There’s always a time when the race for the presidency becomes awkward, and last night’s debate proved we have reached that time. Anyone paying attention to the news might have suspected it already, considering the story which began circulating earlier this week about Bernie Sanders allegedly telling Elizabeth Warren a woman would never be able to be president. It got so much worse onstage in Des Moines, Iowa.
“So, Senator Sanders, you’re saying you didn’t say to Senator Warren that a woman couldn’t be president?” Biorports moderator Abby Phillip asked in the second hour of the debate.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
“That is correct,” Sanders answered.
Without missing a beat, Phillips then turned to Elizabeth Warren and asked: “Senator Warren, what did you say when Senator Sanders told you a woman couldn’t be president?” It was excellent comic timing, and it raised a big laugh from the audience. It also started off a toe-curlingly awkward exchange that began with Warren insisting, “I’m not here to fight with Bernie” and ended with her and Bernie arguing for two difficult-to-watch minutes about how long ago 1990 was.
Warren is stuck between a rock and a hard place: that much is clear. She and Bernie Sanders have spent their time onstage thus far refusing to attack each other. They are old friends, they insist. They have worked on legislation together, they believe in the same things, and they don’t think the debates should be the place where Donald Trump gets his bright ideas about how to take down his Democratic opponent in the 2020 race proper. Even their fans have a lot of crossover, with Warren supporters in particular known for cheering Bernie at events as loudly and enthusiastically as they cheer their own first-choice candidate.
But now the field is thinning, and Pete Buttigieg has emerged as an unexpected frontrunner in a race where “electability” comes up again and again. Buttigieg, the millennial mayor who loves to bandy about how young he is while also talking up his military and business experience (“Pete has three years [in business] and I have 30,” Tom Steyer pointed out onstage last night, before adding that he cares about climate change because of his children, who are around the same age as Buttigieg), is trying to style himself as the young, hip Joe Biden — and it’s working. Democrats want to tempt lifelong Republicans away from Trump, to convince them that their party isn’t their party while the controversial president is at the helm. They want to hit back at the Trump administration’s claims that only “crazy lefties” would vote for a “do-nothing Democrat”. Mike Pence said just before the debate to a rally of Trump supporters that the Democrats’ stage would probably “tip over” because all the candidates were positioned so far on the left. He’s made the Republican 2020 strategy clear: position the Democrats as deranged, pie-in-the-sky radicals. Take a look at what they say about Trump’s erratic tendencies and his untrustworthiness and say: I’m rubber, you’re glue.
So where does Warren fit into all of this? As Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden fight for the center-ground (“I’d like to bring us back to reality here,” Klobuchar said sardonically when Sanders and Warren had just answered the same question by robustly attacking the evils of corporate America) and Sanders doubles down on his usual shtick, Warren has to work out a strategy. She is savvier than Sanders at doing so; as anyone who hates her will remind you, she used to be a Republican. She doesn’t want to lose the support of those who back Bernie and like her by association, but she also wants to convince the DNC that she’s as sensible, as experienced and as electable as a Buttigieg or a Biden. And for a woman especially, that’s going to be an uphill struggle.
Pete Buttigieg is who we all thought Beto O’Rourke was going to be: the credible threat, the New Labour of America, the photogenic young white man from a state outside of the usual “coastal elite” blocs who doesn’t want to shake things up too much. Warren doesn’t want to attack what he’s selling; that’s not to her advantage. Instead, she needs to carefully step away from the shadow of Bernie Sanders and make sure she’s seen in the same way to enough voters that she can get herself over the line.
An odd factor that helped her out last night was the addition of billionaire Tom Steyer, who stands accused of buying his way onto the debate stage. Despite having used his wealth to involve himself in the Democratic process, Steyer performed as an unexpected cheerleader for Sanders and Warren; even while stressing that the economy would be “the biggest” issue in the 2020 election and that an entrepreneur like him, who inherited none of his massive wealth, could go toe-to-toe with Trump in a way that others can’t, he also spoke passionately about “the corporates which have a stranglehold over America”. He nodded along with Sanders and Warren, even once pointing at Sanders while he was talking and mouthing: “Yes!” He made the case that he is a wealthy, fibioreportscially discerning American who has been inside the belly of the beast and still thinks proposals like Medicare-for-All make the most sense — and, surprisingly enough, he made it well.
Many Warren supporters may resent his presence in the race, but I expect she will have been watching his performance closely. If she wants to make a case for her ideas which doesn’t feel like it was borrowed from Bernie, she’ll have to start talking about how and why billionaires end up nodding along with left-leaning proposals — and bringing everyone in America who thinks of themselves as a potential Tom Steyer to the church of Elizabeth Warren.