Midway through Tuesday’s interminable Democratic debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren asked a simple question. Turning to John Delaney, a proudly centrist former congressman who is currently polling at 0 percent, Warren asked why he was on stage. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said. “I don’t get it.”
Delaney, who accused progressives of introducing big proposals that were “dead on arrival,” provoked Warren’s remark. But he was hardly the only candidate to cry common sense! as an objection to the left-wing policies favored by Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. On the stage, Delaney was one member of a bigger centrist pack, including John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado; Steve Bullock, the current governor of Montana; Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; and Representative Tim Ryan. They each articulated similarly incremental visions, arguing against policies like universal health care and free higher education.
Faced with Warren’s question, and with similar criticism from Sanders, centrists had little to say.
As the hours ticked by on Tuesday night, the centrist version of progress sounded more and more like an unjustifiable attempt to rebrand the status quo instead of changing it. Neither Warren or Sanders faltered in their defenses of Medicare for All. Warren told the story of Ady Barkan, a Medicare for All advocate who spends thousands of dollars every month on care for his ALS even though he has health insurance. Sanders reminded candidates that he recently traveled to Canada with patients who cross the border in order to purchase affordable insulin. Centrists continued to deride the plan; Bullock even called it an example of “wish-list economics.”
Medicare for All might fulfill a wish, but not a frivolous one. The goal is a truly egalitarian health-care system. Even Marianne Williamson, a self-help author who’s never held public office, eventually told the other candidates that she didn’t understand why some of them were Democrats at all.
Warren and Sanders are not identical; one identifies as a proud capitalist and the other does not. Prior to Tuesday’s debate, some commentators had even portrayed the two candidates as potential rivals for the same pool of voters. But Sanders and Warren have always described their relationship as a friendly one, and at the debate, they looked more like teammates than competitors. Both candidates share a basic conviction that America’s grotesque inequalities demand urgency. If a candidate for president truly believes — as they all claim to — that Donald Trump threatens democracy, that he is racist and sexist and dangerously biased toward the rich, we should expect them to offer an alternative to the system that built him. The fight for a livable future is already here, and on Tuesday, Warren and Sanders looked like the only candidates who knew it.