Who, they ask, is best able to unify and excite the Democratic Party?
Bernie Sanders has developed a terrible habit of pivoting every possible question on every possible topic into one of his shrieking shrink-wrapped scripted sound-bytes. Some pivots are elegant and some are clumsy, but all serve the essential function of reinforcing his own base without saying anything new enough to attract voters away from other candidates. It is possible that the worst possible situation is developing for the progressive wing of the party: it is becoming equally divided between Sanders and Warren, with neither able to pull convincingly ahead of the other. With neither decisively grasping the upper hand, the progressive wing is itself weakened by division.
Oh, yes, Joe Biden was on the stage, too. Here’s the good news: no gaffes. Not one. Also good news: there was little of the “madcap Joe” of prior debates, the Biden who frequently launched punctuation-challenged sentence fragments that morphed from topic to topic in mid-flight, all plummeting to earth as just so much sound and fury signifying nothing.
Here’s the bad news: no one was paying much attention to Biden. Not even the moderators. When you are a former Vice President of the United States who is the leading candidate in all the national polls, and your competitors appear to be focusing all their energy on damaging the 37 year-old major of a small midwestern city, you have to wonder about the power of your candidacy. Sooner or later, Joe has to win a debate, and it did not happen again last night. Yet again on the debate stage, Joe Biden looked like he was seeking the nomination of the Low-T Party.
To slightly amend the earlier statement: Amy Klobuchar turned in the strongest performance among the truly viable candidates. The unflappable Andrew Yang was superb in this debate, and he remains on the stage even as supposedly stronger candidates like Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, and Castro have disappeared. Yang is consistently able to articulate underlying causes for societal problems that make his unconventional solutions appear creative and plausible. But time is running out for him to bust his way into the top tier candidates, and once the primary voting starts, there will be no room for also-rans.
Similarly, Tom Steyer turned in a strong debate performance. He is articulate, informed, and as passionate as a six-foot billionaire WASPy white guy gets. But time is ticking for him, too. By February, the billionaire lane will only have enough room for one guy, and it sure seems like it’s gonna belong to Mike Bloomberg.
The disappointment of the night, however, was the missed opportunity.
Someone, at some point, right in the midst of the intense rancor could have turned to the camera and said this:
“My fellow Americans, I was just singled out for attack by my colleague on the stage tonight, and I have a well-rehearsed snappy retort that everyone expects me to fire back. But I think that after the week we just saw in Washington, you are tired of listening to politicians ripping into each other, questioning each other’s motives, principles, and integrity. After this week, I don’t think you are interested in seeing whether we are capable of tearing our opponents apart. I think you want to know who is capable of bringing us together.”
Last night Amy won that dimension of this debate that was simply a petty internecine battle, and it will certainly help her campaign.
But no one saw the forest for the trees. No one saw the opportunity in the moment to seize the mantle of unifier.
In that regard, it was an opportunity squandered. In that regard, everyone lost.
Here's our scorecard:
Better than expected:
Mixed: Took some hits, scored some hits, but net negative for the night:
Needed to accomplish more than they actually did:
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