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In The End, The Democratic Debate Came Down To One Question

The exchange between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren right at the end of the debate summed up the whole thing nicely.
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The Democratic debate was too long with too many candidates and too much right-wing framing. Democrats need to cull the herd by at least half. Leave Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke on the stage and have everyone else step off with their parting gifts.

You will hear much from cable yakkers about how Amy Klobuchar brought her A-game. If the goal was to seduce Republicans, perhaps she did. But this is a Democratic primary, not a fight for the heart and soul of Trump voters, and to me she was working far too hard to maintain the status quo.

Bernie Sanders was strong and definitely out to prove his heart attack and surgery did not slow him down. Elizabeth Warren was the target for everyone, with the possible exception of Bernie.

Whichever Democrat kicks Trump's butt in 2020 will have one huge job ahead of them: Cleaning up the mess in the White House and rebuilding the pillars of good government. By necessity, that means thinking big.

That realization brings me to this moment toward the end of the debate when Elizabeth Warren faces off with Joe Biden. It is emblematic of the fundamental difference between incrementalists like Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar and the big thinkers like Warren, Sanders, and Harris.

The discussion began with Biden criticizing Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for their big dreams, which he said were too vague and which they couldn't pay for. He argued that some nice fixes to the Affordable Care Act would be all that was needed to shore it up. Bernie vigorously objected to that, on the basis that it left the corruption and profiteers in the health care space. While he was at it, he hammered Biden for his Iraq war vote and bankruptcy bill. (This exchange comes earlier and isn't in the clip above.)

When it was Warren's turn, she pointed out the difference between thinking big and thinking in increments by highlighting her fight for the CFPB.

"Following the financial crash of 2008, I had an idea for a consumer agency that would keep giant banks from cheating people," she began, "And all of the Washington insiders and strategic geniuses said, 'Don't even try because you will never get it passed.'"


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"And sure enough, the big banks fought us, the Republicans fought us, some of the Democrats fought us. but we got that agency passed into law," Warren continued.

She closed by reminding everyone that she served in the Obama administration, but that if you want big things, you have to fight for them and for the things that touch people's lives.

Biden was not going to let that sit there without a response, so he jumps in with this:

"I agreed with the great job she did," he said as he turned toward her. "And I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it, so let's get those things straight too."

Is it just me, or did that feel like he was appropriating her accomplishment by taking credit for its passage?

When asked to respond, Warren was careful. "I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law, and i am deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it and who helped pass it into law. but understand --"

"You did a hell of a job in your job," Biden interrupted.

I'm reminded of another moment in a different debate when then-candidate Obama said something equally dismissive to Hillary Clinton.

Warren made that moment hers, summing up the entire debate and the fundamental divide in the Democratic party this way: "Thank you, but understand this. It was a dream big, fight hard. People told me, go for something little, go for something small, go for something that the big corporations will be able to accept."

"I said, no. Let's go for an agency that will make structural change in our economy and President Obama said, I will fight for that, and he sometimes had to fight against people in his own administration. We have to be able to make good big structural change."

This is the crux of the debate. How can we cheer incrementalism at a moment where we need big thinkers who can rebuild our government and begin to rebuild people's faith in government after it has been so deeply corrupted by Donald Trump? There was no moment which so powerfully illustrated it than this one.

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