Stump the Trump: Week 1 of the Impeachment Hearings

One of Donald Trump’s many (flimsy) defenses is that he “hardly knows” the people working for him, and now testifying in front of Congress. So stumping the Chump-in-Chief is easy. Surely, you can do better at linking these photos to the names, roles, and signature facial expressions of seven major players from week 1 of the public U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment hearings.

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A concerned William Taylor, charge d’affaires in Ukraine

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A bemused George Kent, senior State Department official in Ukraine

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A saddened Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine

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A terse, on-guard Adam Schiff, Democrat, head of the House Intelligence Committee

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A boiling mad Devin Nunes, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee

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A happy-to-fight Jim Jordan, recently added to the Committee’s Republican ranks

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An “I’m so shocked” Elise Stefanik, Republican who tried to use Nunes’ allotted time

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Bonus round: who’s the man to the right in this photo?

  1.  Roy Cohn, back from the dead
  2.  Richard Nixon’s dieting younger brother
  3.  Republican lawyer Stephen Castor

Syrian Collusion: Trump, Erdoğan & Putin

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Having recklessly given Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey the green light to invade Syria, how did Donald Trump fudge his decision? He wrote the Turkish leader a letter that began “Let’s work out a good deal!” and ended by telling Erdoğan: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”  What glorious sophistication from our president, a man who told his biographer, Michael D’Antonio: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.”  To which I say, amen.

Yesterday, Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin met to put their seal on Syria and there’s more to come. Russia is going to build Turkey a nuclear reactor for supposedly civilian purposes, as if the nuclear-weapons the U.S. has at its airbase in nominally NATO-allied Turkey isn’t already enough of a risk. As the stakes go up, what kind of man is Erdoğan? Will he answer Trump’s appeal to “get this done the right and humane way” or be the “devil” Trump’s letter also warned him not to be?

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The verdict is already known, by actions large and small: those already being enacted on the ground in Syria and in the characteristic facial expressions of Erdoğan. In doing the analysis that went into my book, Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style, a clear emotional algorithm emerged. However explicit their “strongman” rule, those inclined more to dictatorship than democracy lacked happiness and were, instead, inclined to displays of anger and disgust. While Trump’s too sad to exemplify the model entirely, Putin comes close, and Erdoğan fits the model perfectly. If you’re one of those Kurds Trump faulted for not fighting alongside us on D-Day in France, don’t lose sleep trying to divine Erdoğan’s nature. The answer is written all over his face.

TwoCheers FrontCover (Blog Resize)

 

 

Two Cheers for Democracy, available now from Amazon.com.

“Why Do All Roads Lead to Putin?”

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Speaking of events in Syria, this is the question Nancy Pelosi is asking. What’s immediately noticeable here? She’s the only woman at the table, daring to stand and point her finger directly at Donald Trump in questioning his loyalty and seeking an explanation. Her upper lip is raised in disgust and anger and her right (visible) eyebrow is likewise raised, in concern (even fear). As for Trump, he’s mostly angry: his eyebrows are lowered, he’s squinting hard, and his upper lip is likewise raised. The House Speaker and the President are captured on camera holding each other in mutual disdain.

Pity the general seated next to Trump. But he’s not only sad (head lowered, eyes closed), he’s also the angriest person in the room. All of this partisan bickering has left him with tightly pursed lips.

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About the only even close to serene person in the photo is Benjamin Franklin, given his bust perched along the back wall. A savvy diplomat, Franklin could be honestly described in the way Trump’s press secretary tried to spin the meeting afterwards. Despite having called Pelosi a “third-grade politician” and former defense secretary Jim Mattis the “world’s most overrated general,” our President supposedly remained “measured, factual and decisive.” Are you kidding me? When has Trump ever been emotionally measured, or factual either? The time is long past due for a new MAGA hat with this slogan: “Make Lying Wrong Again.”

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Biden Snoozes, Warren Loses (Her Grip a Little): The October Debate

Heart-attack and all, Bernie Sanders survived an at times tedious, at other times raucous three-hour debate by showing both gratitude for others’ concerns for his health and a shark smile: shiny white teeth, and a grimacing smile. Bernie still burns, but I continue to believe his monolithic, angry Old Testament prophet routine won’t get him to The White House.

