The third and final weakness of the night was the unwillingness and inability of any of the candidates—except, quietly, Joe Biden—to defend their party’s most important domestic reform since the Lyndon Johnson administration: Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act was passed when Democrats held a 60-seat majority in the Senate. If you believe it’s a shabby, pitiful, unworthy half-measure, then other than magic wishing pills, there’s no strategy for you ever to enact anything you will regard as successful. And denouncing it in those terms is an indictment of the last president, the one who to this day remains a talismanic name among the voters these candidates most need to mobilize.
Things may change by November 2020, but in the summer of 2019, polls show an American electorate that is more content with its own personal situation than at any time since the second Clinton administration. President Trump has not (yet) been able to capitalize on that satisfaction, because so many voters are repelled by him personally. But there is little appetite in this country for big radical reforms like stripping people of their existing private-sector health insurance. There will be even less appetite when the next administration tries to finance that reform by raising taxes, as the candidates last night acknowledged they will have to do.