the national circus

What’s Wrong With the Democratic Primary? Everything.

Tom Steyer, Senator Cory Booker, and Senator Kamala Harris at the Ohio Democratic debate on October 15, 2019. Photo: Allison Farrand/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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’s at stake in tonight’s Democratic debate, the vote to start the Senate impeachment trial, and the Trump administration’s crumbling explanation for its strike killing Qasem Soleimani.

After failing to qualify for tonight’s Democratic debate in Des Moines, Cory Booker has dropped out of the race. Who has the most at stake onstage tonight?

It’s the Democratic Party that has the most at stake onstage tonight — as at every primary debate — and it’s not looking good. The process has been a debacle. Politico said this morning that tonight’s may be the “most momentous” debate yet. But have any of the others been momentous? Back at the first Democratic debate in June, 18.1 million viewers tuned in. By the last debate, in December, that number had fallen by nearly two-thirds, to a new low of 6.2 million viewers. Americans are voting with their clickers.

I have not been an admirer of Booker’s easy-listening campaign, but it says everything you need to know about the DNC’s debate criteria that he did not make it into this debate and that Tom Steyer did. So now Booker, a United States senator and former Newark mayor of actual substance and proven political chops, is out of the race altogether, and Steyer, a poseur with zero achievements and no known adherents, hobbles on, thanks to heavy self-spending on campaign ads that boosted his name recognition in two states’ polls. It’s a joke, and the public knows it.

Another joke is the focus on the caucuses in Iowa, a 91 percent white state that, like the white and unrepresentative New Hampshire primary, is another glitch in the system by which the Democrats choose a national ticket. Democrats are fond of complaining about the preposterously undemocratic math of the Electoral College and the United States Senate, where solid red states with tiny populations can hold wildly disproportionate sway in comparison to densely populated blue states like New York and California. And yet despite quadrennial efforts, the party’s leaders have been ineffectual at cleaning up their own primary process, which, despite sporadic reforms, still hands over disproportionate clout to small early-voting states that look like neither America nor the party’s own base. What’s really impressive this time around is that, thanks to the failed debate process, the Democrats have driven most candidates of color out of their initially diverse presidential field even before the white electorates of Iowa and New Hampshire (or any other voters, for that matter) could weigh in. That takes work.

Whatever happens onstage tonight is unlikely to shake up anything, no matter how much Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren bicker over what he did or didn’t say in 2018 about the electability of women. The man with the most to lose is Joe Biden, still at least the nominal front-runner, who has seized on the Iran crisis to tout his bona fides in foreign policy. Fact-checkers at the Washington Post and elsewhere have called him out for falsely claiming that he was an early opponent of the Iraq War. (He has since said he “misspoke.”) Biden would be well-advised to remember that Trump, too, made false boasts about his own (imaginary) early opposition to the war – hardly the example he wants to follow. Biden would also be advised to look back at the Hillary Clinton campaign to see how much damage a 2002 Senate vote to authorize that war can inflict and give serious thought to how he might try to make amends for his misjudgment rather than just try to spin it.

But the most important indicator of the essential irrelevance of tonight’s debate is provided by those who aren’t onstage — not just Booker, but Mike Bloomberg, who also didn’t qualify under the party’s rules. As John Ellis wrote in the Post this week, Bloomberg has the will and wealth not just to outspend all his Democratic opponents combined but to outspend Trump by 5 to 1. There is no evidence as of now to suggest he can win the nomination (though certainly he has more of a shot than Steyer), but perhaps the most heartening thing said by any Democratic candidate so far this month was what Bloomberg told Lisa Lerer of the Times during a campaign stop in Texas. As she put it, he “did not rule out spending a billion dollars of his own money on the 2020 presidential race, even if he does not win the Democratic nomination, and said he would mobilize his well-financed political operation to help Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren win in November if either is the party nominee, despite their sharp policy differences.” At a time when some of his peers among Democratic elites and some anti-Trump Republicans are threatening to take a pass rather than support a Warren or Sanders ticket — a sure formula for reelecting Trump and, by extension, aiding and abetting Vladimir Putin — Bloomberg sounds like an adult and a patriot.

Nancy Pelosi is likely sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate in the coming days, with the trial to commence next week. What should Democrats aim for if a conviction is out of the question?

The best they can and should hope for is to dramatize and expose Mitch McConnell’s efforts to squelch evidence and testimony in a way that embarrasses Republicans facing tough reelection campaigns in purplish states, starting with Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, a fount of hypocrisy whose every effusion of bogus piety should be video fodder for attack ads by her Democratic opponent. It remains a blight on her state that she holds a seat once held by Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican who was among the first in her party to put her country first and take on Joe McCarthy at the height of his reign of terror.

Even if the defection of four GOP senators forces McConnell to allow witnesses, John Bolton included, it will not affect the overwhelming odds for acquittal. But one positive outcome may yet be Trump’s own rampaging behavior, which seems to ramp up every day since the impeachment process began, reaching some new apogee (if that were possible) with his tweeting of a doctored image showing Chuck Schumer in a turban and Nancy Pelosi in a hijab. No one in America gets into his head and drives him battier than Pelosi, and one can only hope she, in league with the House’s impeachment managers, will keep finding ingenious ways to goad him as the trial proceeds. One can picture Trump wrecking some of McConnell’s best-laid plans to keep a decorous lid on the trial by whatever tweets he is hurling day and night from the toilet. Not to the point of changing the outcome certainly, but perhaps to the point of further endangering his own reelection campaign, not to mention Republican prospects in the Senate and House.

With Defense Secretary Mark Esper saying he saw no evidence of four “imminent” embassy attacks and reports that Trump had brought up killing Qasem Soleimani as long ago as 2017, the administration’s legal justification for its drone strike on Soleimani continues to unravel. Will it matter?

Trump has literally settled that question, tweeting yesterday that the justification for killing Soleimani “doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past.” The notion that he would ever give a truthful answer is fanciful in any case. A president who lies about everything, even the weather, is certainly going to lie about this. His declaration that “four” embassies were in imminent jeopardy has all the credibility of Joe McCarthy’s supposed head counts of Commies in the State Department back in that day.

What is somewhat more shocking is that at this late date recent White House appointees like Esper and the latest national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, would follow Mike Pompeo’s lead and throw away their own reputations for Trump. Esper may have said he saw no intelligence report backing up Trump’s embassy claim, but he also gave Trump cover by saying the claim “probably” was true and that he had the “expectation” it was true. O’Brien did the same, claiming that “what the president said is consistent with what we’ve been saying.” As I wrote in my recent piece on Trump’s toadies, these Vichy Republicans will face an accounting with time, and if Esper and O’Brien are no longer around when judgment is passed, their children and grandchildren will not be spared.

Frank Rich: What’s Wrong With the Democratic Primary