Primary Debates: The Best Progressive Candidates I Discovered

So, my main purpose for watching all the primary debates since 1980 (the first year I could find any online) was to see if there were any obscure old progressive candidates worth researching and learning from. Someone like Bernie who didnt make it to the general, and whose candidacy I didn’t live through. Now that I’m done, these are the people that stood out to me, either because of their skills as a candidate/orator, their genuine leftist ideas, or both. I left out anyone who made it to a general election, since I’ve already read about all general election candidates, many in depth. So, while he was the best person in the 1984 primary, McGovern’s not here, for example. I also left out Ted Kennedy, because while he mounted a primary challenge against Carter, there were no debates or ways to compare the two of them side by side.

Ive color coded the pics to designate which primary I discovered each person in, though some like Jackson and Kucinich were in more than one primary season.

From left to right and in chronological order: (84) Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart (88) Joe Biden, Bruce Babbitt (92) Larry Agran, Jerry Brown, Bob Kerrey (00) Bill Bradley (04) Howard Dean, Carol Moseley Braun (08) Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel (16) Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley

^Ive looked at campaign speeches of each person here as well as their debates and have written up my impressions of them individually. I’ll provide quick summations of these again here for convenience’s sake.

Jackson: Great, passionate orator. Vocal supporter of gay rights in the ’80s long before it was cool. Used great analogies and metaphors to simplify complex policy discussions in a way that’s easier for most to digest. Unappologetically far-left. Among other things, called for a global livable wage if free trade were to happen. Sadly, I don’t think America was ready for a black nominee in the ’80s but if we had been, I think he would have creamed Mondale and Dukakis. Jackson had far more charisma than both of them put together.

Hart: Slightly flawed oration, in my opinion. A little too much reading the paper. He didn’t impress me much in 1984. I thought he was vague and not going far enough, while McGovern and Jackson were cornering the far-left niche. Where he really won me over was in his 1988 debate performance, especially his closing statement which was one of the most powerful I’ve seen from ANY candidate. I consider it one of the great overlooked moments in a political debate. Also, looking over his ideas and the budget he wrote up, I don’t think Hart was the empty suit I initially pegged him as. Maybe he’s not one of the best people on the list, but certainly worth looking into.

Biden: I think he was one of the few actual liberals in the ’88 primary along with Jackson and Babbit. And out of them, he was by far the most electable. Biden has always had a charm and likability to him, and watching his campaign speech I was very impressed. If he hadn’t been forced to withdrawal because of a technicality plagiarism charge (which the Dukakis team leaked) I think he could’ve won and definitely would’ve done better in the general than Dukakis did. [NOTE: This retrospective was written before Biden’s creepiness and rape accusations became common knowledge. Also, he became much more centrist in the 2000s and has mostly lost his oratory prowess in 2020. But, these chinks in his historical legacy aside, I still consider ’88 Biden to be a great candidate based on the debate and speech I saw.]

Babbit: One of the least exciting orators I’ve ever seen, truth be told. But he has a sweetness to him that’s incredibly endearing at the same time. I loved his plan of “workplace democracy” which as far as I can see, is basically rebranded Democratic Socialism (which Bernie advocated for, and I consider the best political philosophy I’ve yet to read about.) He sucked as a campaigner, but I think once in office Babbit would have been a great President. Far, far better than the awful Dukakis.

Agran: One of modern politics’ ultimate underdogs. I don’t think he was ready to be President yet, considering he was just a mayor. But he also had a very good, sensible platform of taking money out of military adventurism and putting it back in the cities and towns. Unlike many underdogs, like McGoven and Bernie, Agran didn’t have some great, grandiose public works or social program he wanted to create. Just scale back the interventionism and get our cities running properly again. There’s a lot to be said for that, especially in an age when Detroit has no clean drinking water. I think Agran would be a great compromise candidate between left and right. In fact, I’d say his ideology is what the Clinton Third Way should’ve been. (Not embracing neocon foreign policy and giving up the fight against supply side economics, but embracing a more calculated, conservative governance that put America first.) If the Democratic nominee was going to insist on wooing the right since economic liberalism wasn’t selling at this time, I’d much prefer this brand of right-wing governance to what we got from Bill. It’s shameful that the media ignored Agran and he wasn’t invited to most debates.

Brown: He was to Bill Clinton what Bernie has been to Hillary. Basically the angry “the system is rigged!!” fringe candidate who garnered a massive following. I thought he came off a little too abrasive in the debates, yelling over the moderator at one point and focusing on Clinton’s scandals rather than the issues as Bernie would. His two speeches that I’ve seen were also slightly less honed and carefully tailored than Bernie’s perfectly seasoned stump speech. Brown seemed to be more of an off-the-cuff speaker like Trump (minus the racism and gaffes of course.)

