By Dave Krieger
We watched the season of televised debates with hope, my son and I. At least, in the beginning.
Adding Colorado to the list of Super Tuesday states offered us a chance to cast votes that might matter, albeit in a Rube Goldberg-inspired candidate selection process that seems more outdated with each passing election cycle. Still, we wanted to do the necessary scouting.
As the Democrats’ chorus line was winnowed, inexplicably, to a belated sequel for “Grumpy Old Men,” (Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, 1993) hope turned to fear and then to despair, if not loathing, not so much for the surviving candidates as the fatuous television news personalities determined to turn each episode into a food fight.
The candidates mostly obliged, so yeah, it’s on them, too. Politics 101: You don’t have to answer the question if it’s insipid.
We lived for the rare immortal moments, like Joe Biden’s plaintive wail from South Carolina, halting in mid-argument and shouting, apparently to the heavens, “Why am I stopping?”
Without his television makeup, the former vice president, at 77, sometimes resembles a White Walker from Game of Thrones. Remarkably, at the debate in Nevada, with four men on stage, he was able to claim, truthfully, that he and Pete Buttigieg were the two youngest of that group (Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders are 78).
The relative success of Buttigieg is the best measure of the weakness of the field. He ran for state treasurer of Indiana and lost by 25 points. He ran for Democratic National Committee chair and dropped out to avoid finishing third in a field of three.
In what world is the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., population 102,000, or roughly the size of Boulder, a serious presidential candidate? In what world is he qualified for the job?
Ours, apparently. The Democratic field looks like a baseball team that failed to invest in its farm system. Grizzled old veterans, well past their prime, still hold down starting jobs. Green draft picks just out of high school are prematurely pushed onto the field.
The players in the prime of their careers? A wasteland.
Colorado’s Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper exemplified the inability of candidates in the blandest generation to gain any traction at all. While they were among the most hapless, they were hardly alone. From Kamala Harris to Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker to Jay Inslee, Julián Castro to Steve Bullock, candidates that looked good on paper couldn’t perform on the field.
If you thought the motley crew left a wide-open lane for the largest field of female presidential candidates in history, you were not alone.
Harris resembled an initial public offering in the stock market, soaring and crashing before anybody got a chance to vote. Tulsi Gabbard trashed her own candidacy with a bizarre Cruella de Vil impression. Marianne Williamson made Buttigieg look qualified.
Of the charisma-free players in the prime of their careers, Amy Klobuchar did the best. Still, if you asked me after all these debates what Amy for America stands for, other than, you know, Amy, and America, I could not tell you.
At the risk of torturing the metaphor, if this were baseball, Elizabeth Warren would be the best player on the field by all the advanced metrics.
At 70, she is relatively old for a presidential nominee, but grading on a curve, she has the most youthful energy on stage, not counting the Boy Scout. She’s also younger than the incumbent, which is more than the Grumpy Old Men can say.
Warren’s political skill set — intelligence, empathy, eloquence, personal energy — is major-league. Her knowledge and experience make her a plausible president, although the incumbent may have taken plausibility off the menu. Her town halls are as close as we come to Oprah running, a reform narrative interlaced with a series of personal connections. She was so effective in the debates at taking down the cowardice of caution that she may have done Sanders more good than she did herself. My son called her Bernie’s heat shield.
She has a coherent narrative — that our economic system has been corrupted for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy, to the detriment of racial and social justice. She believes in markets regulated by government, which is the way it’s supposed to work. There are no markets without rules. When greed gets the upper hand, as it does periodically, humans being humans, the people must produce leaders to take on the oligarchs. During the first Gilded Age, along came Theodore Roosevelt.
Will we choose someone who can rise to the occasion this time? Her record suggests Warren is up to the task: She was right and Obama was wrong about the perils of letting Wall Street off the hook for the financial crisis. She is already detailing how a coronavirus health crisis could metastasize into a global economic crisis. She is by far the most capable of the candidates to understand that nexus.
Unfortunately, there are no advanced metrics in politics, no real analytics, just interminable subjective burbling from the same set of overpaid talking heads.
They posed dozens of questions about Medicare-for-all to get the candidates squabbling and turn soporific policy talk into good TV. The candidates were stunningly susceptible to this cable news trick and set upon each other like White House aides competing for the Dear Leader’s attention.
Climate change? Barely came up. No obvious differences for the moderators to exploit. You understand.
To her credit, Klobuchar mentioned several times, out loud, that there was no chance — none — of Medicare-for-all becoming law during the next presidential term if Congress has anything to say about it, which it does. Even if they control both chambers, Democrats would be lucky to pass a public option, something they failed to do a decade ago, if the names Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and Joe Manchin ring a bell. But the debate moderators wanted fireworks and the candidates had talking points, so Klobuchar’s reality check made no difference at all.
Warren got trapped in this pointless debate, first advocating the thing that won’t happen, then kinda, sorta walking it back. If she fails to relaunch on Super Tuesday and her campaign crashes, cable news, which insisted on the delusional debate, will probably blame it for taking her down.
