That was the most boring presidential debate I can ever remember. People I was following on Twitter were groaning all night.
Oh, maybe there were worse ones, I don’t know. But as I think back over the years, there was always one really interesting human being on the stage, a Jesse Jackson (first major African-American candidate, and could always turn an unexpected phrase) or a Bill Clinton (that weird, cagey charisma). OK, 2000 was a little bit of a black hole, but there were only two candidates. Howard Dean (fun to watch). Barack Obama (Barack Obama).*
You might like their politics or not, but everybody I named above had the ability, sometimes, to transcend politics. What do I mean? I mean they could occasionally find the words to reveal not just a political truth, but a human truth. They could make you stop what you were doing and watch.
That isn’t the case with these candidates. Elizabeth Warren comes closest. She has done that in her career, although she didn’t do it tonight. Everybody and their brother knew she’d get the health-care tax question, and she just hid behind the same rhetorical wall as before: “For hard-working middle-class families, costs will go down.”
Bernie Sanders had a surprisingly good night. He wasn’t screaming like the last time. Everybody is going to be shocked because “my God, and after that heart attack!,” but the fact is, he got two stents put in, and if you’ve ever known anyone who had stents put in, you know that stents make a person feel better more or less immediately. He says the same stuff he always says. But still, he was on his game.
Everybody loves to rag on Joe Biden, but he was better than before, too. Somebody told him: Talk more slowly, try to finish your sentences. And more often than not, he did. Still, he can’t really knock it home. On the Hunter stuff, most of his answer was good, especially the part about how Trump wants dirt on him because Trump knows “I will beat him like a drum” (he delivered the line with force). But “I’m proud of the judgment he made,” in reference to Hunter’s decision to go to work for Burisma? Ouch!
But folks: None of them are top-drawer presidential candidates. I don’t say that with pleasure. Quite the opposite. I say it with regret. But they aren’t. If we could patch them together: Warren’s passion, Biden’s experience, Pete Buttigieg’s cornfield humility… That would make a great candidate. But of course we can’t. They are who they are. Since it’s baseball time: Is there a .300 hitter in the lineup? There are a couple .285s. That’s about as high as it gets.
And so I watch these Democratic debates and all I can think about is, Trump’s going to win. Not that he’s a great debater. He’s horrible. And who knows. By then, we may know so much about White House criminality that the Democrat could stand up there on a debate stage and read the phone book and everything would be fine. (Are there still phone books, by the way? Would be a pity to see that metaphor die, it’s a good one.)
So it’s not that Trump is so superior to these Democrats. And, as I’ve noted before, the odds are good he won’t even agree to debates. So this whole debate-obsessive nonsense might be irrelevant.
But my point isn’t limited to possible debates. It’s about building an enthusiastic coalition that’s 1 percent bigger than Trump’s, distributed across the right electoral votes. All of them have shortcomings here. Biden can’t get young voters. Black voters haven’t come around yet to Warren in sufficient numbers. Sanders isn’t likely to be the nominee, but if he is, too many rank-and-file Democrats won’t work for him. As for the others, if they haven’t lit a match by now, they’re not going to.
And Trump will have a billion dollars. More. And that’s not even counting the outside groups.
So what I take away from a night like tonight is that this is going to be a different kind of election. It’s often said that Democrats want to fall in love. That was true for a lot of people about Clinton in 1992, and it was obviously true about Obama. There’s not going to be a love candidate this time. There’s just going to be someone who, we hope, can push it over the finish line.
*Writing after midnight, I had mentioned Ted Kennedy (“all that history here”) who indeed shook up the Democratic primary but never actually, you know, debated. Thank you to Eric Kingbury for catching my mistake there).