The Democratic Party featured a total of 20 candidates onstage for more than five hours on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and when all was said and done, one couldn’t help wondering, “Is there anyone else out there?”
No one, save perhaps Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, won much of anything in Detroit — and that’s not terribly good news for the party. Other leading candidates line up better against President Donald Trump in many head-to-head polls.
Former Vice President Joe Biden did better Wednesday than in the first round on June 27 and should remain front-runner, but one senses that time has caught up with him. His every sentence felt like a walk through a minefield of potential gaffes — because it was.
Sen. Bernie Sanders had a solid performance on Tuesday, but he seems to have nowhere to grow. The old Democratic-socialist warhorse simply isn’t needed when there’s a Warren in the field. She’s younger, smarter and sharper on a debate stage, plus she’s a woman, which checks an important box for Democrats. But the Vermont senator is unlikely to step aside, thus preventing Warren from capturing the full progressive vote and achieving clear front-runner status.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, who vaulted into the public imagination after her dust-up in Miami with Biden over busing, has faded in the polls and put in a lackluster performance in Detroit. She’s smart and capable, but not charismatic, and candidates need that extra zing in a crowded field like this. She also hasn’t been consistent in her positions, and she got caught at it before establishing a true national identity.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg turned in another good performance on Tuesday, but he didn’t leave the public with a clear take-away. That’s unfortunate for a supremely talented young leader who should easily remain among the top five contenders. His challenge is his youth and his supposed weakness with African Americans.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had another strong performance on Wednesday, and one has to think his appeal to Democrats will soon make itself apparent in the polls. It didn’t after the Miami debates, but I expect Booker to ascend sooner rather than later, and I’d keep my eye on him as a genuine contender down the stretch. Julian Castro of Texas, who also did well in Miami, fell flat in Detroit. He has a lane as the only Latino candidate in the race, but he seems reluctant to exploit it. He needs to if he’s going to stick around.
The so-called moderates in the field — Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan — sounded the most reasonable to these conservative ears, but the sum of their debate accomplishments on whether to ban private health care in America will likely be video fodder for GOP attack ads against the Democratic Party’s left wing.
I’m ignoring all else in the field because I don’t think they’re contenders. That includes, of course, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has an unfortunate propensity for overusing the word “I,” and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who almost certainly didn’t do what he needed to hit the 2 percent polling threshold to make the next debate. Gillibrand may squeak in with her guttural quip about Clorox-ing the Oval Office as her first order of business as president, but that’s nothing to be proud of (unless you’re the adviser who came up with the line). And New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang . . . Gotta love the guy. It’s fun to see someone so enthusiastic and out of the box. Now there’s a guy to have a beer with.
As of now, my ranking of candidates with a legitimate shot at winning the Democratic nomination is, in order, Biden, Warren, Booker, Buttigieg and Harris. I’m counting out Sanders and pulling up the ladder on all others — though one never knows; an Amy Klobuchar or Julian Castro could come climbing up the cliff in the autumn debates.
Democrats have major problems going into 2020. The party is divided, and its ascendant wing, personified in Warren, may be unelectable.
The real winner of this week’s debates might be the incumbent president.
William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.