The Irish Times view on the US Democrat debates : the stakes are high

Democrats gathered in Detroit this week for their second set of debates, but the party remains divided on who will be its presidential nominee

A television displays the start of the second night of Democratic presidential debates at a watch party for former US vice president Joe Biden in Detroit.

A television displays the start of the second night of Democratic presidential debates at a watch party for former US vice president Joe Biden in Detroit.

 

The US presidential election may still be 16 months away, but the race to take on Donald Trump in 2020 has begun in earnest. Democrats gathered in Detroit this week for their second set of debates, but the party remains divided on who will be its presidential nominee.

All eyes were on front-runner Joe Biden who was pummelled by California senator Kamala Harris last month in Miami. Biden held his own as he came under attack from all sides at Wednesday night’s debate - down, but certainly not out - though questions about his acuity persist.

More significant is what kind of ideological position Democrats should embrace as they seek to win back the White House. Biden is running as an unabashedly centrist candidate, arguing he is the person that can win over middle America, and all-important swing voters in rust-belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But much of the energy and enthusiasm in the Democratic Party lies with more liberal candidates, with those on the progressive side arguing that a candidate that excites voters will be more likely to ensure voter turnout next November.

This internal battle between the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party is nothing new - tensions between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders dominated the 2016 primary campaign. This week saw Democrats coalesce around these ideological fault-lines, with no real winner - though Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the standard-bearers of progressive policies - performed well. What is certain is that Republicans are itching to label their opponents as “socialists”, a label they believe will damage Democrats.

With the Democratic field likely to narrow significantly before the next debate, America should begin to get a clearer idea of who will be the candidate to challenge Donald Trump. It’s a crucial question. Joe Biden was right when he said that next year will be the most consequential election in Americans’ lifetimes. As Donald Trump eyes up a second term in the White House, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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