You don’t have to imagine. That pretty well describes the fifth Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night. It covered a much broader range of concerns than the earlier encounters, including an extensive set of queries on foreign policy. While the contenders tangled over a few issues — notably, as always, health care — they avoided fireworks, cracked the occasional joke (Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota especially) and spent far more time in vehement agreement than they did in loud disagreement.
The political upshot: While several trailing candidates, including Klobuchar and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) did well, little happened to disturb the foursome that currently leads in both national and early-state polling: former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Biden had a painfully slow response to an opening question and an embarrassing gaffe when he referred to “the only African American woman who’d ever been elected to the United States Senate” with Harris onstage nearby. But he also had some his strongest moments of the encounters so far. He was particularly quick and clear when asked by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow whether he would seek an indictment of President Trump. Biden quickly replied: “I would not direct my Justice Department like this president does. I’d let them make their independent judgment.”
Sanders was resolutely himself from beginning to end. Counterintuitively, in a party that loathes Trump, he opened the debate by pivoting off a question about the president declaring, “We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump” and offering a very on-brand assertion that the economic well-being of working Americans needed to be the Democrats’ highest priority.
Warren was dominant in the early going with a brisk defense of her wealth tax, which she repeatedly described as asking those earning more than $50 million just “two cents” on the dollar. She spent more time describing the programs her tax would finance, including universal child care and the cancellation of student loan debt, than on the levy itself. “We can invest in an entire generation’s future,” she said.
Warren was not left unchallenged, with Booker sounding the most conservative note in emphasizing the need to “give people opportunities to create wealth, to grow businesses.” But it was not until Buttigieg criticized Warren’s support for Medicare-for-all — he pushed his public-option alternative, Medicare-for-all-who-want-it — that she faded back into the group.
As expected, Buttigieg, who is surging in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, was tested by several of those running behind. Klobuchar, who had said that a woman with Buttigieg’s qualifications would not be taken seriously as a candidate, said she considered Buttigieg qualified but that “women are held to a higher standard.” She drew appreciative laughter when she declared: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”
The typically well-prepared Buttigieg offered his best answer of the night in addressing his lack of appeal among African Americans. “My faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society.” And he argued that the fact that he was gay — “sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country” — created a special obligation to stand up for the rights of others.
Buttigieg probably helped himself with a tough and testy exchange across a range of issues toward the end of an encounter with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), who draws particular hostility from a large share of Democratic voters.
But such fireworks were the exception, not the rule. This was the debate that sent a signal that Democrats differ far more with Trump and the Republicans than they do with each other. The question that came to mind after some of the harsh and more narrowly focused brawls earlier in the year was: How could this party possibly unite? The question that dominated on Wednesday was: Do these contenders really disagree all that much?
Of course, they do disagree, as Warren and Sanders especially wanted to make clear by way of contrast with their more moderate adversaries. But it was a salutary break from an all-Trump, all-the-time Washington to hear discourses on how to build houses, how to make college affordable and how to help families care for their kids. It offered hope that politics might, someday, be about more than the antics of a self-involved, corrupt and out-of-control chief executive.