About Last Night: Fifty Shades of Fearful Beige in Democratic Debate
Pressure does odd things to folks.
Immediately following the conclusion of the CNN/Des Moines Register debate, the usual post-festivities handshake time was focused on Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. CNN’s camera focused on the two senators after that network had highlighted coverage for most of the day on a “She Said, He Said” about a meeting the two had prior to the campaign, and a painfully dumb question by the moderator on the subject. But the takeaway of that moment was not Senator Warren refusing the outstretched hand of Bernie Sanders, but how she got over to him. In the blessedly cut down debate stage scrum of bodies, Elizabeth Warren put her hand on Joe Biden’s shoulder to slide past him and get to Bernie.
Sometime around the last week of March when all the talking heads and think pieces are going on and on about “How did Joe Biden go wire-to-wire to wrap up the nomination despite all the hard work we did to convince people this was a horse race,” remember that image.
The Bernie vs Warren hype train CNN had been trying to set up — and the ham-handed stupid questioning where Bernie denied saying it and the moderator immediately asked Warren how it made her feel when he said it — didn’t materialize on stage because the candidates refused to participate in it. Good for them in the case of this tempest in an AT&T/WarnerMedia Teapot. But the math problem of two candidates who need the other to not be there remains, needing the combination of supporters to make any real challenge to Joe Biden.
Which has been the theme after 7 of these debates, which feel like much more since there were several that were double features: No one has done anything to dent the clear front runner from the moment he entered the race, Joe Biden. In ten months, Ol’ Joe’s polling roughly where he has most of the time, with variations on the theme of who is surging, falling off, challenging, and otherwise working out second through fifth place. Those like Kamala Harris and Julian Castro who did go after Biden, ineffectively, are no longer in the race. In this latest debate, no one challenged Joe Biden vigorously on anything. The peer pressure from the base to not tear into each other won out in this debate season.
And that is a huge problem.
Cory Booker was not on the stage to do his “We are doing Donald Trump’s work for him by disagreeing” routine, as the Senator from New Jersey had returned to his day job on Monday after bowing out of the race, but folks on the stage sure acted like it’s a mandate and not a trope. The infantilization of this primary process has been stunning to watch, where no one seems to want to do the dirty work of actually bringing down a candidate in front of an audience that has booed and hissed at even the slightest of intramural vetting.
In what should be a discussion of what bright blue shade the Democratic Party is going to go with as its standard against President Trump this summer, this debate was 50 shades of beige, with everyone agreeing on just about everything and even the normally abrasive Bernie Sanders taking a deep long breath, pausing, and then offering a milquetoast “Joe and I have a fundamental disagreement” in very gently disagreeing with the soon-to-be Democratic nominee.
“That’s a Republican talking point,” some object to hard questioning.
“We are doing Donald Trump’s work for him by fighting amongst ourselves!!” others pearl-clutch.
“Anyone on this stage will be better than Donald Trump!” others will offer to applause.
If your stated goal is to take out a sitting president with a good economy and what will be a monster turnout number, this is a recipe for disaster.
Team Red, combined with the president’s campaign and the legion MAGA friendly affiliates, is going to drop a quarter of a billion dollars in negative advertising on whoever the nominee is. Joe Biden test-drove his new line of “My only surviving son…” last night both on stage and also in the now-standard social media simulcast of debate lines, which his Democratic side have, wisely, steered far clear of but which Trump, Inc will have no such quarbles about. Sanders, like Biden with decades and decades of public service and records, likewise has had little vetting and almost no pushback on most of his record and policy claims. Elizabeth Warren can talk about “beating an incumbent Republican” but for anyone not named Martha Coakley, winning as a Democrat in Massachusetts is the electoral equivalent of running to first base: You are supposed to be able to do that, not make that the lead item on your resume. Pete Buttigieg has been solid, but also after ten months is starting to look like he only has one speed and no change-up, something that speaks to his relative inexperience. After showing well last outing, Amy Klobuchar felt like she was pressing too hard, and talking too much. Tom Steyer bought his way onto the stage to say nothing memorable at all.
The problem with all the “Anybody is better than Trump…” talk is the underlying assumption that just putting a name with a D beside it on the ballot is going to win. Such subconscious thinking that defeating President Trump is a foregone conclusion by many in the Democratic Party is manifesting itself in this primary. This debate had all the feel of a field of candidates scared to death of making a mistake, terrified of losing their current position if they went after each other, and just wanting to get off the stage without a major gaffe and get back to campaigning not under the TV lights. An already weak field is feeling the pressure, and is not handling it very well, playing it safe when to really break out and lead they should be leaning into the gravity of the moment and commanding the attention of voters.
That didn’t happen last night. It hasn’t happened in any debate yet. It is questionable if winning Iowa will even help that. Sandwiched between the Super Bowl and the State of the Union, and with impeachment set to dominate all the news for the next few weeks Iowa just doesn’t matter that much. There is no Barack Obama in this race who is going to vault to the front, and we will be in uncharted territory of an impeachment trial during a Democratic primary. The assumption that all will be forgiven and the various factions of the Democratic Party will kiss and make up to unite behind the nominee will be tested. It’s one thing to say you will, but for some of our progressive friends who feel like this is their moment, it might be an entirely different thing to actually wake up in March. The inevitability of a Joe Biden candidacy, and his wandering through E and F to get from A to B in his answers on a debate stage against a fully unbridled, smarting-from-impeachment and looking for revenge Donald J. Trump. Resentment that it’s not “your” candidate who is now your candidate creates a different kind of pressure.
What can be drawn from a debate that featured mostly agreement on the overall goals and disagreement on the implementation methods depends on the viewer. The neutrals and rightward leaning folks probably found it mind-numbingly boring. The hardcore politicos and media will dissect it like sportscasters breaking down the Super Bowl, as politics has become to the well-credentialed the spectator sport of choice like football dominates the hoi polloi. For Democratic voters, who are all that really matter in a Democratic primary, they got more of the same. Which means nothing will change much after this debate. It makes kind of a nice bookend to the primary debate season before the first votes are cast in Iowa. All that pressure has bent the arc of this story right back to where we started. Joe Biden in the front, with others thinking, wishing, and hoping it wasn’t so, but no one in the Democratic field actually doing anything about it. He probably won’t win Iowa — after all Bernie tied/won the Hawkeye Cauci in 2016 depending on which numbers you use — maybe New Hampshire nor Nevada either. But everything after that, barring something cataclysmic, will be Joe finishing this off in time for Spring Break.
When that happens, and folks are writing their post-mortems on this campaign season dissecting how we got to this conclusion and some start to retcon the middle part where they thought it would end differently, remember what got us here, right back where we started. People looked at Biden, flaws and all, and despite flirtations elsewhere kept coming back to him. Maybe they are just as scared as the candidates in Iowa were last night, more terrified of messing up the choice than anything else. I’m as surprised as anyone. Surprised like Senator Warren last night, brushing past Joe Biden to get to her focus, Bernie Sanders, folks just kind of letting Joe go through by default, or split attention, or a dozen other reasons.
Pressure does odd things to folks, including holding something like the favorite in place despite all forces against it.
Funny how that works.