How about some of the other candidates last night? Here’s who rose to prominence:

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  • Pete Buttigieg probably “won” the debate. He turned to face whomever he was challenging on stage, showed no fear, and was a passionately (mostly angry, sometimes disgusted) left-of-center moderate. Positioning himself as a millennial, outside the Beltway figure, Buttieg also had the blessing of being at the center of the stage with three candidates all over 70 years of age. “I don’t need lessons on courage from you” was his snarly response to Beto O’Rourke in an exchange on confiscating military-assault-style guns (or not). The man with suddenly sharp elbows, Buttigieg has tons of cash on-hand and stands to gain from Joe Biden’s fade.
  • Speaking of Biden, heaven help a guy who can’t help himself. His verbal stumbles caused him to wince as well as often close his eyes: is that the mode of an older man who portrays himself as “wise”? His son, Hunter, did him no favors either in an ABC interview that aired before the debate. Why, at one point Hunter even covered his face with his hands in trying to explain away his credentials for pulling down $50,000 a month for a nothing-role with a Ukraine energy company. Like father, like son, the lack of articulation was significant.
  • Elizabeth Warren is now the front-runner and so was under frequent attack on stage last night. All along I’ve been arguing that she needs to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s book and be an upbeat, energetic reformer with enough gusto to show she loves America. O’Rourke’s attack on her as “punitive” and her inability to thank Biden for helping to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows that Warren needs to vary her slightly less heated version of Sander’s monolithic anger. More displays of happiness would help greatly. Attacked, she responded at times with a mouth that hung open in surprise as evidenced by her response to O’Rourke: “So, um, I’m really shocked at the notion that anybody thinks I’m punitive.”

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Of all the candidates at risk of not qualifying for the November debate, Amy Klobuchar fought like the one person determined to struggle to live for another day. The other three candidates on the far left or right of the stage averaged eight minutes of speaking time; she got in over 13 minutes. That said, Klobuchar was again full of fear, her voice quaking, her entire upper body quivering at times, and her face grim with a mixture of a mouth pulled wide in fear, lips pressed tight in anger, and disgust flaring her upper lip. Nonetheless, she made her points in favor of moderation (“at least Bernie’s being honest” about the cost of Medicare-for-all, she said to Warren at one point).

Nobody else mattered last night.

Among all the losers was a chance to make the debates better. How about a shorter format? How about letting the candidates each ask a question of another candidate, giving viewers a break from hearing the moderators grind through the same issues yet again? Finally, how about a question or two on Africa? The biggest trend of the past 40 years was the rise of China. The biggest trend of the next 40 years will be the rise of Africa, through the sheer weight of a swelling population if nothing else. America’s leaders have misjudged China’s trajectory badly. Will they do likewise when it comes to Africa’s future?

70-Year-Olds to the Rescue: The Third 2020 Democratic Debate

So another debate is in the books, and I’m not sure we’re a whole lot wiser for the three-hour marathon ABC News put us through as viewers. The good news is that at least it wasn’t as long as the seven-hour town hall on climate change that CNN hosted recently, a length more suitable to one of those 1920’s dancehall marathons than a town hall meeting highlighted by the presence of presidential candidates. Speaking of an earlier era, Joe Biden managed to slip in a reference to record-players but at least didn’t admit to showing up for the debate in his horse-and-buggy. Biden was definitely more caffeinated this time around, but I still get the sense that his campaign’s unofficial slogan is, “I won’t blow anything up.”

Who “won” the debate? Elizabeth Warren can always come across as measured and moderate so long as a bellowing Bernie Sanders occupies the stage. This time, Warren offered more details about her life and continues to look assured, informed, and utterly committed to reform. She’s about the only candidate on stage never subject to a bout of stage fright. Also doing well last night was Cory Booker, whose animated emoting—everything from big, genuine, generous smiles to indignation, surprise and more—makes him the candidate you might pay to watch as a stand-up comedian.

