Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on January 15, 2020.
The two most liberal candidates drove the conversation at last night’s Democratic presidential debate, but in a manner that underscores the challenge each may face in building a coalition across the party’s ideological divides.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two senators jostling for the support of the Democrats’ most progressive voters, both delivered confident, aggressive performances in which they underlined their commitment to an array of liberal causes, from withdrawing all American forces from the Middle East to raising taxes on the rich and opposing most free-trade agreements. The debate made clear that they are both banking on winning the nomination much more by consolidating the party’s most liberal flank than by extending their appeal across all of its ideological and political factions. “This is the moment when we have got to think big and not small,” Sanders insisted in his closing statement, in words that summarized as well the argument from Warren.
None of the more centrist candidates on the slimmed-down debate stage was nearly as vivid. And overall, the debate lacked the intensity that many expected for the final confrontation before the first votes are cast in Iowa, on February 3—especially since recent polls have shown the top four candidates all closely bunched together. The evening’s most anticipated moment largely fizzled, too. Sanders flatly denied that he told Warren, during a private meeting in 2018, that he believed a woman could not win the presidency, as initially reported by CNN. And when asked about Sanders’s denial, Warren chose not to challenge him—detouring instead into a forceful argument for why women can win elections. Without a genuine confrontation between the two, the real fulcrum of the debate was the division between the two of them and former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.