U.s. Democrats in the pre-election campaign: unusually socially engaged

All of a sudden, Democrats are arguing over who is furthest left. Sanders and Warren are in form, Biden seems to have had his day.

Many expected a clash – instead, Sanders and Warren played ball with each other Photo: ap

"Fire Pantaleo," echoes through the hall as the Democratic presidential candidates debate broadcast by CNN opens in Detroit on Wednesday night. The heckling is a call to arms for New York Mayor and sideline presidential candidate Bill de Blasio, who is struggling to fire Pantaleo, the police officer in whose chokehold cigarette salesman Eric Garner died five years ago. Later, other hecklers point out the practice of deportations: "Stop the deportations," they demand. Meanwhile, on stage, the Democrats are bashing each other’s pasts.

It’s the second round of the Democratic primary campaign, which continues to be a scrum of more than 20 candidates. Themes and tone are unusually socially engaged by U.S. standards. And not just on the part of the hecklers. "Democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders, who in 2016 railed alone against billionaires and Wall Street, has found plenty of imitators. This time, all 20 Democratic candidates are vying to be as far left as possible. But only two have presented comprehensive platforms: Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The senator from Vermont and the senator from Massachusetts have worked together successfully in Washington for years. But now they are competing against each other for the nomination. In the polls, they are equally positioned – right behind Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice president. The polls attest that all three could win an election against Donald Trump. But while Warren’s popularity is rising and Sanders’ is stagnant, Biden’s has been shrinking since his listless and unimaginative first debate appearance.

On Tuesday, the coincidence of the Democratic Party’s toss-up brings Sanders and Warren together on stage in Detroit. Many expected a clash. Instead, Sanders and Warren are passing the balls to each other. They justify the need for national health insurance for all, the abolition of tuition fees and the cancellation of private university debt. And they manage to be respectful of each other.

The two are the stars of the evening. Everyone else is working off them. Call their proposals "unrealistic" and warn against going too far. "I’m tired of hearing Democrats who are afraid of big ideas," Sanders counters his Democratic rivals. Warren quips, "I don’t understand why anyone would go through the trouble of running a presidential campaign if all they’re going to do is say what Democrats can’t do." Her bon mot is a highlight of the evening.

Raising his profile by criticizing Joe Biden

Twenty-four hours later, as the second round of the 20 candidates take the stage in Detroit, Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris duke it out on stage. They had already clashed in June. At that time, the senator paraded her competitor, Biden, as one who had slowed down on school desegregation. Biden responded slowly and without conviction. This time, the 77-year-old greeted rival Harris with the words, "Go easy on me, kid."

This time, neither of them manages to make their mark in the debate. Instead, they beat each other over the head with their political pasts without ever throwing new ideas into the debate. Instead, the smaller candidates are able to make their mark against them.

Texan Julian Castro, former housing secretary under Barack Obama, is renewing his proposal to decriminalize undocumented border crossings to make family separations like Trump’s impossible in the future. "Unlike you, I have learned from the past," he tells Biden. Former Newark Mayor and Senator Cory Booker confronts Biden about another chapter of his past: criminal justice reform from the 1990s that sent numerous people to prison for years for sometimes violent drug offenses.

Then 38-year-old Assemblywoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii rolls up sharp criticism of Harris’ as a prosecutor and attorney general in California. "She put over 1,500 people behind bars for marijuana violations," Gabbard says, "and she withheld exculpatory material about a man who was on death row."

Last chance

After the TV debates in Detroit, Democratic candidates will take a summer break and campaign at the grassroots level over the next few weeks. The Democratic primary campaign ultimately won’t end until the nominating party convention next summer. But after this week, the field of candidates will thin. For several minor candidates, Detroit was their last chance to prove themselves. Those who failed to do so will now lose their backers.

Biden’s fate is also open. He is still the hopeful of the Democratic Party apparatus, which considers him the best candidate to win over voters from the political center. But the more often Biden fails to answer criticism of his political past, the more uncertain his future becomes.