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The other candidates ranged from okay to odd. Pete Buttigieg increasingly strikes me as Radar O’Reilly from MASH: always prepared, but simply not the star of the show. Kamala Harris has descended into displays of “spontaneous” joy to overset her scowling. Amy Klobuchar continues to come across as a nervous wreck. Somebody should give the moderate Minnesotan a tranquilizer before she hits the stage next time. At the far other end of the stage, Julian Castro looked ready to play Biden’s assassin: full of menacing, haughty glances at the front-runner. The also-rans are many. Everybody on stage appeared to like Beto O’Rourke, but nobody is likely to pick him as their VP. O’Rourke still comes across as a meek version of Robert F. Kennedy: youth and conviction, but no bare knuckles.

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The night’s big loser might have been Andrew Yang. His give-away proposal during the opening statements was downright weird, eliciting tittering laughter from his colleagues on stage.  But that was just the start of his failure to capture the moment last night.

When Yang was asked why he was the best candidate to step up to the role of being Commander in Chief, he might have pivoted to the fact that as an entrepreneur he could argue that, ultimately, the state of the nation’s economy is what enables paying our large defense department budgets. Without money, nobody’s safe from China, Russia or losing the American dream. All in all, in the end, it was the three septuagenarians—Biden, Warren and Sanders—occupying center stage and promising to deliver us from Trump, a 70-year-old-plus leader himself. Of them, Warren seems the most in command of the details; Sanders the best at shouting, ever more hoarsely: “The house is on fire.” Meanwhile, Biden smiles and Trump continues to burn everything he touches.

Jeffrey Epstein: A Smirker Forever Outside the Law

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I take no pleasure in speaking ill of the dead. But I simultaneously admit that as Jeffrey Epstein’s life has come to an end, and revelations are emerging, it’s hard not to be shocked and disgusted by what all he had a hand in. The guy was a smirker, as given to contempt as another Wall Street type: Bernie Madoff. The sex scandal of preying on under-age girls is horrific. So much so that learning that Epstein got his first big financial windfall emptying the coffers of two Illinois insurance firms is merely icing on a really terrible-tasting cake. Family values: Epstein didn’t have them.  Contempt can signal supreme confidence to the point of arrogance, as well as feeling one is above others and in this case the law. All of those most likely interpretations of Epstein’s signature emotion fit him extremely well.

Booker Finds His Mojo, and Warren Isn’t as Scorching as Sanders

Heading into this week’s two nights of Democratic presidential debates, the big picture looked like this. Based on national polls, fundraising efforts, and media coverage, the Democratic field consisted of five actually viable campaigns (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg), and a bunch of mere candidacies. Among the rest of the contenders, O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar were generally considered to be the Minor Three candidates with the best chance of hitching a ride with the Big Five, real candidates. How everyone performed on stage—non-verbally, emotionally—over the last two nights has scrambled that picture.

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The Winners: Nobody benefited more than Cory Booker. Passionate, full of looks of happiness, surprise, indignation, and occasional sadness, Booker really brought it to Wednesday night’s debate. The odds are he’s now found his mojo. Nobody was more animated or emotionally versatile than Booker. The other two biggest winners were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from Tuesday night’s debate. But by comparison, Sanders was utterly emotionally monolithic: anger, combined with more anger and just a touch of disgust. If somebody did a remark of the 1976 satirical movie Network, surely the casting director would have to look no further in deciding who to cast as the raving anchorman Howard Beale: the man on TV screaming to millions “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Alongside Sanders, Warren was also repetitively angry, but not as intensely so. She projected courage and conviction, too, but not as if she would rather burn down The White House than move into it.

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The Losers: Occasionally stumbling for his words, and at other moments standing with his head bowed and lips firmly, even grimly, pressed together, Joseph Biden came across as more like a bobber at the end of a fishing line than our next President. Biden rode the waves, but not much more. For Kamala Harris, Wednesday night proved to be a minor disaster. The empathetic sadness she wove into her take-down of Biden in the previous round of debates turned into glum determination this time around. Maybe she didn’t expect to be pummeled by the likes of Tulsi Gabbard and Michael Bennet. But Harris looked like a woozy boxer at times, somebody taking it on the chin. Among the Minor Three candidates, Beta O’Rourke talked way too fast to emote much, failing to make a strong impression. In contrast, Amy Klobuchar made a definite impression: scared. As with the first round of debates, nobody exuded anxiety more than Klobuchar did; she appeared to be the mirror inverse of Warren’s pluck.