Kerrey: He didn’t stand out too much at any of the debates, but his speech I saw was really good. He’s a huge supporter of universal healthcare. Not a whole lot to say, but he was an unapologetic liberal and I’d like to read more about him. I think Kerrey was probably the most electable of the 3 people here from 1992. Agran lacked experience since he was just a mayor, and Brown was a little too fiery and unpalatable to the establishment. Kerrey would have been a great compromise candidate between the establishment and the progressive wings of the party and I think he could’ve won in the general and succeeded at getting us decent healthcare in this country.

Bradley: Like Babbit, he is a hopelessly ill-equipped speaker. One of the least exciting orators or debaters I’ve ever seen. But he went to the left of Gore on almost every issue, and someone had to. I don’t think he’d ever have a chance in hell of beating Bush if he got the nomination, so he isn’t one of those great “what if” candidates like some of the others on this list. But I do think he should have been offered the VP. When Gore chose fucking Joe Lieberman, an unrepentant neoconservative masquerading as a Democrat over Bradley, I truly believe he doomed himself in the general. Gore lost by so narrow a margin that this one small act of reconciliation with the progressive wing of the party would have made just enough difference to change the outcome. It’s not like it even matters who the VP is anyway, and Bradley also would’ve provided a regional balance as well as an ideological one. Gore done fucked up.

Dean: One of the best candidates on this list, right up there with Jackson and Bernie in terms of his ability to work a crowd. The first candidate to really use the internet to mobilize voters. Another victim of unfair media treatment, with the Dean Scream played on loop. Many sources say that didn’t kill his campaign as popular narrative would have you believe. I still think it was a needlessly cruel twist of the knife that certainly didn’t help matters. Dean has a really good platform. Maybe not the most progressive out there (he didn’t support Single Payer for example) but very liberal in a practical sense. Watching the Iowa debate, it’s clear everyone there was out to tear him down based on the ridiculously slanted questions and everyone bullying up on him in the “ask each other” segment. Dean weathered it like a pro, but it was infuriating to watch.

Braun: Basically the kindly old conscience of the Democratic Party who couldn’t find an opening between Dean’s impressive following and Dennis Kucinich further dividing the progressive vote. I think her platform was slightly better than Dennis and Dean’s from what I could gather just watching the debate. She lacked their charisma though, and that accounts for more than ideology, sadly. I’m glad she supported Dean after dropping out and not Kerry or god forbid Lieberman. [Elizabeth Warren should have done the same in 2020.]

Kucinich: A well meaning, if not practical candidate. I applaud his high ideals but don’t think he had a realistic path to achieving any of them, nor did he have one signature issue which people could immediately identify him with. I think the best candidates have one strong issue or idea you know is their top priority (since no President can do everything they want.) McGovern had ending the war in Vietnam, Perot stood for stopping NAFTA, Babbit had “workplace democracy” and Bernie had breaking up the big banks. Without that, Kucinich just kinda comes off as a pipe dream candidate throwing every pie in the sky ideal at the wall to see what sticks. His speaking ability is alright, but he comes off as forcing it when he yells. At the debates, he did pretty good but not good enough to really stand out. An average orator.

Gravel: I really love this guy. He’s like your crotchety old grandpa who doesn’t give a fuck anymore and just says what’s really on his mind, damn the consequences. He wouldn’t have a chance in hell in the general, but I think there needs to be someone like him on every debate stage, especially during the primaries. Listening to his speech, I can see that Gravel is fed up with the establishment too and understands the way things are. He’s like what you’d get if Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Richard Wolff or Robert Anton Wilson were a debater. He was like a meta-candidate who knew what a pathetic farce the whole thing was and had no problem calling it out as a dog and pony show of only slightly different candidates all advocating the same warmongering foreign policy. Gravel’s oratory skills made him come off as unhinged, so no way would he win, but in a sense that almost made him even more endearing.

O’Malley: Poor guy never had a chance between Hillary sucking up all the establishment donations and endorsements while Bernie was sucking up all the underdog support and online fervor. But he was a well-spoken guy, the only one to make environmental issues a big focus of their campaign, and has a future if he keeps padding the resume these next four years for a future run. I think he or Bernie should’ve been VP. Kaine is just a good for nothing goofball.

[ASIDE: This essay was originally written in 2016 but after viewing the 2020 primaries, I would also include Andrew Yang on this list of fantastic progressives worth learning from. He was not a fiery orator nor a take-no-prisoners debater but Yang excelled at being an intelligent speaker who could offer compelling arguments to justify his positions. He elevated Universal Basic Income into his signature issue, which is exactly the kind of branding strategy I discussed earlier in my summation of Dennis Kucinich. I hope we see more from Yang or someone following in his footsteps next cycle.]

