Let’s be honest. The Democratic primary debate Tuesday night just isn’t getting the same attention as the GOP’s 15-ring circus. But there’s arguably more at stake: the chance that Hillary Clinton will—by her own hand or another’s—break the back of her inevitability narrative once and for all.
The potential drama of Clinton’s fall is outweighed by how unlikely it seems. This combination of high stakes and low risk is perhaps the central truth of her campaign, her strength and her weakness. She is predictably shady, comfortingly stern, exasperatingly unruffled. We know her too well to be excited.
As a result, CNN’s run-up has the feel of a subpar College GameDay, complete with a tent in the quadrangle—though it lacks the screaming fans in the background and the giant heads are talking, not foam. Like the poor saps promoting a ranking team’s contest against some puny backwater, analysts are desperate to gin up interest in a hopeless mismatch of teams. And tasked with creating suspense despite an outcome that is all but certain, they have adapted the same tactic as sports commentators do: side bets and human-interest stories. (That CNN thinks it’s promoting a football game might explain its decision to stream the event in virtual reality.)
The human-interest story is best typified by this Monday afternoon throwaway line: “Here’s something you didn’t know about Martin O’Malley—he’s fronted a rock band!” Here are some more tidbits for the politically thirsty: Jim Webb was in the Navy and Lincoln Chafee once governed a small state on the Eastern Seaboard you may have once driven through.
More instructive is the creation of side bets—which in this case doesn’t refer to how the Democratic base feels about Joe Biden. And I’m not just talking about the jostling among Webb, Chafee, and O’Malley to make it to 1 percent in the polls.
Rather, CNN—and the rest of the media—is working at supporting the snoozy title fight with a metaphorical undercard offering as much zest as anything featuring Chafee can be. Landing a “Fiorina moment” seems to be the night’s most valuable second prize. (Whether the “full Fiorina” has to include a succession of bald-face lies is, I hope, optional.) Other bets are less about winning than merely scoring points: Who will go negative on Clinton first, and over what? Can Bernie Sanders deliver a sound bite that’s not embedded in a 90-minute speech?
Some sideshows will inevitably erupt. I’d say there’s a less-than-zero chance, for instance, that O’Malley and Webb engage in actual physical combat. We talk about the GOP as the party of the Angry White Man, but it’s hard to get angrier or whiter than the combined tempers and dispositions of O’Malley and Webb. (Indeed, this is the Dems’ whitest field in years.) Webb’s memoir is actually called Born Fighting, and he boxed competitively at the Naval Academy. O’Malley’s pugilism is less literal but more fresh, and he did make the suggestion that by limiting debates the Democratic National Committee was fixing the fight, à la the World Wrestling Federation. Instead, the major differences between the two candidates are substantive! (Since O’Malley is drifting leftward and Webb’s tepid liberalism makes him more of DINO.) Plus, fighting would give O’Malley a chance to take off his shirt, as he is wont to do.
Full disclosure: I’m hopeful that we’ll hear from Chafee on the need to move to the metric system, and I sense there’s potential that gets at least ironic applause. In a just world, Chafee would be the Democratic counterbalance to Trump; not because his positions are diametrically opposed but because his whole persona is the inverse of Trump’s. He has negative charisma, and deploys it at exactly the wrong times.
If you forced me to put actual money down, my safe bets on topics include Uber and heroin, National Security Agency surveillance and the Keystone pipeline. Clinton will make a measured, humorous reference to her perceived stiffness. Sanders will declare at least once that he’s been asked about the wrong thing. O’Malley will look soulfully into the camera and hedge about his record on inner-city crime. Webb will look unsure whether he’s at the right event. After all, aside from being more conservative than everyone on the stage, he seems to hate politics and campaigning more than a candidate should. (This might be the only normal thing about him.)
Here’s what I know won’t happen: No one will give credence to the idea that childhood vaccines are anything other than safe. No one will suggest that marriage is about anything other than love. No one will compare health care to slavery, or the Iran deal to the Holocaust. No one will put the blame for mass shootings on single mothers or abortion or the victims themselves. Talk of foreign policy will not consist of building an enormous fence, then participating in a dick-measuring contest with Vladimir Putin. Climate change will be treated as a real thing, while “Operation Jade Helm” will not. No one will challenge the need for equal pay or criminal justice reform. No one will talk about “fetuses” or “illegals,” or the need to shut the government down.
About the only thing you’ll see repeated from the Republican side? Perhaps an awkward high-five.
The lack of potential surprises Tuesday night isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. Almost no one will watch, and Democrats should be proud. We’ve got a real presidential nomination process, not an America’s Got Politicians shit-show. Especially at a time when the Republican Party seems barely capable of governing itself, the Democrats’ skirmishes over procedure and policy seem awfully grown up.
Just wake me when it’s over.