Handicapping the Democratic Field After the First Debates

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A few quick thoughts about the Democratic presidential field now that the first debates have been concluded.

First, Joe Biden made sadly clear on Thursday night that were he not the former vice president, he’d not be taken seriously as a candidate. I’m well aware that many within the Democratic establishment have viewed him as the surest bet to beat Trump. After Thursday, a lot of them will be trying to figure out who is that surest bet now.

Second, two candidates emerged over the two nights as “naturals”—at home on the political stage, able to speak compellingly on a wide range of issues. They are Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Harris’s performance established her as the Democrat most likely to make mincemeat of Trump on the debate stage. She challenged Biden on his remarks about James Eastland and his record on busing in a forceful, precise, and not too aggressive way, clearly seeking to bring down his numbers among African American Democrats. She and Booker excelled at conveying both emotion and thoughtfulness while speaking directly to the audience in ways that none of the other candidates approached, save Warren in her closing statement.

Third, Pete Buttigieg was compelling in another way—a way that perhaps Adlai Stevenson once conveyed, for which he was derided for appealing chiefly to “eggheads.” I came away convinced that during his service in Afghanistan, he must have been the most articulate soldier in the field. He might well make an excellent president; he’d certainly be the best coach for doctoral students preparing for their orals.

Fourth, Biden’s faltering clarifies the strategy underlying Amy Klobuchar’s campaign. Of all the other serious candidates (Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, Buttigieg), Klobuchar is the one clearly seeking to pick up the mantle of the “let’s-not-dream-too-big ‘realists,’” in opposition to Sanders and Warren, should Biden’s similarly-themed candidacy fall flat. Her rejection of much of the party’s move leftward—its words and music both—is probably too clear for her to become a top tier candidate, but Biden’s weakness may drive some establishment Democrats in her direction.

Fifth, Sanders and Warren set the predicates for this year’s contest. It’s their proposals that the other candidates are asked about, which is to say the Democratic left is driving the entire party in its direction, though some candidates, and non-candidates, are coming kicking and screaming, and most not all the way. Sanders and Warren could, of course, cancel each other out as the primaries unfold, splitting the progressive vote while a more centrist candidate wins more votes than either (though probably not more votes than both combined).

Sixth, Warren probably can reach out to more voters beyond the party’s left than Sanders. Assuming Biden continues to falter, she and Harris look to me to be the candidates most likely to win the most Democratic support.

But, keep in mind, these are impressions as of June. A lot can change before any votes are cast, and, trust me, I’ve been woefully wrong before.

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