AS I WAITED yesterday for the second Democratic presidential debate, I tossed out a question to Facebook. Could Joe Biden “get up before the referee counts to 10”? Some friends liked it, but none offered a response.
I had thought that the former vice president, so far the clear front-runner in the polls, would get a knockout punch from Bernie Sanders. The “democratic socialist” from Vermont is running second to him in the polls. I thought – and hope – that the Democratic Party has started loosening its embrace of Wall Street and social conservatives, coddled by Bill and Hillary Clinton and the now dormant Democratic Leadership Council. The Barack Obama presidency, despite Obama’s progressive rhetoric, was basically and extension of that era.
Biden did get a crushing blow during the debate. He was pummeled over his professed pride in working with racist lawmakers, opposition to school busing, insensitivity to the plight of immigrants, dillydallying on the abortion issue, vote for the Iraq war, and other right-wing positions. And CNN declared him a “direct loser” of the contest.
But it was mostly the foxy Kamala Harris, not Sanders, who gave him most of the thrashing. And most of the post-debate analysts in the news media anointed Harris winner of the encounters.
Sanders’ main problem with many Democrats has been his no-holds-barred blitzkrieg against the established, if corrupt, political and economic order and his call for a revolution to trash it. Many centrist and right-of-center Democrats have been leery about it. His push for Medicare of all, a free college education and elimination of all student debts, ending all foreign wars, and so forth, also rattle many Democrats for whom the established order is akin to religion.
Mainstream media, most of them owned by mega corporations, have been rankled by Sanders’ anti-corporate, anti-capitalist programs and rhetoric. Salon dismissed his political surge as “more about anti-Clinton sentiment than actual Bernie fever.”
On foreign policy, the mainstream media have traditionally followed the American flag, largely because of their thin grasp of foreign affairs. The late Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center told me in 2008 that “more than 60 percent of our [Middle East] correspondents have no grounding in the dynamics of societies across the Mediterranean.”
Much of the media and many Democrats appear to be leaning toward Harris and Elizabeth Warren, who appeared in last night’s debate. These two high-energy, combative senators are progressive enough to tear the last Democratic vice president into pieces and revile the exploitative neoliberal economic establishment, while not threatening to dismantle that establishment. Harris is also popular with pro-Israeli Democrats, a substantial chunk of the party, because of her Jewish husband and hobnobbing with Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians.
The primaries are a barometer of the Democratic Party’s center of gravity. I will be watching them to see how much of the party has broken loose of its corporate, right-wing tether. Are enough of them ready to jump into Sanders’ revolutionary bandwagon? Would they settle, instead, for a more conventional but still progressive candidate like Harris or Warren? Or do too many of them remain too invested in the Clintons-Wall Street economic order to abandon Biden, who seems to be running for a third term for Obama?
Last night’s was just the first of six primary debates that the Democratic National Committee plans for the party’s presidential candidates, the sixth is scheduled for December. We probably won’t know until the new year whether the bulk of party has moved past the Clinton-Obama era or is still staggering in a rut.
-Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.