I can’t believe it either but it’s true. Three farking hours, no less, aired live on PBS and CNN (and their online platforms, of course). Somehow this interminable primary not only isn’t over, it really hasn’t even begun: We’re still just far enough from the Iowa caucus that it’s possible the eventual winner hasn’t made his or her big move in the polls yet.
To make matters drearier, the state of the race remains static. Biden leads the national polls, Buttigieg is narrowly ahead in Iowa, New Hampshire appears to be a free-for-all. Nothing has changed — well, almost nothing. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
This debate is noteworthy both for the size of the field and its, er … hue. Just seven candidates made the cut and two of them, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang, have no shot. Really this is a debate between the four who’ve made up the top tier for many months plus Amy Klobuchar, who seems forever poised to break out as an acceptable centrist alternative to the flawed Biden and Buttigieg but never quite does. Six of tonight’s seven candidates are white, with Yang the only exception, and five of them are male. Cory Booker and Julian Castro lobbied the DNC hard to tweak the criteria so that they’d make the cut, but even in an ostentatiously woke party, rules are rules.
What’s on the agenda tonight? Impeachment, of course, although the candidates’ feelings about that will be predictable and uniform. (Be on the lookout for juror bias in the answers from Sanders, Warren, and Klobuchar, since Nancy Pelosi seems so concerned about that.) There’ll also be a tedious exploration of just how much of a compromised corporate sellout Buttigieg is based on his time working for McKinsey, followed by a similar tu-quoque exploration of how compromised Warren is by her early corporate legal work. Then Warren will do a tapdance routine via her position on Medicare for All, slipping pleasing but misleading jargon about “choice” in there which Buttigieg will eagerly pounce on. Lotta Buttigieg vs. Warren brawling tonight is what I’m telling you.
As for poor Joe Biden, he’ll aim to put together three coherent sentences during hour three of the debate, which is when he usually fades. Hopefully he avoids addressing anyone as “fat.”
All of this sounds familiar by now in this, the 10,000th month of the Democratic primary. So what did I mean up top when I said that something had changed? Well, if you look at the polling, there’s a candidate who’s in the top two in both Iowa and New Hampshire, has high name recognition, a devoutly loyal base, and yet has often gone overlooked over the past few months amid the rise and fall of Warren and the rise and not-yet-fall of Pete Buttigieg. That would be Bernie Sanders, of course, who’s supposed to be too old, too sick, and too radical to win yet presently stands a very credible chance of winning all three early states (Nevada being the third). He nearly won Iowa in 2016, after all, and ran away with New Hampshire. If he won both this time, boosted by a migration of progressive voters from Warren’s camp to his, and then claimed Nevada, could anyone stop him from winning the nomination in a runaway? Don’t sleep on Bernie, warned Sean Trende in a piece a few days ago:
That brings us to Super Tuesday. Again, this is often held up as a firewall for Biden, given the number of African American-heavy Southern states that will be holding their elections that first Tuesday in March. There is a point here: If Biden performs well in South Carolina, he will likely be expected to hold his own in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Those are not, however, the only states holding primaries on March 3. Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Utah and, of course, Vermont, are all Sanders-friendly states where he performed well four years ago. Some of those were caucus states in 2016 but will be holding primaries this time around. The main prize is California, where Sanders and Biden are currently neck-and-neck. On top of all of this is the wild card of Michael Bloomberg, who will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to siphon off the voters Biden needs to win; even breaking off 5% of them could be sufficient to derail the front-runner.
If Bernie swept Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, would Biden’s lead in South Carolina even hold?
The rest of the field is reluctant to hit Sanders because his fans are so committed that, even if the attack succeeds in knocking him back in the polls, progressives might be so alienated that they’d boycott the eventual nominee in the general election next fall. But time is short, especially for Warren given her polling slide. Maybe Biden will do her dirty work for her: He’s been eager lately to say that AOC’s brand of politics isn’t the future of the party and to point out that the sort of Bernie-esque radicalism exhibited by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain has just delivered five years of Trumpy governance by Boris Johnson there. Nominate a socialist and you’ll get a right-wing nationalist as president, Biden will say tonight. To which Bernie will reply: We nominated a centrist instead of a socialist in 2016 and we got a right-wing nationalist as president anyway. Hmmm.
In the end, the only points everyone onstage will agree on is that Pelosi was right to impeach Trump and that Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan is garbage and electoral poison. Well … I guess Warren won’t agree with that, but you know what I mean. Here’s your thread to comment if you’re watching.