The Second Democratic Debates

Last night, I evaluated the Democratic candidates participating in the presidential debate less on the basis of their positions than on their demeanor and how they behaved. Relative to the previous night, this was a more ill-assorted group of presidential hopefuls.  Many of them showed an unappealing side.  I was particularly struck with the unbecoming way some of the aspirants chose to behave toward the putative front-runner Joe Biden.

Biden, despite his lead in the polls, is unlikely to become the party nominee.  He has served his country and his party tirelessly.  He was a marvelous vice president for eight years, he has a good heart, he identifies with others, and in the past he has been a riveting and incisive stump speaker.  Sadly, though, the old Joe Biden is no longer much in evidence; he is no longer at the top of his form, no longer brimming with humor and confidence.

Though many Democrats admire and trust Biden more than they do the other candidates, I think that he will net many fewer votes than expected when primary voters actually go to the polls.  In my view, the decline of Biden’s presidential prospects is inevitable, though presently some 30 percent of likely Democratic voters are telling pollsters that Joe would have their vote if the election were held today.

If I am right, there is no predicting who will end up at the top of the field, for, as Joe’s lead is redistributed, one or more contenders now at the bottom of the heap could rise to challenge the second and third most popular candidates, who happen to be the progressive standard-bearers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden’s eventual inconsequence supplied a lens through which I assessed the behavior of the trailing wannabes.  Which of the other candidates looked presidential, remaining calm and far-sighted, and which yielded to the temptation to go after Joe Biden?  I was appalled to see several of the more junior figures on the stage tearing into a seasoned veteran instead of respecting his service and what the Democratic Party during his era managed to accomplish.  The behavior of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and (surprisingly) even squeaky-clean Kirsten Gillibrand toward Biden came off as desperate and mean.  I loved how Biden pointed out to Gillibrand that “you thought I was fine until you wanted to be president.”  The words “Et tu, Brute?” came to mind as I reflected on this ugly scene.  It’s sad that, in their eagerness to cast themselves as in the vanguard of change, these candidates have opted to trash their own party and denigrate one of their own most popular leaders.  It shows an inauspicious lack of prudence and restraint.

Though Gillibrand otherwise had some good moments, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang owned the night, standing out as bright, positive, and self-disciplined.  Yang stayed focused on his big-picture agenda and refrained from back-biting.  Gabbard proved herself an able contender who could gain traction.  She scored off of Kamala Harris, reeling off several accusations against Harris’s conduct as California’s state’s attorney without losing her cool or seeming to have an axe to grind.  Gabbard also came across as a sincere defender of the environment, peace, and national sovereignty.  Though I dismissed her chances back when she announced her candidacy, I now view her as a sleeper candidate, whose prospects could brighten as those of her more irascible and immoderate rivals dim.

Julian Castro‘s advocacy of open borders makes him unelectable, while Bill de Blasio came across as a snob whose inaction with respect to the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City police dooms him to fail.  I appreciated Michael Bennet‘s conduct and ideas but his lack of charisma makes me doubt whether he can make much headway this time around.  Jay Inslee presented himself as a single-issue candidate with an opening statement focused solely on climate change.

Image: from this source.
In 1848, supporters of the popular Whig senator, Henry Clay, were outraged
when their party passed him over to make General Zachary Taylor their presidential nominee.
The cartoon shows a crowd of prominent Whigs conspiring to stab Clay in the back,
as he reads the Tribune in his drawing room.