Opinion

The battle of the moderates

The New Hampshire Democratic debate was all about who will prevail as the centrist alternative to Bernie Sanders

On Friday night at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, seven rivals for the Democratic nomination for president clashed in the final debate before the New Hampshire primary. The shape of the evening was determined by the outcome of the Iowa caucuses last Monday, where South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg effectively tied Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for first place while leaving Vice President Joe Biden in the dust of a distant fourth-place showing.

That result produced a dramatic bounce for Buttigieg in numerous polls, catapulting him to the head of the pack of moderates seeking the nomination. And that turned Friday's debate into a battle between Buttigieg and his rivals for leadership of that pack — which means it was a battle over who would be the party's alternative to the democratic-socialist Sanders.

In a just world — or at least one in which the Democratic electorate displayed good sense — Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar would already be the leading moderate. She's experienced, charming, funny, and usually deft on her feet. And she doesn't shy away from calling out Sanders' pipe dream proposals. Yet Klobuchar came in fifth in Iowa (despite coming from a neighboring state and campaigning there tirelessly). New Hampshire may well be her last stand, and we can all hope she somehow manages to make a dent in the candidate who clearly (and justly) provokes her greatest wrath: Buttigieg.

The 38-year-old mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana is extraordinarily, almost preternaturally, articulate. He speaks in well-crafted paragraphs, but the paragraphs are filled with gaseous abstractions and clichés — we need a "change in perspective" that allows us to "turn the page" and also a "politics of change" to kick in "before it's too late" — and he backs them up with a studied earnestness that sounds as authentic as a marketing pitch.

I found something appealing about Mayor Pete when he first launched his campaign, but he's been wearing on me lately. On Friday he came off as scripted, cloying, and counterfeit. He's clearly trying to sound like Barack Obama, who also relied on vaporous slogans and pep talks ("change you can believe in," "yes, we can"), but with one important difference: Obama never sounded like he was faking it or working up a head of piety for public consumption. He was a genuinely impressive person. Buttigieg might get there, but for now he looks absurdly young on that stage and sounds like he's trying much too hard to make a good impression. Klobuchar is right to be more than mildly offended that he's managed to leapfrog over her and her accomplishments to take his early lead.

Lord knows someone needs to take the lead away from Biden. The man sounds tired, confused, distracted. He's often incapable of forming complete thoughts. During the debate, Buttigieg did a better job of defending Biden's own son Hunter from Donald Trump's sleazemongering than Biden himself has ever done. (It was a touching moment that led Biden to tear up and express gratitude to his rival.) As Biden's capacity to think and speak degrades over the course of a debate, he reverts more and more often to anger, barking disjointed sentence fragments, as if the irritability can compensate for the lack of coherence coming out of his mouth. I'm sure some voters find it endearing. To me it sounds like a man distressingly close to losing control of his faculties.

Whichever of these options (or Michael Bloomberg, who wasn't on the stage in Manchester) makes it into lead position of the moderate lane, it's clear that this candidate will be squaring off against Sanders, not Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. One of the strangest things about the 2020 race has been witnessing Warren's incredible shrinking rationale for running. When there were 20 and more candidates in the field, she and Sanders somehow seemed more distinct. But as the months have ticked by and the field has thinned, she's ended up sounding like a female Sanders replicant, endlessly repeating the same lines about the horrible economic injustices of American life and promising to spend mountains of money to rectify them.

Aside from embracing the capitalist label instead of rejecting it, there's very little that separates her from Sanders. She certainly can't plausibly portray herself as a more moderate liberal. And that makes her candidacy redundant. If she manages to bounce back from her disappointing third-place Iowa showing, it will be because voters decide they want their democratic socialism from her instead of Sanders. If that doesn't happen soon and she really hopes to advance the issues she cares about, she should drop out and wholeheartedly throw her support to him.

Of course the same kind of consolidation and banding together is going to have to happen closer to the center as well. But on Friday night, it was nowhere in sight. The final debate before the New Hampshire primary was all about the battle of the moderates.

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