Thursday, August 1, 2019

BTRTN: Piñata Biden... VP Fights But Fails to Parry Onslaught. The Race is Opening Up.

Yes, Joe Biden was stronger last night than in the first debate, but not enough. With Biden’s second uneven performance, a mediocre showing by Harris, and strong outings by Booker, Warren, Castro, and Mayor Pete, this race is opening, not closing.

You have to say this for the Trumpublican Party: they are aligned. They may have initially sold out to Donald Trump, but now they have completely bought in. They speak as one, albeit largely in divisive, hateful, racist, misogynist, xenophobic tweets. They may have sold their soul to the devil, but there is no seller’s remorse. Trump is the only voice that matters in the Republican Party, trumping and trampling on all others.

Ah, and then we have the Democratic Party, our wondrously broad spectrum capable of embracing all colors, cultures, creeds, and even Marianne Williamson. The Democrats are a big tent, indeed, although it is beginning to resemble one with three rings, replete with jesters, jugglers, high wire balancing acts, and the occasional elephant. It is, at the early stages of the 2020 campaign, a bit of a circus, a party that is unsure of who it really is, dancing between the practical and principle, expedience and idealism, and incrementalism and revolution.

We see the internecine cracks in the battle about to handle impeachment, in the raging debate about how to provide health insurance to all citizens, in the question of how to attack income and wealth inequality, and in how the candidates talk about inherent societal racial bias, historic inequities, and corrective action.

In two consecutive nights in Detroit, the multiple cracks in the Democratic Party became ever more visible, and ever more emotionally charged.

After two debates, we only know this much: Joe Biden is not holding up well under the merciless incoming raining down on the reigning front runner. He was more assertive last night than in the prior debate, but there were too many instances in which he was halting, uncertain, or simply unable to find the words to counter effective charges. Biden was, at best, uneven, and that makes twice in a row. Were this trend to continue, it would be unsustainable.

The good news for Biden? No single, strong, voice has emerged that shows the muscle to screw a rudder on the stern and steer a firm course through choppy seas. Kamala Harris faltered after her strong first debate. Cory Booker finally emerged as a powerful force, which could trigger his ascent into the top tier. 

Elizabeth Warren was roundly celebrated for a strong showing in the Wednesday night debate, but that entire evening placed the issue of radical vs. incremental change in stark relief. As strong as Warren was, she simply emerged as the champion of a radical strategy that may be inherently flawed in a party that simply and only wants a candidate who can beat Donald Trump.

Pete Buttigieg turned in his usual solid performance, and is so well funded that his future in the race is solid. Julian Castro had a another strong performance. Amy Klobuchar seemed tougher and more involved in the second debate, but it is questionable whether she really punched through the din.  Beto O’Rourke continues to fade, unable to break through decisively on any single issue.

In general, the “one percent” candidates seemed stronger and sharper than in the first debate, but the field is simply too big, and it is hard to say that any one of these low-polling candidates made a such a decisive showing that they salvaged their candidacies. Tulsi Gabbard was extremely effective in attacking Kamala Harris, and she could be the one one-percenter who truly elevated her candidacy. John Delaney raised his profile with lots of screen time, as he led the attack on the radicalism of Warren and Sanders, but this made him their punching bag. Steve Bullock made a strong showing in his first debate appearance, but – hard to believe as this may sound with the election a full 15 months away – his late start may have cost him serious consideration. The race may already be too far along for him to catch up.

Tuesday night was Evolution vs. Revolution Night, as the luck of the debate draw put the party’s two most radical change agents front and center, where they took incoming all night from an array of candidates who plastered them with accusations of election toxicity.  Wonkfest 2019 centered on healthcare, income inequality, corporate power and greed, and ineffectual government. To watch this debate in isolation – with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren commanding the center podiums symbolizing polling leadership – you might have concluded that the Democratic Party was on the verge of nominating radical change agents Cheech and Che Guevara, and that all the aging white men on the stage were fanatically committed to stopping the train wreck of McGovern 2.0. 

Both Warren and Sanders were passionate and effective advocates for radical change, but in their very effectiveness they may have finally shown the party how dangerous their candidacies could be in a general election. One by one, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Bullock, and Ryan ripped into their plan to dismantle the private healthcare industry, branding the concept of “taking something away” as radioactive policy that could hand the election to Trump. Moderate viewers had to have been deeply concerned as strong voices in the Democratic Party condemned the political risk of radical revolution.

Wednesday night was different. It was the Old Guard vs. the New Democratic Rainbow of Diversity. It was an evening in which an aging white guy was pushed to the wall by charismatic and eloquent African-Americans, a Latino, an Asian American, and three women.  The topics of oppression, historical inequity and disenfranchisement, inherent societal and government bias smoldered throughout. Joe Biden needed to appear tough and battle ready after his tepid prior debate performance, and most definitely improved from that. But he spent the night on his heels under withering assault from a wide array of smart, informed, persuasive, vibrant candidates. Booker, Harris, Castro, and de Blasio were most aggressive in challenging Biden, and each scored major hits. Biden fought, but at points looked surprised, puzzled, hurt, and dazed by the amount of blunt force trauma coming at him.

