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Democrats Heed Obama’s Warning

As voting nears, candidates discover ordinary voters matter more than social-media warriors.

Democratic candidates on the debate stage

Finally, a year after candidates began announcing, five months after they began televised debates, actual caucus and primary voting is not too far away. This looming reality pervaded both the mood and substance of the latest Democratic presidential showdown, in Atlanta on Wednesday night.

As voting gets closer, the candidates are getting closer to voters. Closer, that is, to power as it really exists in the contemporary Democratic Party—a coalition in which African-Americans and women and working-class voters matter very much, and liberal commentators and social media warriors may not matter as much as it sometimes seems in the daily rumpus.

This debate was not a competition, as the first debate outings last summer were, over who could sound most unhesitantly progressive, or most flamboyantly impatient with conventional politics or the incremental liberalism of Barack Obama. Instead it was a competition over who could sound most credibly in touch with the political, policy, and even psychic needs of a country they see as ready to move beyond the traumas of the Trump era.

Yes, the candidates said, Trump is an outlaw president who deserves impeachment. No, the path to victory for Democrats isn’t jeering him (as some did last month) with chants of “Lock him up!” at the World Series.

Medicare for All and the debate over eliminating private health insurance got talked about plenty, but it did not overshadow other topics as in recent encounters. That left room for other close-to-home issues. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, got in an early pitch for her plan for universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, adding a reference to the need to “stop exploiting the women, largely black and brown women, who do this work.”

Notably, most of the 10 candidates who qualified for the MSNBC/Washington Post stage made efforts to explain that they regard themselves as unifiers and coalition-builders—even those like Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have stirred anxiety among some Democrats that they are too divisive to win a general election against President Donald Trump or govern effectively if they do.

It often seemed like the candidates had taken to heart Obama’s paternal sermon last week, in which he said is not worried about a long and “robust” primary process, but urged candidates not to orient their appeals around “left-leaning Twitter feeds” and to recognize that the “average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

Even Sanders, who has described himself as a revolutionary, said he agreed with Obama. “We don’t have to tear down the system but we do have to do what the American people want,” he said, especially with a health care system that is “cruel” and “dysfunctional.”

While the first debates did seem to show candidates lurching leftward, it is too simplistic to say this debate represented a lurch to the center. These are candidates with big and costly plans, and they were speaking with full confidence that their party has a progressive soul—animated by people who embrace government, are feeling urgent about climate change, uncompromising on abortion rights, and angrily vigilant about suppression of minority voting rights.

At the same time, the debate conveyed a less abstract, more tactile feeling—with discussion of timelines and programmatic priorities once in office—and candidates taking pains to advertise that they are not drawing impassable lines and are eager to welcome newcomers to their fold, even if those people don’t agree with them on everything.

Not surprisingly, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, benefiting from polls showing him surging in Iowa and New Hampshire, made the point most strongly: “I am inviting progressives who have agreed on these issues we’ve been talking about tonight all along, moderates who are ready to be part of this coalition, and a lot of future former Republicans, who I know are watching this, disgusted by what is happening in their own party and in this country.”

Biden, likewise, talked as he had before about his long Senate career working on legislation with all sides and how “I have brought people together my entire life.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, likewise, continued emphasizing her pragmatic credentials, saying right now the country can only afford three months of mandatory paid parental leave, even though Sen. Kamala Harris and others back six months.

More striking, though, were the rhetorical thrusts from some other candidates. In explaining her wealth tax, which will fund many of her most expensive policy expansions, Warren did not excoriate the greed of businesspeople, as she and Sanders sometimes do. Instead she said she is fine with people getting rich, just wants them to help pay for the public services—schools and transportation—that made their success possible.

“I think the way we achieve our goals and bring our country together is we talk about the things that unite us,” Warren said. “And that is that we want to build an America that works for the people, not one that just works for rich folks.”

Sen. Cory Booker, as though advertising himself to people who worry the party has turned anti-capitalist, said Democrats need to focus more on “how to grow wealth” by supporting entrepreneurs, especially among African-Americans.

It was on this subject—boasting of credibility with minorities—that the rhetorical bidding kept getting higher during two-plus hours on stage.

Biden touted his support among black leaders, though along the way raised new reminders about his clumsy speaking and hard-to-follow thought patterns. He said he had the endorsement of the “only African-American woman who has been elected to the Senate.”

Harris, aptly, noted that this wasn’t true—she was on stage and didn’t back him.

“I said the first African-American woman,” Biden added, though that was not what he had said.

Buttigieg, who has demonstrated scant support among African-Americans, said, “I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters who don’t yet know me.” He suggested his own experience as a gay man who only recently won the legal right to marriage gives him empathy for other groups who face discrimination. “I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country … and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and not at all like me, working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here.”

The challenge of mobilizing a coalition of people opposed to Trump, without mimicking his own divisive politics, came up most sharply when moderator Rachel Maddow asked about the recent scene of Washington Nationals fans chanting “lock him up” when the president was in attendance at the World Series. Biden said he was opposed. Sanders said people feel strongly that Trump has acted lawlessly, but added, “At the end of the day what we need to do is to bring our people together not just in opposition to Trump.”

This may have been partly a statement of philosophy. But it was also a statement of political mathematics, endorsed in one way or another by everyone on the stage. The moment on the calendar has arrived when the only way to win power is by appealing to people other than those who are already ardently on your team.