Updated on July 30 at 10:48 p.m. ET
Senator Bernie Sanders often positions himself as the political heir of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but tonight in Detroit, Senator Elizabeth Warren was the candidate who borrowed the 32nd president’s dictum that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Anxiety stalks the Democratic Party. From the grass roots to the candidates, the party is haunted by the specter of allowing President Donald Trump, whom they underestimated in 2016, to win a second term. For long portions of tonight’s debate, several of the candidates onstage warned that the party was headed for a disaster by espousing policies that are too liberal. Governor Steve Bullock, who was making his debut after missing the first debate, joined forces with former Governor John Hickenlooper, Representative Tim Ryan, and former Representative John Delaney to question the leftward drift of the party, often urged on by questions from the moderator Jake Tapper of CNN.
In practice, this led to a series of attacks on the two highest-polling candidates onstage, Sanders and Warren. Sanders, as is his wont, got angry—or at least irritable. Warren didn’t get mad; she got even—or, perhaps, inspirational.
As Tapper noted, Democratic voters have told pollsters they prefer a candidate who will beat Donald Trump to a candidate they agree with ideologically. Warren argued that was a false choice. “I know how to fight, and I know how to win,” she said:
I took on giant banks and I beat them. I took on Wall Street, and CEOs, and their lobbyists and their lawyers, and I beat them. I took on a popular Republican incumbent senator, and I beat him. I remember when people said Barack Obama couldn’t get elected. Shoot, I remember when people said Donald Trump couldn’t get elected.
But here’s where we are. I get it. There is a lot at stake, and people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in. Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it. I am not afraid, and for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.
The message was clever: She played to voters’ desire to vote for a candidate they believe in, while insinuating that she was that candidate. Warren also managed to get more speaking time than any other candidate, narrowly edging out Sanders.