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:

101619-01 Pete Buttigieg

  • 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.”

101619-02 Amy Klobuchar

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.

091319-01 Pete Buttigieg

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.

091319-02 Andrew Yang

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.

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.

062819-01 Biden Sanders Harris Combo

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.

062819-02 Biden Harris Combo

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.