How Does Bernie Compare To His Predecessors?

Just for fun, I thought I’d do one last quick examination of Bernie with this greater historical context in mind.

You know, us Sanders supporters got a lot of flak this year from Clintonistas, Republicans and the media. All of them were telling us he’s a pipe dream, shut up, fall in line, he’s not that great, yadda yadda. Well…after looking at past primaries I can now say without a doubt that yes he was that great. These status quo voices seemed to take pleasure in his loss, told us people like him always lose, and that we need to stop being idealistic and become cynical shells voting for who we’re “supposed to,” like them. Bullshit I say. And really, I think we missed a golden opportunity with Sanders. He was fiery and passionate, but also refined enough to be electable, a gentleman who focused solely on the issues, and an inspiring figure. Looking at those who came before him, they all had some elements of that, but never the whole package. (The only ones who did were ’84 McGovern who was unviable after 1972’s epic loss, and Jesse Jackson who was unviable in the ’80s as a black man.)

So, now you have my permission as someone who’s taken the time to view our history, to be as angry and frustrated as you please that Bernie got shut out. Because the truth is a great successful progressive like Sanders DOESN’T come around as often as you’d think—not one who builds the kinda momentum and had a shot in the general as he did anyway—and we blew it by not selecting him. It’s also sad to see the media still playing favorites in 2016, and blocking Sanders out as much as possible. They couldn’t ignore him entirely because he was the only other person in the race, but they didn’t cover his best debate moments, only referred to him as “Hillary’s opponent” rather than a genuine person of his own right, and from the beginning reported that Super-delegates were gonna go for her so he would never win and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

All that said, Bernie made some mistakes too. He didn’t focus on the South, didn’t rebrand his message to appeal to black Americans, and didn’t advertise his great history fighting for black rights. That was one of the most frustrating debate moments, where he said “once they look me up, they’ll vote for me.” Well, how about you just say it right now at the debate everyone’s watching, Bernie?? His 2016 and 2020 campaigns also had serious issues with staffing and campaign organizing as well. Basically, Bernie was a once in a lifetime rabble-rouser but a lousy political strategist and organizer. Ah well. He single-handedly got me reinvested in politics after 16 years of Bush (worst President ever) and Obama (biggest disappointment ever) had turned me into a jaded, apathetic and cynical youth. So for that if nothing else, I’ll always love Bernie.

Ranking the Candidates

In terms of oratory skills:

Jackson, Bernie, Biden, Brown and Dean are probably the top tier standouts of this lot, in no particular order. Dean, Bernie and Brown give fiery, passionate stump speeches like no one else’s business. Biden gives a really good personal, from the heart kinda speech. Jackson can do both, and probably has the best address of anyone in this group with his 1984 Rainbow Coalition DNC speech.

Hart, Agran, Kerrey, Gravel, Kucinich, Braun and O’Malley are the average, mid-tier candidates. Hart and Kerrey are very competent at giving speeches but not super impressive. Agran I couldn’t find a campaign speech for, but in interviews and the debate he could get fired up and also detailed when he wanted to. O’Malley was very competent in his abilities too but also not super exciting. Gravel came off pretty unhinged at the debate and speech I watched, although he was also saying a lot of sensible things. (That and it takes courage to be the voice of reason in a hostile field as he was.) Kucinich is like Hubert Humphrey trying to be a great wordsmith when he’s so obviously not. Braun is competent but not exciting.

Babbit and Bradley are the bottom tier, without question. Just incredibly boring to listen to. No charisma whatsoever. Flat, monotone voices and either awkward stumbling or other issues at the debates.

In terms of positions…I need to read more in-depth about them all to say with 100% certainty, but my impressions from debates and speeches is:

McGovern, from both 1972 and 1984 is the gold standard of liberal/left-wing progressivism as far as I’m concerned, and the person who came the closest to him, in terms of practical idealism and rhetoric, has got to be Jesse Jackson. Bruce Babbitt, assuming he really was the Democratic Socialist I perceived him to be in the debates and his speech, also deserves a place in this top tier. I need to read more about his actual positions but Jerry Brown I think belongs in this category as well. Bernie too, although I don’t think his plan was quite as well thought out as McGovern or Jackson. Carol Moseley Braun also belongs here.

I’d put Hart, Biden, Dean, Kerrey, O’Malley and possibly Bradley in the mid-tier as center-left candidates. They weren’t reaching for the stars of Basic Income and Single Payer, but they were still ultimately leftist and far more progressive than the people who won the nominations in their respective cycles.

