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)

Warren vs. Sanders in Their Dispute over Electability

In case you didn’t catch it, the highlight of the latest Democratic presidential debate was definitely the she said / he said dispute between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders over whether Sanders told Warren in 2018 that a female candidate couldn’t win The White House in 2020. Warren insists Sanders said as much; Sanders denies the claim. On stage this week, there was first the topic being raised by one of the debate’s CNN moderators and then the refusal of Warren to shake Sanders’ hand afterwards. Assuming it wasn’t just some “big misunderstanding,” who might be “lying” about their account of what occurred in that 2018 conversation?

For my money, if forced to bet I’d say Warren was the more honest politician and here’s why. Go to the video to see the moments I’m referencing.

During the debate, when the topic gets raised (at second 0:14) not only do Sanders’ eyes flash wide open – as they so often do. Likewise, his eyebrows rise. All told, it’s a display of surprise and fear and yet Sanders couldn’t have been surprised that the topic came up, leaving fear as the likeliest explanation. Then again, at the 1:37 minute mark Sanders gulps and his mouth pulls slightly wide in another display of fear as he tries to extricate himself by citing Hillary Clinton’s vote total in 2016 as proof that he wouldn’t never say something as foolish as dismissing a female candidate’s chances.

011720-01 Warren & Sanders

What is Warren’s response during all of this? The corner of her mouth dips downward in a sign of sadness (disappointment) on hearing Sanders say: “Well, as a matter of fact I didn’t say it” (second 0:15). And her eyes and head are often downcast (second 0:39 and elsewhere), hardly an indication of somebody looking to leverage the moment. Finally, Warren shows a smirk – signaling distrust and disrespect – in response to Sanders’ words (1:09).

011720-02 Warren & Sanders

Most telling of all, the hot mics after the debate reveal Warren saying “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Warren is indignant; Sanders is left mouth agape.  “What?” he says, indicative of Sanders’ propensity to be a better bellower than listener. As always, there’s context to consider here. Back in 2016, female staffers on Sanders’ campaign complained of everything from a culture of sexual harassment to pay disparity as problems Sanders never addressed. If either candidate would seem less truly progressive in this particular exchange, the burden of proof is on Sanders’ side of the ledger.  He’s mostly just mad-mad-mad, a typical guy response. Warren isn’t so emotionally monochromatic. Her sad-to-have-to-become-angry mode is emotionally more diverse, on a topic where diversity is, indeed, the underlying, core issue.

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.

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.

080119-01 Cory Booker

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.

080119-02 Kamala Harris.jpg

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.

080119-03 Sanders & Warren.jpg

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.