Biden Sinks Beneath the Waves in Iowa

In 2008, I knew Hillary Clinton had lost to both Barrack Obama and John Edwards the morning of the Iowa caucuses. I was in a motel room breakfast nook watching Clinton being interviewed on national TV and her smile kept retreating moment by moment during the interview, like an elevator descending floor by floor. Despite trying to put a “brave face” on things, the super-disciplined candidate couldn’t hide the truth about to emerge and that her staff was probably already warning her about.

Dance ahead to 2020, and it was the same thing last night. As I write this piece, the final results from Iowa haven’t yet been announced. But the outline is clear: Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders are all bunched toward the top, with the second tier amounting to a food fight for 4th-place “bragging rights” between Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar.

020420-01 Jackie Biden Fear Smile

In short, for Biden – whose candidacy is based on his electability argument – it was a disaster. On stage, ever the pro he tried to smile big but it was the fearful, grimacing and despondent looks of his loyal wife, Jill, that told the real story. “We feel good about where we are,” said Biden. Yeah, right. “We are punching above our weight,” said Klobuchar. She might end up landing the V.P. slot on a ticket headed by Buttigieg or Mike Bloomberg, but she’s not yet (or ever) in the heavyweight class of boxers. A woman has to be on the ticket for the Democrats to win, I and others believe. In what slot, first or second, president or vice president, will a female appear? And who will get the nod (Warren, Klobuchar, or . . . somebody not named Jill and better at feigning a smile)?

020420-02 Jackie Biden Fear (2)

Klobuchar Rising: The 5th Democratic Debate of 2020 Race

112219-01 Amy Klobuchar

Six of these ten candidates are guaranteed to still be on stage come December’s debate, and of them Amy Klobuchar has done the best job of surviving near political death. If not for her “pipe dream” take on Elizabeth Warren’s medicare-for-all plan last time around, Klobuchar likely wouldn’t be securing a second look from voters. Now the Minnesota Senator’s shaky debate nerves are subsiding, a little, making her curmudgeonly disgust expressions her next big emotional hurdle.

Like Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg had a far better night verbally than he did in terms of his non-verbal, facial expressions. Expecting to be attacked as a newly-minted frontrunner in Iowa, mayor Pete looked downright pensive most of the evening. That all changed, however, when Tulsi Gabbard made her ill-advised attack on Buttigieg. Then viewers saw Buttigieg’s mouth purse tight in anger, a tell-tale bulge forming below his lower lip. Mayor Pete has already dispatched one youthful rival, Beto O’Rourke; now he’s done it again with Gabbard. Anybody who thinks the guy from Indiana lacks the toughness to potentially go all the way isn’t paying enough attention.

112219-02 Andrew Yang

What else was visually of note from last night’s debate? Hard to forget the image of a clueless Joe Biden, standing with his mouth open after he forgot that there’s been a second black female Senator: Kamala Harris standing nearby, incredulous, and feigning amusement at being overlooked! Andrew Yang proved he could smile. Tom Steyer again did his best imitation of The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Eating more salads agrees with Bernie Sanders. Finally, paradoxically the evening had more left-wing Elizabeth Warren still comfortably occupying center-stage while centralist Cory Booker stood marooned on the stage’s far left side.

 

P.S. After yesterday’s testimony from Gordon Sondland failed to create any Republican impeachment converts in Congress, I had to think again of Upton Sinclair’s comment: “It’s hard for a man to understand something when his job depends on his not understanding it.”

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.