Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, what last night’s debate tells us about the Democratic field.
Last night was the first Democratic primary debate since Congress opened its official impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump. Did that change anything?
The opening question, a softball about impeachment, allowed every last one of the 12 candidates on the overcrowded stage to tell us what we already know: They are all for it! So the advent of the impeachment inquiry per se didn’t change anything. But once we moved beyond that dull panorama of like-mindedness, this turned out to be a clarifying debate. By that I don’t mean it was an exciting debate, or an inspiring debate, or a debate that would draw in those Americans (most of them) who don’t want to think about 2020 politics before we get to 2020. But the shape of the Democratic field now seems crystal clear. Tuesday night seemed like a death knell for seven of the dozen candidacies on stage, including Joe Biden’s. It’s time for the actual contenders to go at it on a less cluttered field.
Among the seven also-rans, the low-hanging losers are Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Tom Steyer (we hardly knew ye), the billionaire vanity candidate whose main attribute is that at least he is not Howard Schultz. Their time to gain traction in this cycle has come and gone. Obviously O’Rourke and Castro are future prospects, though it may take a while for some Democrats to forgive O’Rourke for his vainglorious decision to run for president rather than to challenge the incumbent John Cornyn in next year’s Texas Senate race.
Cory Booker and Biden, two candidates who’ve always looked highly plausible in theory but repeatedly fail to deliver, are more complicated cases.
Booker is sunny and personable — as unobjectionable as an easy-listening radio host. His upbeat, why-can’t-we-all-get-along shtick is surely sincere, but it’s part of the reason why he’s never risen in the polls: It comes off as empty bombast — cheery bombast, to be sure, but no substitute for substance. In a dark time, voters are not looking for a “politics of joy,” to recall the thesis of Hubert Humphrey’s ill-fated campaign in 1968. And they aren’t looking for rage, a market that has been cornered by Trump in any event. What they are looking for is fight. Booker has yet to show that he has much of that, despite his periodic pumping up of his mellifluous voice to simulate fisticuffs.
In last night’s debate, he also revealed just how hard it is for him to depart from his over-polished prefab scripts. It was somewhat embarrassing when, in an obviously planned bit of grandstanding, he (politely) chastised his rivals for neglecting to talk about how much women’s reproductive rights are under attack — only moments after Kamala Harris had made the exact same point, and stirringly so. Booker’s attempt to concede that she’d upstaged him was awkward (a patronizing “God bless Kamala!”) as was his effort to draw a distinction by congratulating himself on being a man who cares about women’s reproductive rights. (It was just grating enough to recall his mortifying “I am Spartacus” gambit during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.) In another demonstration of his lack of intellectual agility, he glowingly quoted the former Trump defense secretary, Jim Mattis, while making no reference to Mattis’s recently much-discussed cowardice in failing to speak up about the White House horrors that are at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
Biden also lacks that intellectual agility. He didn’t repeat the viral glitches of the previous debates. But that’s a low bar to rise above. Like Booker, he seems incapable of the improvisational moves necessary to take on Trump. He ducked a question about why it was okay for Hunter Biden to trade on his name for cushy foreign paydays, however lawfully, and instead repeated an anodyne soundbite three times (“My son’s statement speaks for itself”). This was a lost opportunity because Biden might have joined other Democrats in denouncing the nepotistic follies of his hypocritical Republican critics, notably Donald Trump Jr., Rand Paul, and Liz Cheney. And he might have passionately lit into the criminal White House conspiracy to strongarm foreign governments to soil him and his son. After all, Trump’s assault on the Bidens is the best argument for his candidacy — it makes the case that Joe Biden is the candidate Trump fears the most. But unaccountably Biden has made only fitful use of this political gift horse in the weeks since the Ukraine scandal became front-page news — even as his campaign’s fundraising has wilted.
There were other examples of his lack of improvisational skills as well. After delivering a meaty tirade against the outrage of Trump’s surrender to Erdogan and Assad, he ducked the question of whether he’d send American troops back into the region. He couldn’t stop himself from repeating more than once his newly favored shtick (intended as a stab at Warren) trumpeting himself as the only candidate who’s gotten anything done. That claim is not only false, but is wielded as a dodge to avoid any treacherous policy question. Worse, it left him open to this memorable riposte from Bernie Sanders: “You got the disastrous war in Iraq done.” Sanders damaged Biden in a less explicit way as well. Post–heart attack, he seemed looser, sharper, and less programmed than he did pre–heart attack. He seems younger than Biden though in fact he’s two years his senior. Who would have ever imagined that Bernie Sanders could be a comeback kid?
Among the others still left standing, Kamala Harris remains an enigma. She’s a sharp and tireless prosecutor (as she never hesitates to remind us), capable of real fire when she’s passionate about the subject at hand. But she’s just as often studied and cautious, and you have to wonder about her political acuity when she marshals her considerable resources to push such a marginal, Bay Area–centric crusade as calling upon Twitter to suspend Trump’s account.
As nearly everyone has noted, the two who did themselves the most good last night were Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who seized the initiative and poked holes in the best-laid Medicare for All plans of front-runner Elizabeth Warren. Their blows, respectful but firm, landed.
For the first time in a debate, Warren occasionally seemed defensive and misspoke. She will not be able to get away indefinitely with stonewalling Buttigieg’s “yes or no question” about whether her health plan mandates tax increases. At another point, she could be found self-righteously claiming that “everyone else on this stage” wants to protect billionaires even though, as Klobuchar pointed out, even the one billionaire onstage, Steyer, had come out against protecting billionaires.
As of now, Warren remains the best candidate the Democrats have, but she hasn’t closed the deal, and there are plausible alternatives. Talking heads at CNN and elsewhere relentlessly promoted last night’s debate as historic because it was the most presidential candidates ever on a debate stage. But only after a ruthless culling will the campaign finally begin in earnest and real history be made.
But what about Michael Bloomberg? He has begun to float the idea of entering the Democratic primary as a centrist option if Biden falters. Would he be a contender?
At 77, he would at last remedy a glaring shortcoming of the septuagenarian Democratic field by filling the age gap between Biden (76) and Sanders (78). And it would be highly gratifying to see a genuinely successful and accomplished New York billionaire go up against the fraud in the White House. He might drive Trump crazy — that is, crazier — and he could be self-financing to an extent.
The downside? Trump’s revenge, make no mistake about it, would be to further stoke anti-Semitism among his alt-right stormtroopers. And should either Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Harris catch fire with Biden’s up-for-grabs constituency, a tardy Bloomberg candidacy would be fighting a two-front war against opponents both in the party’s center and on the left. If he really wants to get in when Biden falters, someone should tell him that that time has arrived.