Agran, Gravel and Kucinich aren’t “bottom tier” so much as unclassifiable. I wouldn’t call Agran’s platform to be especially liberal or progressive so much as anti-Reaganism/anti-neocon. This again is why I think someone like him would be a great compromise candidate between both parties some day. Gravel is kinda similar. He wasn’t talking about some grandiose social program either, but he was about reigning in the military and empowering the average people. Not really liberal so much as libertarian—and there’s something to be said for that, definitely. As a left-libertarian, I want to see progress in both directions. Kucinich, I think, in terms of pure ideology was probably the MOST liberal person on this list. But after seeing him at the debates and a speech I don’t think he really had a clear plan. I think he was just shooting for the moon, promising the Earth, but with no real concrete way to make it happen. His heart was in the right place, but I don’t feel comfortable putting him in the same rank as McGovern or Jackson or Bernie.

Then, electability. Who’d have the best shot in a general:

Were it not for his race, and how soon after the Civil Rights movement it was, I think Jackson would have trounced the primary competition in 1984. Even in ’88, he managed to come in second at the primary. I’m not sure he could’ve beaten Reagan in 1984—no one could have—but I think he could’ve beaten Bush, again if race were not a factor. I think Biden too, were it not for that trumped up plagiarism scandal which Dukakis leaked to the press, was probably in the best position to win in 1988. I think Kerrey was just progressive enough yet still restrained to be a great compromise candidate between the progressives (Brown) and Centrists (Clinton) of 1992. Dean, were it not for his funding problems and the character assassination in the media and debates, would have overcome GWB at the general. I have no doubt of that. He had the charisma, the following, and he condemned Bush hardcore where Kerry ran as a “Me too!” center-right joke. Finally, either Bernie or O’Malley would have easily won 2016. So these six make up the top-tier in this category.

Agran, while his ideology would fare great in a general election, would have to get over the hurdle of being only a mayor. I suspect that’s why the media didn’t bother reporting on him (though, that’s still incredibly fucked up on their part–it’s not their place to determine whom we get to see in an election.) In ’92 he could maybe play up the “I’m an outsider” aspect which made Perot so popular—who knows. Brown I can see being framed as too liberal and too fringe. It’s possible he’d win by being an outsider in 1992 when there was a hunger for it too, but I think he’d have had a harder time of it than Clinton. Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich were exciting to a liberal like me because of their far-left ideals. But they’d have faced the charisma problem and in Dennis’ case, the “how are you going to accomplish all this” problem. Maybe they could do it, maybe not. In 2008 against the same McCain/Palin ticket and with the Recession they’d have a pretty decent chance, but it would have been a much closer race. These are the mid-tier candidates.

I don’t think Hart would’ve won in 1984 or 1988. Especially after his scandal in the latter year. He was just never that great of a candidate. He fell into the cracks between the progressives (Jackson, McGovern, Biden, Babbit) and the Centrists (all the others). Had he won the nomination in 1984, it would be him whose name became synonymous with losing in a landslide, as happened to poor old Mondale. In that sense, Mondale’s “wheres the beef?” was probably doing Hart a favor. Babbit and Bradley just were not exciting enough to win out over anyone in a general election. Maybe if they ran against Bob Dole in a particularly boring election cycle, but even then it’d be a needlessly tough race. While I love him, I cant see Gravel doing well against any Republican either. This would be the bottom tier.

Finally, a special category for those that got screwed in one way or the other by the media—especially in the sense that if they were treated fairly, they would’ve done significantly better.

And in that regard, I’d say Hart, Agran, Dean and Bernie got treated the worst. The press stalked Hart, fishing for a scandal, and ruined his whole career. Agran was completely ignored and even barred from most of the debates. Dean was attacked mercilessly by the panelists at least in the Iowa debate I saw and then they kicked him when he was down by over-reporting the Dean Scream which was a complete non-story anyway. That whole sorry incident, whether it killed his campaign or not, had to be the most shameful bit of election coverage in US history. Then Bernie was completely shut out between the Trump over-exposure and “Hillary’s got this in the bag!” stories. The Super-delegates don’t decide until the end but the media included them in the delegate counts, making the race appear much more lopsided than it ever was and creating apathy among likely supporters. They didn’t cover Bernie’s best debate moments, rallies or speeches at all. If it weren’t for the internet no one would have known who he was or what he stood for.


  1. Oh believe me, our political system is broken beyond all logic or reason. Thats why we are in an ongoing constitutional crisis and on the brink of a fascist coup right now. I greatly envy you Europeans.


  2. Once again, your irresistible writing style has drawn me into reading a post I might not have read otherwise. Little by little, I’m getting an understanding of how US politics works (if “works” is the right word). Cassandra, you’ll have me politically enlightened yet. 😉

    Love that Mike Gravel video!


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