Everybody Else: Gabbard was close to phenomenal: unlike most of the 20 candidates on stage, she didn’t rush her words or fail to convey confidence and conviction. If there’s any justice in the world, she deserves to turn the Minor Three into the Major Minor Two: her and Booker. As to Pete Buttigieg, standing next to Sanders he tried to amp up his anger but got lost in the force field of Sanders’ greater, more radioactive anger. Julian Castro? Adept, but did you notice his tendency to arch his head back in a look of condescension not far off from Kirsten Gillibrand’s smirking. Marianne Williamson? She had a higher gear, emotionally and otherwise; she’ll be (likely) missed in round three. Andrew Yang’s flat affect undermined him, but not as badly as Bennet’s weak voice and tepid emoting, Jay Inslee’s ugly mouth grimaces, or John Delaney doing his best, wide-eyed and falsely smiling impression of what a prairie gopher or chipmunk might look like if running for President.

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This week’s pair of debates provided a study in contrasts. On Tuesday, Sanders and Warren were ironically in the center of the stage, physically and emotionally, dominating the debate and making the “far left” seem downright central. Try as they might, verbally shooting at them from the wings, the party’s moderates lost out. Wednesday night’s debate was totally different. At center stage was the party’s main moderate, Biden, alongside center-left Harris. In this case, the center did not hold (up) well. Two other more or less moderate candidates, Booker and Gabbard, stole Wednesday evening and deserve to live to see another night on stage.

Amazing Runs: American Female Athletes Light up Wimbledon & the World Cup

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This was Cori “Coco” Gauff’s reaction on defeating an idol of hers, Venus Williams, in the first round of Wimbledon on July 1st. This was the moment in time when Gauff became the youngest woman to win at Wimbledon since 1991, and the youngest ever to qualify for that storied tennis tournament. And yet, and yet . . . what’s her emotional response to victory? Utter sadness: her inner eyebrows are raised; her eyes dim and the skin around them baggy; and the corners of mouth drawn down. A sense of rejection, hopelessness, pain, disappointment, isolation? None of the usual triggers for sadness make any sense. Welcome to “tears of joy,” minus for the moment any sign of joy. The crowd was roaring its approval, and would be all the way until the end –which came yesterday, when Gauff’s Cinderella run finally ended in the tournament’s 4th round with a loss to former world #1 player Simona Halep. Meanwhile, in France the American women’s soccer team was busy proving yet again its dynastic excellence. During play, there were plenty of riveting moments. But it was the celebrations of goal-scoring that drew attention, too. Here is striker Alex Morgan after scoring the winning goal against England in the semi-finals. Her “tea-sipping” moment went viral. At first, Morgan said: “My celebration was actually more about ‘that’s the tea,’ which is telling a story, you know, spreading news.” But after criticism that the tea-sipping was a mocking gesture, Morgan responded by citing a double standard in soccer given that men celebrate by “grabbing their sacks.” So . . . what was Morgan’s expression telling us? Was she showing contempt? Are charges of mockery fair? Well, there’s no smirk evident in this photo—but plenty of anger. The eyes are narrowed and the lips firmly pressed together (no tea is going to pass those lips!). And where might the anger come from? Try out the pending arbitration seeking equal pay for a U.S. women’s soccer team that shouldn’t be paid as much as the men’s far less successful squad. No, indeed—because if a “performance bonus” would be considered fair play, then these women should earn many multiples of greater compensation than their male counterparts in this case!

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1st Debates, 2nd Night: Sanders Roars, Harris Implores, Biden Falters

Smashmouth politics is Bernie Sanders’ rhetorical specialty. Nobody is going to out-anger him among the Democratic contenders in the 2020 race. But as pundits assign “lanes” to the candidates based on who can or might “own” the middle or the left wing of the party, and the African-American or Hispanic or women’s vote, they leave out another set of criteria: emotions. Last night, Kamala Harris took a “lane” rarely used on presidential debate stages—namely, sadness—and used it to devastating effect. It’s unlikely Joe Biden’s bid to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in his own right can survive.

