January 15, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Democratic Debates Didn’t Matter

The reasons? A fascist president and black pragmatism.

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Last night saw the final debate between candidates running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Naturally, this morning’s papers are full of claims about winners and losers. As I have said often here at the Editorial Board, “winners and losers” with respect to debates is a political fiction. What’s real is the human desire for a victor rising to the top. We need one so much our press corps invents one for us.

My argument isn’t empirical. History may offer numerous examples of clear outcomes. But if there’s any clear outcome we can draw from this cycle’s Democratic debates it’s the Democratic debates made hardly any difference at all. Ever since the former vice president announced his candidacy, he has been in the lead, according to the aggregate of public opinion surveys. Even when Joe Biden was pronounced a “loser,” as when Kamala Harris challenged his mixed Senate record, he came out stronger than ever.

It may be true black voters want candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, but what they want even more is “voting out the president.”

Something is happening. I don’t think it’s because everyone and his mother chose to run. I don’t think it’s because the Democratic National Committee decided against using its own polling as criteria for who gets to participate in the debates. The top three or four candidates have been the top three or four candidates for months. Polling has been so consistent as to be remarkably predictable. There’s a reason why Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warrens stuck knives into each other over the weekend. They need to do something to break the deadlock. But there may be nothing they can do.

Last night’s debate was the first to feature an all-white panel. Cory Booker dropped out this week. So did Julian Castro at the turn of 2020. Kamala Harris left the trail last year. The conventional wisdom is the Democratic Party isn’t as woke as it seems to be. The conventional conclusion is Democratic voters want a “moderate” like Joe Biden.

This interpretation is understandable yet simplistic. It’s also color-blind. It does not take into account who is standing behind Biden. The majority of his supporters are not white working-class voters who went for Donald Trump last time. His base is black. Biden isn’t leading despite saying some kinda sorta racist things offending the wokest Democrat. He’s leading because of them. Many black voters believe if he can win over some racist white voters, he can defeat the most racist president of our lifetimes.

Some pundits argue that liberals are out of touch with the Democratic base. That may be true but it’s not because the base is more conservative than liberals would prefer. The base is just more risk-averse. That’s my understanding of writers like Theodore Johnson, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He says we’re undervaluing the role of black pragmatism. It may be true black voters want candidates like Harris and Booker, but what they want even more, Johnson argued, is “voting out the president.”  

“A viable Biden campaign is likely to remain the practical choice for most black voters,” Professor Johnson wrote for the Post in June. “Pragmatism may not inspire, excite or check all the boxes on voters’ wish lists, but it may be what transforms Obama’s second-in-command into the country’s commander in chief.”

The literal, physical threat of a fascist president to black Americans leads to a predictable conclusion.

Black pragmatism may be misguided, but it’s shrewd. Bill Clinton did his share of race-baiting during the 1992 presidential election. He went out of his way to demonstrate to white working-class voters Democrats were not a black party. He signed into law punitive sentencing measures. He pushed cuts to welfare. He did things harmful to African Americans. Yet he did enough to protect hard-won gains in civil rights for Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison to defend him against Republican attempts to remove him, calling Clinton “the first black president.”

The Democratic Party is a black party, of course, in that winning the nomination is impossible without the support of a majority of black Democrats. That leaves Bernie Sanders is a pickle. He does not have the penumbra of Barack Obama. He’s certainly a risky choice. Put these together to see why he’s trailing Biden, and why his long-shot strategy is cobbling together a base of power inside and outside the Democratic Party.

That he has no chance of taking Biden’s voters means he has to take Warren’s, and that means hyping the differences between them when there is, in terms of substance, not much difference between them. Contrary to popular belief, and to the branding of his campaign, Sanders is not a socialist. He’s not a democratic socialist. He’s not a social democrat. He’s a very liberal liberal in FDR’s mold. Though FDR rejected right-wing accusations of being a socialist, Sanders has succeeded in reclaiming the epithet. But success has limits. Black voters might support him if not for calling himself a socialist.

Well, probably not. Part of Sanders’ appeal is hostility toward the Democratic Party. Part of his problem is by attacking the Democratic Party, he’s attacking the base necessary for winning the Democratic Party’s nomination—that is, black Democrats. This factor combined with the literal, physical threat of a fascist president to Americans of color leads to a rather predictable conclusion. What we learned during this year’s Democratic debates is the Democratic debates hardly mattered at all.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 8:03 am

    I think this is right. While it’s probabilistically true that any of the top four or five candidates could become the nominee, Biden remains most likely to get the nod. Just looked at 538’s new primary contest model, which, while imperfect, is more rigorous than the constant stream of pure punditry we get. Biden’s not a lock in their model, and we shouldn’t treat him as one, but he’s well-positioned to win.

    Sanders’ biggest problem has always been that he’s a factional candidate rather than a coalitional one. He’s running, in part, against the Dem establishment. To borrow a phrase from Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein, Warren — by contrast — sings the Dem music better than nearly anyone else. She’s *more* coalitional than Sanders but ultimately *less* coalitional than Biden, mostly because she doesn’t have a strong well of support among pragmatic, risk-averse black voters.

    As usual, a lot of the commentary around the debates and the primary process has been breathless and hyperbolic. In the end, the outcome may be more predictable — more *dull* — than a lot of reporters and columnists currently think. And dull doesn’t lend itself to good copy.

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