Littwin: History says change is coming in Dem race, but latest debate was a lot of the same

HOUSTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 12: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (L-R), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), former tech executive Andrew Yang, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, former housing secretary Julian Castro appear on stage before the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls were chosen from the larger field of candidates to participate in the debate hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 12: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (L-R), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), former tech executive Andrew Yang, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, former housing secretary Julian Castro appear on stage before the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls were chosen from the larger field of candidates to participate in the debate hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The real news from the Houston debate was not Joe Biden’s overpraised performance. He was OK for the first hour, not so much after that and that’s not even counting the late-breaking record player reference. Or the continued benefit to Elizabeth Warren for making Sanders’s points better, and more reassuringly, than Bernie can. Or Julian Castro’s cheap shot at Biden’s memory/age. Or the Yang Gang Lottery, now officially open. What more is there to say on Andrew Yang except how did this guy make the debate stage while a U.S. senator watches on TV?

And the real news certainly wasn’t the networks’ insistence that each debate begin with an extended take on health care reform even as all the candidates — OK, with the exception of Kamala Harris, of course — continue to say exactly what they had said in previous debates. By the way, when you’re thinking about this topic and Medicare for All, you might want to read a report cited by The Colorado Sun that the Denver metro area’s 27 for-profit hospitals made more than $2 billion in pre-tax profits in 2018.

No, the real news came from the third tier. And the reaction to that news may say much about the future of the Democratic primary.

History tells us that frontrunners often fade and that someone usually emerges from the back of the pack. The frontrunner argument is obvious. Jeb!, Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, Ed Muskie, on and on. And Gary Hart, the 1984 phenom who went to New Hampshire to endorse Michael Bennet, makes the come-from-nowhere argument come alive. Jimmy Carter could have done the same. In 2004, John Kerry went from leader to the middle of the pack to winning. John McCain took a similar path in 2008.

It’s probably a mistake to believe the field is already narrowed to three. If you watched the debate Thursday night, it looked like three third-tier candidates won some attention.

Cory Booker had another strong debate performance, funny and passionate. And yet, he was just as good in the second debate and that didn’t matter at all. In a post-debate interview on CNN, he joined Castro in taking a swing at Biden, citing the former vice-president’s tendency to meander, while questioning whether Biden can “carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling.” It was a hard shot — Booker said it wasn’t ageism, that Biden has always been this way — but it wasn’t a Castro-level cheap shot.

Amy Klobuchar had her best debate performance, meaning that for the first time anyone noticed, she was on the stage.  But her platform seems to be that since she’s from the middle of the country — Minnesota — she, uh, can appeal to people in the middle of the country.

But, mostly, it was Beto O’Rourke’s best day in the race since his first one. Nearly everyone on the stage praised his response to the gun massacre in El Paso, his home town. The most remembered quote of the night will almost certainly be on Beto’s mandatory buyback plan of guns designed for use on the battlefield. When asked if that means he’ll confiscate weapons, he said — and get ready for the bumper stickers and T-shirts — “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

The questions now are whether Booker, Beto or Klobuchar get any kind of bounce in the polls and whether the race at the top — among Biden, Warren and Sanders — changes at all and whether Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, both sitting in the middle, moved the needle after relatively quiet nights.

If Michael Bennet was watching the debate, he has to hope for some kind of breakthrough from the bottom tier. Bennet has been praised by any number of pundits for his campaign, but he has yet to figure out a way to make any headway in the polls. It’s one thing to complain about the DNC trying to limit the field, as Bennet does constantly, and another to complain when you can’t make 2 percent in the polls.

My theory on why there has been so little post-Biden movement in the race, other than Warren’s rise and Harris’s rise and fade, is two-fold. 

One, that between them, Sanders and Warren have a lock on the issues that move progressives and activists while the rest of the field is basically offering more pragmatic (read: less exciting) answers to the same questions.

Two, Biden is also going for the pragmatic vote, but that’s not why he’s leading the polls. Rather, it’s his success on two fronts — creating the perception, which may be reality, that he is the best choice to win back white working-class voters and, at the same time, building a huge polling lead in the African-American community, which is why he ties himself to Barack Obama in nearly every sentence. And yet, of all the candidates on the stage, he has the most trouble answering questions about race. Will this matter?

