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The Winner of Last Night’s Democratic Debate Wasn’t Even Onstage

There were ten candidates onstage at last night's Democratic debate in Miami. Bernie Sanders wasn’t one them — but his campaign and policy agenda largely shaped the debate anyway.

The empty stage before the first Democratic presidential primary debate for the 2020 election at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

In 2016, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president was openly dismissive of universal healthcare, calling Medicare for All a “theoretical” idea “that will never, ever come to pass.” Apparently unashamed of her visible and longstanding alliances with corporate America, Hillary Clinton’s campaign stopped well short of full-throated support for progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage and proudly boasted about bipartisan endorsements from Republican lawmakers.

He wasn’t even on the stage, but if last night’s debate is any indication, the 2016 runner-up for the Democratic nomination has successfully shaped the party’s conversation ahead of 2020. With only a few exceptions, a majority of the ten-strong assembly of mostly conventional Democratic politicians were practically jumping over one another to pledge their fealty to key aspects of Bernie Sanders’s agenda, at crucial moments echoing both his proposals and elements of his wider narrative about American politics.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once served as a campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, thinks it’s time the Democratic Party was reclaimed by working people, assuring the crowd that “there’s plenty of wealth [in America], it’s just in the wrong hands.” Tim Ryan, meanwhile, wants a “working-class party.”

Cory Booker, who barely two years ago joined most of the Republican caucus to help kill an effort to lower prescription drug prices, is now a friend of organized labor who thinks it’s high time Democrats got tough on Big Pharma. Beto O’Rourke, a man who “hates labels” and is doggedly committed to ideological vaguery and empty platitudes, wants to lead a “movement” of students and environmental activists.

Despite much recent waffling around the issue of Medicare For Allsix out of the ten candidates ultimately expressed their support for it. The moral urgency of guaranteeing civil rights and the existential threat of climate change, both long-championed by  Sanders, also made notable appearances. Elizabeth Warren, who unique among her colleagues has a track record of targeting inequality and corporate power, looked the most comfortable of all.

The progressive pantomime was at times so vociferous that the few candidates refusing to join in sounded even less sure of themselves than you’d usually expect. Between John Delaney’s diffident prattle about finding “real solutions” and Amy Klobuchar’s rote realist-in-chief routine, it fast became evident that neither had their finger on the pulse.

Joe Biden, of course, wasn’t present, either. But his lead in the polls appeared to exert little if any influence on the tenor of the night.

Sanders is not the only figure or force driving the agenda of American politics. Both the tilt and overall tone of last night’s debate would be hard to fathom in a world without him, though. No one should think for a second that mainstream Democrats have genuinely embraced the values and agenda of the socialist left. But the winner of last night’s debate clearly wasn’t even on the stage.