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With a frequent wince in her cheeks and her upper lip pulled simultaneously upward and slightly sideways, Harris demonstrated for all to see the pain of racial strife. In remembering in personal terms how slowly the integration of school districts came following the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court ruling, Harris led with just enough sadness combined with indignation (anger) to leave Biden like a boxer stunned into submission. With eyebrows knitted together and a mouth hanging slightly ajar, Biden couldn’t plausibly take the “lane” he preferred: happiness. To smile and, in effect, wave off such a transcendent matter as racial justice in favor of the “comfort” of local rule is no longer even a remotely viable position for a Democratic presidential candidate to take.

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American Apartheid is how the authors Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton titled their book about de facto segregation north and south in America. Harris took that subject matter and put it into the context of her own life as a young girl weathering scorn. On a night when Pete Buttigieg mostly performed well on stage but was chastised by two rivals for failing to better integrate South Bend’s police force, W. E. B. Du Bois won again. “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line,” he intoned long ago and Donald Trump has ensured that Du Bois’s prophetic statement rings loudly well into the 21st century, too.

Sanders could and did scowl. Marianne Williamson could and did urge overcoming Trump’s rage and hatred with embracing love. Kirsten Gillibrand could smile and smirk (often simultaneously). Eric Swalwell could remind Biden that the former vice president had long ago suggested the need to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders.  None of it mattered in comparison to Harris using sadness like none other than Jimmy Carter did in 1976 against Gerald Ford. Demonstrating empathy and compassion, Carter was discussing, at varying times, both racial inequality and the void felt by families of soldiers missing in action in Viet Nam when he winced on stage decades ago. A sense of loss carried Carter forward. It’s a long ways from last night’s debate stage to The White House. But now Harris is decidedly, plausibly, on that path, and the odds are Biden no longer is.

1st Debates, First Night: 2020 Democratic Contenders

Usually, going forward I’m going to favor short, quick-to-read blog posts. But, hey, we’re talking about who could be the next leader of the so-called Free World. So I’m going to go in-depth here. Still, for those of you with no time in your day, the skinny is that Cory Booker won (non-verbally, emotionally) last night and Julian Castro did second best, while Elizabeth Warren more than held her own. Pretty good performances came from Bill de Blasio and Tulsi Gabbard. In contrast, Beto O’Rourke stumbled badly, Amy Klobuchar did really only so-so, and as for the rest: well, if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all (or so my mother says).

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The policy positions I’m leaving to the supposed “fake news” journalists and the usual campaign pundits to pontificate about. Here I’m more interested in what the candidates revealed on their faces, in their body language, and in their voices–over and above what they said on stage in last night’s first televised debate in the 2020 race for The White House. After all, personalities and personas stay with us as viewers often far more than complicated talking points meant to be on-message. Being on-emotion matters as much or more, quite frankly, when it comes to winning elections. (As a side note, I also can’t resist making a few comparisons in my critique, at times, with what the cattle-call of pundits on CNN said last night after the debate.)

So . . . here we go:

  • Before a single word was said, there was the first-impression visual for TV viewers to take in. The candidates’ relative heights were immediately striking. At 6’5”, NYC’s mayor Bill de Blasio looked to be the tallest candidate on stage and either Julian Castro or Amy Klobuchar the shortest. A trivial detail? Malcolm Gladwell didn’t think so in noting in Blink how much taller than average CEO’s tend to be. In my newly released book, Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style, I devote the entire middle section of that book to an analysis of all 14 televised debate cycles from 1960 through 2016. In two-thirds of those cases, the taller candidate won. So in that respect, Elizabeth Warren was unlucky. She stood on stage last night, all 5’8” of her, sandwiched between 6’4” Cory Booker and 6’2” Beto O’Rourke.

 

  • The white guys were almost entirely relegated to the margins of the stage! Holy cow, the four candidates with the worst positions on stage given their polling numbers were de Blasio, John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and Jay Inslee. Only O’Rourke had a prime-time spot. Did the pundits on CNN say anything about this fact? NO, and how incredible given the demographics that suggest the Democratic party is increasingly NOT the party of (aging) white males. To skip over this fact was really an incredible oversight. For me, it called to mind how during a late 1980’s NBA finals series between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers there was the sight, for a few minutes in one of the games, of an all-white Celtics team facing an all-black Lakers team on the court. That’s a visual I predict will never, ever happen again in a NBA finals, and yet the NBA announcers that night didn’t dare acknowledge that tell-tale racial detail any more than the CNN pundits did, either.

