Wednesday’s Debate Won’t Fit the ‘Centrist vs. Far Left’ Narrative

On Tuesday, I suggested that what would mark this round of Democratic debates would be that the bottom tier of candidates would need to find a way to distinguish themselves from the frontrunners. Tuesday night’s debate was all about Klobuchar, Ryan, Delaney, Hickenlopper, and Bullock attempting to do just that.

As it turns out, the frontrunners on stage Tuesday night were Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—the two candidates who have proposed policies that place them on the far left end of the spectrum—while the group that was fighting for survival in this race could be categorized as “centrists.” With that, and a heavy dose of prodding from the moderators, the theme the media was able to latch on to was one of their favorites: “Democrats are in disarray as liberals and centrists fight for the soul of the party.”

One thing that narrative doesn’t take into account is that there were two other candidates on the stage last night who didn’t fit that theme. Buttigieg and O’Rourke refrained from taking sides and offered both policies and responses that rose above the fray. For example, on the topic that kicked off the narrative—health care—here is how Buttigieg responded.

So we don’t have to stand up here speculating about whether the public option will be better or a Medicare for All environment will be better than the corporate options. We can put it to the test.

That’s the concept of my Medicare for All Who Want It proposal. That way, if people like me are right that the public alternative is going to be not only more comprehensive, but more affordable than any of the corporate options around there, we’ll see Americans walk away from the corporate options into that Medicare option, and it will become Medicare for All without us having to kick anybody off their insurance.

O’Rourke proposed something similar.

Our plan ensures that everyone is enrolled in Medicare or can keep their employer-sponsored insurance. When we listen to the American people — and this is what they want us to do — they want everyone covered, but they want to be able to maintain choice and our plan does that.

Neither of those responses became fodder for the “centrist vs far left” theme that dominated the night. But for the most part, that will go unnoticed, because the other candidates fit themselves nicely into the narrative the media wanted to generate.

What will be interesting to watch on Wednesday night is how the same moderators attempt to continue their narrative when it doesn’t fit so well with the candidates who will take the stage. The two frontrunners will be Biden and Harris—who produced the biggest clash at the last debate. Biden might be described as fitting in best with the so-called centrists from Tuesday night, while Harris has more in common with the positions outlined by Buttigieg and O’Rourke.

Among the bottom tier needing to make their mark on Wednesday, Michael Bennet is the only centrist of the group and De Blasio is attempting to place himself on the far left. But the rest of the line-up includes a group that hasn’t branded themselves by claiming a particular point on the political spectrum.

  • Booker has proposed progressive policies, while refusing to demonize an “enemy.”
  • Andrew Yang is focusing on a guaranteed basic income for all Americans.
  • Julian Castro has defined the debate on immigration.
  • Jay Inslee has prioritized an aggressive approach to climate change.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand presents herself as the strongest feminist.
  • Tulsi Gabbard is the military veteran who is also the anti-war candidate.

What we’ll see from that group is an attempt to distinguish themselves on their issues, which won’t fit into the centrist vs far left theme that prevailed on Tuesday night.

One contribution to the distinction we’re likely to see between the two debates is something that hardly anyone but the people of color on my Twitter timeline noticed: all of the candidates of color are included in Wednesday’s lineup. Those who have engaged in the centrist vs far left framework are all white. While the group that has  rejected it includes white candidates, they are joined by all of the candidates of color.

Media narratives that dominate our politics are usually framed from a white perspective. That is especially true when it comes to how the left-to-right political spectrum has been defined. Not nearly enough attention has been paid to how people of color see things differently. That is why so many people were initially confounded by the fact that Sanders struggled to gain traction with African Americans in the 2016 primary. Those same people were equally surprised to see the strength of Biden’s support among African Americans this year. Equally confounding is the fact that Hispanics in this country are incredibly diverse in their opinions about politics and, while they care deeply about immigration, aren’t simply single-issue voters. Hardly anyone even bothers to try to understand how the diverse group of Asians in this country view politics, even though they are the fastest growing “minority” group at this point. The views of Native Americans never even enter the radar screen.

As demographics in this country continue to change, the focus on how white people view politics will increasingly mean that pundits and political prognosticators are confounded by what happens in our elections. On Wednesday night, we will learn how the debate moderators adjust to having the most diverse group of candidates on stage for a presidential debate. If there is an attempt to force them into the centrist vs far left narrative, the moderators are likely to get schooled.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.