Third Democratic debate offers more losers than winners

Griffin Perrault, Opinions Co-Editor

If the third Democratic Debate on Sept. 12 made anything clear, it’s that candidate Joe Biden cannot win against U.S. President Donald Trump. This conclusion was not immediately recognizable; the former vice president started out reasonably strong, appearing for a moment to shed the stumbling incoherence of his previous two debate performances. But then Biden was asked a question about the legacy of slavery in America, a topic on which the leading Democratic candidate has reliably faltered. He did not break this trend on the 12th.

After responding to the question with an unintelligible admixture of facts about early childhood education and accusations that black parents need “social workers [to] help [them] deal with how to raise their children,” the former vice president capped off his answer by insisting that parents “[p]lay the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — make sure that the kids hear words.” Pundits and New York Times commentators have since been apt to call this simply another gaffe, an amusing, if inevitable, side effect of Biden’s personality and campaign style. But this slip-up is not merely a slip-up; it is a perfect encapsulation of everything that makes Biden so ill-equipped to challenge Trump: a politically-uninspiring, culturally-misinformed, overtly-foolish and vaguely-racist statement, easily susceptible to even the most low-effort ad hominem. 

Even former entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is currently polling at around 2-4 percent, thinks he can beat Biden. In an interview with CBS This Morning earlier this month, Yang insisted he had the capacity to defeat both his Democratic colleagues and, eventually, Trump himself. Yet these hidden troves of charisma and political acumen were evidently shelved at the debate, with the candidate outlining few actual policy prescriptions and a significant amount of show. One particularly amusing moment saw Yang decrying the “reality TV show” pageantry of the American electoral process — before attempting to raffle off $12,000 to 10 families over the course of a year. Perhaps the worst thing about Yang’s insipid gimmick is that it directly undermines his own policy prescription of “universal” basic income, creating a lottery system — based on luck or some other indicator — for an incredibly small sample of the American population.

While many of the so-called “new guard” contenders, like Yang, South Bend, Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg, and California senator Kamala Harris, failed to make a substantial impression at the September debate, other more ambitious candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders managed to build on their momentum.

Warren especially showed a profound command of policy, outlining plans to curtail educational costs, expand healthcare and enforce antitrust legislation. Yet despite her profound success in the debate, there are reasons to be worried about Warren’s prospects as a legitimate candidate. For one, Warren remained a Republican until 1996, five years after the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. Before this sudden conversion, Warren was, according to high school friends, a “diehard conservative;” former colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin described Warren as “believing much of what the corporate folks say about how the free markets work.” Even her transformation in 1996 may have been incomplete, as the candidate still vacillates on topics like Medicare-for-All and recently described herself as a capitalist “to [her] bones.”

Still, the popularity of Warren and her watered-down progressivism is reason to be (relatively) optimistic — the discursive success of candidates like Warren and Sanders at the debates show a bold, contemporary vision of the new Democratic party which can stand up to the cold, uninspiring severity of neoliberalism, and beat Trump in the process.

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