 

  • Now as to the debate itself, last night was almost the equivalent of the 2nd tier, “kiddy” debate between the weaker-polling Republicans during their first multi-candidate debates in 2016. In other words, Warren was the only currently “major” contender on stage by chance. Nipping at her heels for the evening was three lower, 1st tier Democratic contenders: O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar. How did Warren do? Did she maintain her recent momentum from the campaign trail and in the national polls? Yes and no is the answer. Every reply she gave was strong, and no candidate did more to command the stage in terms of body language than Warren. She leaned into her podium on occasion, and her hands and fingers frequently jabbed the air in a sign of urgency and defiance. The senator from Massachusetts vowed to fight the powers that be, and she showed enough consistent anger to make that vow hugely credible. At the same time, however, Warren missed two opportunities. First, as only one CNN pundit picked up on, Warren was invisible for stretches of this debate. Rather than interrupt any of her colleagues, Warren didn’t force her way into the conversation; and given that air time can signal importance, her at times relative invisibility at the center of the stage felt weird. Second, Warren was all earnest anger. A little humor might have gone a long way to differentiate her from the super-angry, entirely socialist Bernie Sanders we’ll be seeing on stage tonight.

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  • Booker had a superb evening. Going into this debate, the news media was suggesting that the New Jersey senator was too nice, too soft. Last night, Booker was instead super-charged. His eyes were as usual bulging wide with alarm. But this time, Booker’s usual accompanying smile was typically replaced by knitted eyebrows, upward chin thrusts and pursed lips. In other words, anger, disgust and, at times, eyes closed in sadness signaled Booker’s indignation and regret regarding the state of affairs in America. He was in short all-in, utterly committed. Whether the reason might have been favoritism from the NBC moderators or because they went with the hot hand, Booker ended up absorbing a lot of the air time that might have gone to Warren instead.

 

  • Castro was the evening’s other winner, but non-verbally to a lesser extent than the panel of CNN pundits would have us believe. Yes, Castro resurrected a campaign otherwise probably on life-support. In particular, he manhandled O’Rourke on the issue of immigration. Normally, the happiest of the Democratic candidates—Joe Biden aside—Castro came on the scene last night full of piss and vinegar. His eyebrows arched with doubtful surprise at what O’Rourke was saying, and sarcastic smiles and thin-lipped smiles replaced his usual buoyant, huge, all-is-pure- sunshine expressions. This version of Castro showed up to fight, not glad-hand his way forward. In a battle between the two youthful candidates from Texas—the state with the country’s second largest total of electoral college delegates—Castro prevailed in seizing the mantle of being the Democrats version of Mr. Texas. Where Castro wasn’t as effective, however, was when he wasn’t talking. Listening to the moderators’ questions, he looked too calm, too detached, too cerebral. And in listening to nearly all of his colleagues, Castro looked vaguely disdainful and haughty. A smirk often played around the corners of his mouth, creating the impression of a condescending sour puss.

 

  • Did the evening have a clear loser? It certainly did. It’s early in the race, but for my money I’d say O’Rourke is probably finished as a major contender. It wasn’t just Castro who interrupted him and made O’Rourke look weak. De Blasio did likewise. That fate didn’t befall any other candidate twice last night; the closest next instance was Tim Ryan getting taken apart by Tulsi Gabbard. A friend of mine came home from fighting in Viet Nam, knowing two things: he was now against the war, and Eugene McCarthy wasn’t his candidate in 1968 because McCarthy wasn’t tough enough to take on the carnage and the powers that be. That friend ended up running Robert Kennedy’s campaign in northern California, leading to the primary victory there that preceded Kennedy’s tragic murder that same night. A youthful, jaunty, good-looking O’Rourke has been credited with being the potential second-coming of RFK. But to echo Lloyd Bentsen’s put-down of Dan Quayle, O’Rourke’s no Bobby Kennedy. Plenty earnest and kindly in nature, O’Rourke also came across as timid and perhaps even a little lost on stage at times as he faltered in articulating his candidacy.