Luckily, Sanders, who just had a heart attack and won’t release his medical records, is eligible for Medicare already. His relentless if humorless advocacy of a 1960s-style political revolution that would get no support from many congressional Democrats has made him the darling of the woke and, going into Super Tuesday, the front-runner for the nomination.
This is causing great concern in the Clinton and Obama orbits, which, sadly, have become the same thing. From James Carville to David Axelrod, old white guys are all over the airwaves warning us this is the wrong old white guy.
Sanders’ early wins in New Hampshire and Nevada also trouble disaffected Republicans, who want to vote against the incumbent but would lose their places in the Federalist Society if they voted for an avowed democratic socialist. Having stood by as their party morphed from pro-plutocracy to pro-oligarchy, they now seek to bring their magic formula to the other party as well.
This is where Bloomberg comes in. A Republican plutocrat who changed registration once to curry favor with New Yorkers and then again to see if he could buy the presidency, he wants Democrats to support a candidate who helped fund Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump’s most sycophantic enabler in the Senate.
For a little while, it looked as if carpet bombing the Super Tuesday states with hundreds of millions of ad dollars would do the trick. Alas, when all that spending finally got him on the debate stage, Warren eviscerated him with rhetorical swordplay they’ll be showing in debate prep for years. Since then, if the polls are to be believed, the odds of two Republican plutocrats facing off in November have grown longer.
Perhaps most important, Sanders is of deep concern to the mainstream news media, which react indignantly whenever he calls them the corporate media, which is often. The cable news talking heads cringe every time he mentions the 1 percent, many of them being members.
Speaking of past their prime, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 74, was so troubled by the prospect of a Sanders nomination that he compared his victory in Nevada to the Nazis’ defeat of France in World War II. Reminded that Sanders is Jewish, and that members of his father’s family were killed in the Holocaust, Matthews gurgled it back a few days later.
Here’s the extent of political analytics available on cable news: CNN’s Van Jones, who was 4 at the time, argues that the election of 1972, in which Richard Nixon crushed George McGovern, is a cautionary tale for Democrats this time around. Go too far left, Jones and many other talking heads warn, Democrats will lose suburban white women and Trump will breeze to re-election, just as Nixon did.
To contest this analysis is not necessarily to advocate Democrats nominate a 78-year-old who makes Larry David look cheerful. It is possible to find the Jones analysis superficial and also think mentioning Fidel Castro’s good points on 60 Minutes is not something a smart politician would do.
Consider the analytic quality of this analogy: A single data point, from 48 years ago, in a country that was 88% white, in the midst of the Vietnam War and a generational culture clash, is all you need to know about the election of 2020.
As long as we’re in the Wayback Machine, let me offer an alternative data point. Would this be too incendiary for today’s talking heads?
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”
How about this:
“We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
Three days after speaking these words, Franklin Roosevelt won re-election by the biggest landslide in presidential history. They came from a speech in which he proposed a Second New Deal that promised universal rights to education, employment, fair pay, decent working conditions, collective bargaining, and protections for the old and disabled.
This data point is no more precise an analogue than 1972. It was the eighth year of the Great Depression and FDR was one of the most talented politicians in American history, as publicly cheerful as Sanders is angry. On the other hand, Sanders is a far more compelling candidate on the stump than McGovern was. It’s worth remembering that McGovern entered national politics as a stand-in for Bobby Kennedy and won the nomination only after Edmund Muskie’s campaign imploded. He was nobody’s definition of charismatic.
Flip the mainstream analysis on its head. Consider all the moderate, next-in-line Democrats, the Bidens of their day, who have lost since McGovern: Mondale, Gore, Kerry, Hillary.
The future is unknowable. Cable news pundits are paid to pretend they know. They don’t. The most we can say is the available data points are mixed. They suggest the quality of the candidate, the mood of the country, the state of the economy, may all be more important than ideology.
I’ll vote for whomever the Democrats nominate, but I think three Grumpy Old Men at the head of the line is a problem. Having been unemployed in my 60s, I’m acutely aware that age discrimination is real, but it strikes me that choosing a leader of the free world who is bumping up against the actuarial life expectancy of his species is a valid concern.
Mercifully, the time has finally come to make a choice, at least on the first pass. My son and I agree on one thing: We’re not voting on the basis of “electability” because nobody knows. The idea in an early primary is to pick the person you think would make the best president among the available alternatives. For better or worse, these are the choices we’ve got.
My son and his girlfriend dropped off their ballots marked for Sanders a couple days after receiving them in the mail. If the latest poll got it right, Bernie will win Colorado going away.
My son tells me that his grandmother on his mother’s side told him she’s voting for “the one with all the money.” His mom, he says, was on Biden early but as he shed his front-runner status she began considering Buttigieg.
I was with Warren early, looked around as she slipped in polls and early balloting, then resubscribed following her inspired debate performance in Nevada. I dropped off my Warren ballot last week.
There’s an old saying in politics: Vote with your heart in the primary and your head in the general. Eight months out, you’re still allowed to dream.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger