WASHINGTON — If the first Democratic presidential debate is any measure, practically all the candidates who are not Elizabeth Warren seem to think they can distinguish themselves by sounding exactly like Elizabeth Warren, despite lacking the long record of being Elizabeth Warren. In a political epoch that rewards authenticity and boldness, candidate after candidate embraced the populism they believe Democratic voters desire.

Warren set the tone for the evening by railing against the drug companies, the oil companies and private prisons. She is right that some companies have behaved dishonorably. But she is wrong to make it seem as though, if there is a problem, some corporation somewhere must have caused it, and the only way to solve it is to find and break up that corporation.

"When you've got an economy that does great for those with money and isn't doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple," she said, apparently reducing wealth inequality to an evil plot cooked up by a few billionaires in a room. The question was about talking to people, including 60 percent of Democrats, according to debate moderator Savannah Guthrie, who think the economy is doing well.

What followed was a competition to see who could sound more Warren-esque.

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke blasted "an economy that is rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest."

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey distanced himself from his previous criticism of politicians who single out companies for breaking up, attacking "pharmaceutical companies that often have monopolistic holds on drugs" — in other words, a legal patent — and bragging that "one of the most aggressive bills in the Senate to deal with corporate consolidation is mine."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who had previously mocked candidates who promised free everything, stuck by her promise that she would not give everyone free college, because rich people can pay for their own college educations. But she would give everyone free community college. "If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans," Klobuchar said.

The candidate who came closest to matching Warren populist zinger for populist zinger was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, probably because he started his rise to prominence as a Warren-like progressive. "You hear folks say there's not enough money. What I say to them every single time is, there's plenty of money in this world, there's plenty of money in this country. It's just in the wrong hands."

But unfortunately for those candidates who tried to channel their inner Warren, there was nothing like the real thing. "I want to return government to the people, and that means calling out the names of the monopolists and saying I have the courage to go after them," Warren said. The monopolists! Vote Bull Moose!

There were a few exceptions to the trend, most notably former Maryland congressman John Delaney, who emphasized that he is a successful entrepreneur and offered an unspectacular-sounding but solid suite of policy changes to fight economic inequality. "We need a short-term strategy which is to put money in the pockets of workers with the earned-income tax credit, raising the minimum wage and creating family leave, and then we need to have a long-term strategy to make sure this country is competitive," he said.

Then again, Delaney's campaign is based on the idea that Americans do not want Elizabeth Warren, they want a wonky unknown former congressman from the Maryland suburbs.

The upshot of the evening was that, in the ongoing battle between Democrats who emphasize redistribution in a highly regulated economy and those who temper the need for redistribution and regulation with the need for economic growth, so that the government is not merely redistributing a stagnating pie, the former candidates are winning.

A swath of Democrats thinks this is politically smart, in large part because they agree with the ideological movement it represents. Yet as the New York Times recently pointed out, the Democratic Party generally is more moderate than the obstreperous voices on Democratic Twitter. Democrats cannot ignore that they owe their current House majority to moderates in the suburbs, not the left wing's primary-the-unbelievers strategy of party-building. And they cannot neglect those sorts of voters if they wish to build an effective anti-Trump coalition. In other words, they must not fool themselves.

 

Stromberg is a Washington Post editorial writer.