 

  • Klobuchar was perhaps the evening’s biggest enigma. She’s barely hanging on in the bottom part of the top-tier candidates and yet has plenty of potential upside. As a female Midwestern moderate, she has everything to gain if Biden falters. And if Biden should hold onto his lead and Klobuchar acquits herself well during the primary voting, she could at least end up in the Vice Presidential slot on the Democratic ticket come the general election. Now don’t get me wrong. Klobuchar had her moments on stage last night. She fought through her natural tendency to be somewhat dour and antiseptic by managing some big, welcoming warm smiles. She got off one of the evening’s better lines, equating Donald Trump’s follow-through on the issues with a drink that’s “all foam, no beer.” But she also looked nervous, flashing micro-expressions of fear (her mouth pulling slightly wide at times). In other moments, her voice sounded like a mixture of being both nervous (about the fate of her own candidacy) and plaintively concerned (about the fate of her fellow citizens). In short, the senator from my home state didn’t come across as quite ready for prime time. That’s despite a strong closing statement in which she made her case for being the most electable candidate in the Democratic field.

 

  • How about the other candidates crowding the stage last night? Gabbard had her moments, too, and looked more assured than Klobuchar (except in defending her flip-flop on LGBT rights). When Ryan mistakenly referred to the Taliban being responsible for 9/11, Gabbard was able to leverage her military experience by pointing out that of course it was Al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, that was responsible for flying the planes into the Twin Towers. A slightly smiling, poised, alert Gabbard came through the evening well. Asserting himself from the far left side of the stage—both literally and metaphorically speaking—de Blasio was more of a presence last night than his anemic polling numbers would support. Eager to have the Democrats go on the offense against Trump, de Blasio snarled his way through many an answer. The problem is, he snarled. Another tall white male New Yorker, namely, Trump, does likewise and a mouth contorted by an upper lip raised in disgust isn’t exactly the cheeriest of expressions. In a New-York type moment, albeit repeated again and again, de Blasio joined former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in suggesting that disgust and ruling the (rotten) Big Apple go hand-in-hand.

 

  • As to the other white men on the fringe of the stage, heaven help Ryan, Delaney, and Inslee. With their grim smiles and eyes bulging like Popeye’s biceps after eating a can of spinach, Ryan and Delaney could have been mistaken for being a pair of emotional Frankensteins. Inslee’s problems were of a different nature. More so than any other candidate on stage last night except O’Rourke, the governor of Washington state suffered from meekness. For starters, his voice sounded terribly weak, like a mouse in a gorilla suit. That quality was, in turn, reinforced by the governor’s tendency to have his inner eyebrows rise together in a sign of surprise, fear, and sadness. To put it mildly, Inslee projected an image of being a sad sack more so than a guy who could use his signature issue of global warming to become the savior of the planet.

 

The CNN pundits took the first half hour after the debate to basically call the evening a win for Castro, Booker, and Warren, a slight victory for de Blasio; and a less than stellar evening for the likes of O’Rourke, Klobuchar, and Ryan. Put Booker first and add Gabbard to those who did well, and I could largely agree with that collective assessment. Along with never acknowledging, however, that the white guys were almost all relegated to the margins of the stage, what the CNN pundits also left unsaid was this: yes, there were five white guys on stage last night, three white female candidates, a Hispanic candidate, and an African-American candidate. Diversity was alive and well in the Democratic party based on who was present on stage. Nevertheless, who exactly lost the debate? In four of five instances (de Blasio aside), the answer consists of the white guys—O’Rourke in particular. Only Klobuchar came close to O’Rourke in likewise failing to adequately seize the opportunity of being before a national television audience for the first time.

Put another way, given last night’s debate results Biden has just been handed a chance to present himself as the one mainstream white guy able to hold his own on stage, and carry the election. Will Biden be up to the challenge or fold? Given his previous runs for The White House, I’d give him a 75% chance of having his wings clipped (a little or a lot), and a 50/50, coin toss probability of collapsing as badly as Jeb Bush did in 2016. The word on the ground in Iowa is that Biden’s support is broad and yet also lukewarm, vulnerable to reversal. I for one can’t wait to watch tonight’s debate! How hard will Sanders (the lion) roar, and for how long can Biden just keep grinning some more?