It’s easy enough to predict that eventually someone wins the Warren-Bernie fight, but will Biden hold up? It’s strange, but he seems to struggle most when answering questions about race. Late in the debate, he answered a question on what can be done to repair the legacy of slavery by suggesting that parents who live in segregated neighborhoods “don’t quite know what to do” and that one thing that parents in these neighborhoods can do “is make sure you have the record player on at night, make sure that kids hear words …” 

Of course many parents in segregated neighborhoods are perfectly capable and don’t need parenting advice. Biden was saying that kid from disadvantaged families are often behind when they get to school because many haven’t been exposed to the level of vocabulary that kids with more advantages have been. Some modern studies question the concept of a word gap.  “Record player” — at least he didn’t say 8-track — was a blip, but the rambling quote, in its entirety, will make your head hurt. It sounded a lot like straight-out paternalism to me, but that seems to have been lost in the record player discussion.

I’m still ready to believe, because the history is pretty clear, that by the time we get to Iowa, there will be unanticipated dramatic change in the race and that the Big Three of today are unlikely to finish 1-2-3 in the February caucuses. But I’m also ready to believe that this debate didn’t bring us any closer to figuring out what the dramatic change might be.



  1. In all the talking points about skyrocketing medical expenses, no one has ever talked about the terrible damage that for-profit hospitals have created. Medical expenses from hospital visits are hundreds of thousands of dollars….and more if you have no way to pay for it. Would love some discussion on why we went to for-profit hospitals except for them to make money from others illnesses and causing more grief. And I have not noticed better care.

  2. I’m an Elizabeth Warren person, but she needs to be even more clear about what for-profit insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals and others are doing to our healthcare costs. I would call it “Healthcare from Wall Street.” As for Biden, the answer you refer to borders on racism, basically accusing black (and Latino?) parents of being incapable of raising their kids. He even mentioned sending in social workers to low income families. By my count, he has had more than one gaffe on racial issues.

  3. I went back to article 3 times to ensure a solid fact was not mentioned. With all the debating in MSM and comments over past Decade, no comment was made of 800 hospitals ,, primarily in the Southern states adjoining the border when bankrupt and closed their doors this past year (or so a different article on another website sated). I can not vouch for that from anything I have followed, but it makes sense. When both of my grandchildren was young ( 2003) wife and I took care of them, while son and wife worked. With normal childhood sniffles and illness, I would take them to Emergency room, where we sat each time, with 10 to 15 illegal alien families had their children seen, and walked out, with no insurance, no payment, and signing no papers.
    ——–Then my 2 grandchildren would be seen, prescribed for, and I would write a check for $200 to $300. Son had changed jobs due to investment policies, and could not afford $1200 a month, since his wife and daughter both had asthma. His job was outsourced, due to high medical cost, and after 2005, he was called back to Corporation he worked for before, and since, who can absorb those costs . With that happening all over the country during Obama years, I can see why so many hospitals and doctors having to join with others, to make lower office expenses, why Medicare for all, will be much more expensive it Democrats are elected. Doctors now, do not want to take on Medicare or Medicaid patients, but will to keep politicians off their backs.
    ——-Think about it. Remember the Clinton years, when Doctors would not take on new patients.

  4. Frank2525, I think you’ve got a few things incorrect.
    There are fewer than 5,000 hospitals in the country. If 800 of them went bankrupt and closed last year, it would be a HUGE story. I can’t find anywhere. The number I found from — from Jan 4, 2019 – “Below are 21 hospitals that closed in 2018,””

    Closest numbers I could find were ““Since 2010, at least 79 rural hospitals have closed across the country, and nearly 700 more are at risk of closing. These hospitals serve a largely older, poorer and sicker population than most hospitals, making them particularly vulnerable to changes made to Medicaid funding.”” A University of North Carolina research center on rural health has the headline on their on-going graphic: “155 Rural Hospital Closures: January 2005 – Present; 113 Closures Since 2010”

    I can’t comment on the accuracy of your experience and perception that children of the “illegal alien families” were being seen, treated, and sent out without insurance, payment, or signing papers. I will say that your timetable says the problem was happening under the Republican Bush 43 administration, not the Obama administration.

