Joe Biden is never going to wow you in one of these Democratic debates. He doesn’t have to.
Tuesday night’s debate—the last one before the Iowa caucuses—was no exception.
Ask yourself this: Do you really think anything happened that would change the mind of an undecided voter? Yeah, me neither. What that means is that the race is likely frozen until the Iowa caucuses in 20 days. Joe Biden went into the debate as the frontrunner. Bernie Sanders went into the debate as his main rival. Nothing happened to change that.
I’m a bit amazed that nobody took this opportunity to try to change that dynamic. Perhaps it’s because going after Biden (remember Kamala Harris) has proven to be a fool’s errand. Perhaps because coming in second can count in the Iowa caucuses. Or perhaps it’s because some of the candidates are really vying to be his running mate. But Biden has been leading this whole year, and this was the last chance to go after him before voters start having their say, and nobody made a move. Nobody took any shots. It seems like political malpractice.
That’s not to say it was a pointless debate. They relitigated the Iraq war, pretty much everyone (with the exception of Sanders) endorsed Trump’s USMCA trade deal, and they (once again) engaged in a debate over how to pay for Medicare for All. These are all legitimate topics.
But Biden did what he has done all year long, which is to barely survive the debate. He barely survives every debate, and then he barely survives himself into first place.
For whatever reason, we grade him on a curve. People like Joe Biden. People know Joe Biden. And there’s a good argument that he is the most electable person on the stage.
To his credit, Biden did finish strong. Toward the end of the night, he delivered what was probably his most compelling answer, when he responded to a question regarding whether he’s prepared to handle Donald Trump in a debate. “I've been the object of his affection now more than anybody else on the stage,” Biden said. “I've taken all the hits he can deliver, and I'm getting better in the polls…. and I have overwhelming support from the African-American community, overwhelming. More than everybody else in this operation, number one. Number two, working-class people where I come from in Pennsylvania and Delaware, I have great support.” (OK, it’s a bit disjointed, and went on, but he hit all the right substantive points.)
Biden’s closing remarks were also good. He essentially delivered the same closing statement that he opened his campaign with, arguing that America needs a “return to normalcy,” and that it is time to restore honor and dignity to the White House.
He might be headed there, but it won’t be pretty. Biden is slouching toward Pennsylvania Avenue.
In an era where charisma matters and where we elect rock stars, it may sound absurd for me to say this, but after tonight, I’m starting to think there’s a chance that Joe Biden might just run away with this race.
Conventional wisdom for a long time now has suggested this would be a drawn-out affair. We have generally assumed that Biden could survive by losing Iowa and New Hampshire, so long as it wasn’t by a blowout. He would then bounce back on the strength of his African-American support in states like South Carolina. But it could be a slog. There has even been talk (as there always is) of some sort of brokered convention.
If Biden wins either Iowa or New Hampshire and finishes top three in the other, it might be all over but the shouting. That would be serious momentum for the frontrunner in every national poll since the day he entered the race.
It would be a stunning turn of events for those of us expecting a long primary. But as the philosopher Yogi Berra said, sometimes “It gets late early out here.”
There’s certainly no guarantee this will happen. Heaven knows, Biden does not inspire a lot of confidence. He’s like a baseball pitcher that makes fans bite their nails all game, yet somehow seems to win.
But when you consider that, rather than barnstorming Iowa, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are likely to be holed up in Washington trying to impeach Trump (serving “jury duty” as some are calling it)—and that Biden managed to escape this final pre-caucus debate uncontested and unscathed—the notion that Joe could run away with this nomination is becoming a more plausible scenario.