In Biden’s defense, many of these attacks were based on statements or positions Biden had taken a half-century before. But precisely because these attacks were about such old news, Biden should have been thoroughly prepared to crisply dispatch each and every one. If Biden was not expecting this level and type of attack, shame on him. It was his own failure to anticipate such criticism and his lack of preparation to deal with it that caused him to appear weak once again. Moreover, Biden’s many of his responses were milquetoast… he would attempt to simply brush them off as positions from long ago, and even attempted at one point to exploit Barack Obama’s selection of him as his VP as a sort of universal exoneration for all prior misdeeds. It was not compelling.

Interestingly, Kamala Harris also seemed pushed off her game by the amount of criticism leveled at her. Such is the price to rising to the top tier: Harris was targeted by others – most acutely by Tulsi Gabbard, who accused Harris of withholding evidence in a death row case. -- and Harris’s facial expressions signaled surprise, disappointment, and even indignation at the allegations being hurled her way. Harris did not dominate as she had in the first debate, but she seemed to recover a bit with a rousing closing statement. Still and all, she had the chance to emerge from this debate as the lead challenger to Biden, and she did not succeed.

While Harris receded, it was Cory Booker’s turn to take a big step forward. The New Jersey Senator was confident, genial, and seemed to be rather enjoying himself. He aggressively took Biden on, and delivered some razor-sharp zingers that actually appeared spontaneous rather than pre-programmed, making them all the more effective. Booker challenged Biden on his role on his role in advocating a series of anti-crime bills that are now seen to have had lasting negative impact on the African-American community. Booker goaded Biden into responding to his challenges, and mocked him openly when he did.

”Mr. Vice President, there's a saying in my community, you're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavor.”

“We have a system right now that's broken. And if you want to compare records -- and, frankly, I'm shocked that you do...”

When Bill de Blasio skewered Biden on the issue of whether the Vice President disagreed with the Obama Administration’s large number of deportations, it was Booker who delivered the line that cleaned Biden’s clock:

 “Mr. Vice President, you can't have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can't do it when it's convenient and then dodge it when it's not.”

But Booker was not the only candidate taking sharp aim at Biden. Julian Castro went hard at Biden during the discussion of immigration policy, at one point issuing a blunt direct insult to the party’s eminence grise

“Yeah, first of all, Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn't.”

Castro once again took a step forward, with his calm, articulate, and plain-spoken manner, and willingness to mix it up to make a point.

On Wednesday night, Warren and Sanders may have won the rhetorician’s prizes for devastating zingers and for their passionate advocacy of revolutionary change, but the truth of it is that both may have absorbed a hit for their extremism. Nobody likes the nerdy, officious John Delaney, but he teed up the issue that dominated much of the debate: that Sanders and Warren’s plan to abolish private health insurance would make the Democratic Party DOA in 2020:

“Folks, we have a choice. We can go down the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us, which is with bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected. That's what happened with McGovern. That's what happened with Mondale. That's what happened with Dukakis.”

In rapid sequence, newcomer Steve Bullock echoed Delaney, and was joined by John Hickenlooper and Tim Ryan, who each condemned the single-payer plan of Sanders and Warren. Warren and Sanders clearly relished their roles as radical change agents, and came to the table with devastating one liners. Warren popped the applause-o-meter when she crisped Delaney as an ineffectual, low-vision wimp:

“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

But the truth was that many mainstream Democrats tuning into the race for the first time may have felt more in Delaney’s camp on the substance of the matter. The simple fact is that most Democrats are looking for the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump, period. The four aging white guys on the stage pounded Sanders and Warren on the point. Once again, Delaney landed a hard punch: “The Democratic Party should not be the party of taking something away from people.” 

Many scored Wednesday as a big night for Elizabeth Warren and as a strong recovery for Bernie Sanders. But the centrists may have succeeded in painting their uncompromising revolutionary positions as radioactive in an election in which the only goal is finding the person who can beat Trump. 

The slugging match on Wednesday night was intense and tough, and the truth is that everyone on the stage brought their A game. Even the celestial Marianne Williamson had her moments. But there was a bit of the circular firing squad in action. Everybody on Wednesday was strong, but everyone was taking incoming as well.

Other than Warren and Sanders, the two candidates who did the best for themselves on Wednesday were debate newcomer Montana Governor Steve Bullock and the eternally poised Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Bullock conveyed a maverick, Big Sky charm, constantly invoking his ability to win in a heavily Trump states as evidence that he is truly plugged into the mindset of the electorate. Mayor Pete manages to avoid being lumped in with anybody, determined to set himself apart in his every answer.

In the end, it was a very lively and spirited four hours of debate, and it seemed to raise more questions than it answered. But the bottom line is simple: Biden did not shut down his many critics in anywhere near the decisive manner needed to preserve his stature as presumptive nominee. Kamala Harris did not build on her momentum, and Cory Booker announced his arrival.

In short, it’s now more open than it was three months ago.

Here’s how we score it:

Clear Winners:


Generally positive, but not a big impact on their overall standing:


Better than expected, but not enough to make a difference in the long run:

de Blasio





On their way out:


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