We have gone through the second round of debates among 20 Democrats running for president. The most recent sessions might be described as the elimination round of a game show.
It is hard to get an assessment of any candidate when they are talking, in a two-plus hour period, for just nine or ten minutes – with nine other people are also trying to make an impression on the voting public. It is not a great way to sort things out, but there aren’t a lot of appropriate alternatives.
What comes next will be different. The criteria for making the September debates require a somewhat higher (but still pretty low) standing in several polls plus at least 130,000 unique donors spread out among a number of states. If Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson make the next round then the DNC needs to find a way to get them off the stage. The other names will be predictable: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg. There might be two or three more.
As the debates occur and national and battleground states polling is published, I believe that there is an interesting situation developing in this primary. Call it the Biden base.
We all know, of course, about the Trump base. It is an interesting phenomenon. It represents 35 to 40 percent of the electorate that is okay with Donald Trump if he shoots someone on 5th Avenue. It is okay with those folks that he is a racist and a misogynist. It is okay with those folks that the Trump tax cuts were mostly for rich people and that the tariff war that he started is hurting many American businesses while raising costs for consumers. It is okay that his important appointees often come with shady backgrounds. It is okay with those folks that Trump follows Vladimir Putin more faithfully than he follows the United States Constitution he is sworn to uphold.
That base, in the view of many, is prepared to accept pretty much anything because Trump is a “disrupter” who gives voice to their views, regardless of what he says or does.
The Democratic primary for president is slowly coming into focus, and the frontrunner thus far, former Vice President Joe Biden, has a big target painted on his back. He’s too old. He is too laid back. He has a long legislative history with some questionable votes on criminal justice. He took a stand on school busing in the 1970’s. He did not give Anita Hill a fair hearing in the Clarence Thomas confirmation sessions. He is not a progressive like some of the other candidates.
And yet, to paraphrase Moscow Mitch McConnell at a Senate session when Elizabeth Warren was giving him a hard time during the confirmation debate about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “nonetheless he persisted.” Biden persists.
His performance (which is what the debates really are so far) last week was much more aggressive than the first debate in June. The other candidates attacked his legislative history. But Biden persisted. A national poll after the debates showed Biden maintaining a comfortable lead over the rest of the field. (Such polls are often cited in political punditry, but at this point in the campaign they are still relatively unimportant, particularly on a national scale. Nonetheless they are one measure of where things stand at a particular moment).
The attacks on Biden have frequently been paired with negative comments about President Obama’s administration. Why some Democratic candidates on the presidential debate stage find it useful to attack the Obama presidency is hard to fathom, and in the long run it is likely to backfire. A recent poll showed 97 percent support of Obama among Democrats.
Those same progressive Democratic presidential candidates are also pretty much following the strategy of attacking international trade deals. “America First” might be their slogan.
Attacking Obama and pushing isolationist policies is straight out of the Trump play book. What was that about using “Republican talking points,” Senator Warren?
Bernie Sanders‘strident performances are not selling too well, and it is easy to see why. In 2016 Bernie, for the most part, was the only opponent for Hillary Clinton. In 2019 he has several opponents with views similar to his.
Pretty much no one expected Bernie to win in 2016, so the media never really got too deep into his record or proposals. Most of us did not realize or were not prepared to admit how much baggage Clinton brought with her, so any Clinton opponent was going to attract lots of votes. We should have known better.
Sanders’ pie-in-the-sky policy proposals have forced many of the 2020 candidates to go along, whether the issue is Medicare for all, or free college tuition, or looser borders. Those are not winning strategies.
Warren and Sanders at their debate berated their fellow candidates for not chasing big ideas. Warren said “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” Senator Sanders added, “I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas.” The Washington Post editorial writers had an answer for those comments: “Why go to the trouble of running for president to promote ideas that can’t work?”
Bernie’s implementation plan is to be the pied piper for a “revolution” of millions of young people. Gene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, circa 1968. Warren’s plan is to go after the big banks and corporations. Last time I checked, however, laws get passed by two houses of Congress with the cooperation and acceptance and leadership of the president, so how a revolution or an attack on big business will get things done is hard to understand.
It is still too early to see how this will all play out, but the bottom line that may be developing is that warts and all, many Democrats see Joe Biden as having the best chance of defeating Trump – even after the debates.
Biden aside, the majority of Democrats are prepared to set aside personal policy preferences, or to accept the baggage that all candidates carry, because Democrats more than anything want Trump out of the White House. A lot of things can be overlooked, at least until November 2020.
So welcome to the Biden base. Accepting and focused, and prepared to go along with things that in a normal political atmosphere might not fly. In the words of football legend Al Davis, “just win, baby!”
The questions are, will that base grow? Is it big enough to win the Democratic primary and a general election? Stay tuned for the next exciting episodes.