  5. The truly sad thing is that nearly 3 out of 4 hospital closures are occurring in red states that rejected the Medicaid expansion under Obama.

    They sure showed him.

  6. I may have some facts wrong, but do not believe so. Note I referenced 2003 in my reply, so that was following Clinton years in 1990 period. Remember all the little hospitals that closed, and large hospitals, remodeled into larger hospitals, with modern equipment and doctors closed their private practices, and took jobs in the larger hospitals. Secretary to United Veterans Committee (UVC) of Colorado, with 55 affiliated, retired and veteran, organizations, with direct contact with Governors Office, and State Officials with the Federal Officials, and their staff, we learned of closing Fitzsimons Military Medical Center, where Fitzsimons closed in 1997, Lowry AFB, closed in 1994. Bill Clinton closed both, un BRAC, land military, active duty and retired, all were dumped onto the Civilian Medical System, without adding doctors or nurses. , When those bases were considered for closing, Major General James (jim) and Harriet Pennington came to Colorado in 1991, with Jim Pennington briefing interested military (active and retired0 of the change coming, and to be prepared. All of the hospitals in Denver area immediately built and remodeled to larger capacity, while small practices, hospitals, closed.
    ——–Last evening after I read your reply to me, I did a quick search on net, and I believe my 800 hospitals closed are correct. And one showed over 80 due to close for reasons I gave now, while another gave a listing for all states of closings 3003 to 2016, of 80.. So I will stand on my figure of 800 from Clinton caused BRAC closings to now. And of course medical care has become more expensive now, with non-citizens getting top care, even expensive surgery at USA Treasury cost.
    —–And I know what I paid for care of my 2 grandchildren, when my son’s job was out sourced, and what we went through at the hospital on Potomac Street, in wafting for all the free loaders to be seen, and then they would see my two grandchildren. Amanda dies at age 10, but Stephen is now 24. Son and his wife lost their home to foreclosure after Amanda died of Asthma complication, and Stephen was 8 at the time.

  7. Good info. I found about 4 pages of links and had only looked at 3 of them. Had not seen this link but this data up to 2015. Lot of turmoil after 1991, when Clinton initiated closing of military bases with their hospitals. Found that was not as much savings as he thought, and President George Bush, formed a committee of Veterans Organizations, that traveled to VA Facilities and reported before end of his 2nd term. Was reflected as CARES, and when they compiled their final report, Barack Obama was briefed on it, after election at end of that year, but then ignored it, as far as the Retired, Veteran, Family that was involved. (President George r Bush also started the CHOICE program , right after he signed the Tricare Bill in 2001. My brother in Ohio, went to a local clinic, contracted by VA, and when sharpened kept working out of his body, from Korean conflict, he was referred to Pittsburgh Medical Center, and transportation by Van was provided from Ohio to Pittsburgh , Pa (about 100 miles one way). Van would pick up veterans at the clinic, early , drive to Pa, and then come back, late the same day. Brother had right leg amputated just below knee, Was issued large wheel chair, and other equipment, and seen on regular basis at clinic, and in PA. When some years later, he had gangrene set in that leg , he died of stroke soon after another surgery at age 75. Obama has claimed starting CHOICE, but he only tweaked it , since it was started across country, so Veterans did not have to drive long distances to be seen. Even then VA and Bush administration have continued to be criticized, by veterans and public.
    ——Thanks for a very civil conversation. Too many today, have become to wrapped up in themselves, and even families have split over elections and politics. I served 26 years, and I know what it is to do a job, while being criticized by others who did nothing for others in their lives. Military service changed my whole outlook on life, and I had a career I am proud of. Also volunteered to work on advisory committees, with Rep. Tom Tancredo and Rep. Bob Beauprez all the years they represented Colorado.

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