only lean on his overseas business dealings. (“I travelled,” he said.) For most of 2019, the story of the Democratic Party was of the conflict between its left and centrist wings, which seemed sometimes, from the heat of the rhetoric, nearly as sharp as that between the Democrats and Republicans. But, as 2020 opened, different qualities moved to the fore—not vision but experience and judgment.
Something different was supposed to be on the menu: a decisive confrontation between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who had mostly avoided arguing with each other. Then, last week, Politico reported that Sanders volunteers were using a script that specifically criticized Warren; Warren then claimed that, during a private conversation in 2018, Sanders had told her that a woman could not become President. Sanders denied making any such remark. Then the camera settled on Warren, who deftly avoided a disagreement with Sanders while offering a counter-argument. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women, Amy and me,” she said. “And the only person on this stage who has beaten the incumbent Republican anytime in the past thirty years is me.” The camera cut to Amy Klobuchar, peripheral until Tuesday (“I’m strongly No. 5,” she said on CNN afterward), who, with Warren, was looking a little triumphant. Warren’s composure lasted until just after the debate, when, with the microphones off but the cameras on, Sanders reached out to shake Warren’s hand and instead they appeared to have an argument. It was telling, and a little disappointing, that the only real conflict occurred on mute.
Only six candidates were onstage Tuesday: two progressives (Warren, Sanders), two moderates (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg), and Klobuchar between them (and also Steyer, who was not given many chances to speak). In the course of the evening, Klobuchar emerged as a more serious combatant, using the word “real” as a weapon. “This debate isn’t real,” she said during a dispute over health-care plans, pointing out that Sanders’s promise of Medicare for All doesn’t have the support of the Party. Two-thirds of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, Klobuchar pointed out, “aren’t on the bill you and Senator Warren are on.” (Sanders looked like he was tabulating votes in his head). “I want to hit reality here,” Klobuchar said, when the trade debate threatened to grow abstract, and recounted a visit to a plant in Crawfordsville, Iowa, that was shutting down because of the President’s trade war. Klobuchar recalled that the plant was down to its final worker—a Lorax of industrial decline—and that he had brought out the uniforms of his friends. “And you could see their names embroidered on their uniforms: Derek. Mark. Salvador,” she said. “These are real people hurt by Donald Trump’s trade war.”
A debate heavy on foreign policy, with an emphasis on political “reality”—Biden’s night, you might think. Not really, at least not in any obvious way. The front-runner was awol for long periods, and the themes that he tends to strike—the great good judgment of Barack Obama, the tragedy of the Midwest, the need for a steady hand—belonged equally to Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Biden is the most likely nominee but also in some ways the least distinct one. As the night wandered toward its end, I started to wonder, Can any of these figures hold a stage that is also occupied by Donald Trump?
Probably not, at least based on the latest evidence of Tuesday’s debate. The candidates all seemed most comfortable not when they had to explain their own vision but when they could simply, safely criticize Trump—his wantonness and his corruption, but most of all the promises he has broken. This week, Nancy Pelosi will deliver the articles of impeachment to the Senate; meanwhile, the President is falsely tweeting that he protected Americans from losing their insurance due to preëxisting conditions. The general election will be about him. As for the other candidates, on Tuesday night, they left about where they came in. What we got, instead, was the suggestion that the race in 2020 may look different than it did in 2019, that the Democrats may no longer set the agenda. There was stasis, laced with a little trepidation.