Last week’s debate among 12 Democratic candidates for President left me with two contradictory conclusions: The Democratic Party has a wealth of talented potential leaders. But I can’t quite imagine any of them in the White House facing down the president of Russia, bargaining with a recalcitrant congressman for his vote or sitting in the situation room ordering an assassination—the kinds of awful but necessary things that presidents do.
The field is split between three septuagenarians (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) and several intelligent future leaders a generation or more younger. There are also several who shouldn’t be on the stage at all; they are apparently running for vice president or secretary of defense or chair of the Democratic Party, offices they may actually obtain due to competent debate performances.
As far as serious presidential contenders go, it seems to me there were really three and a half, or more realistically two and a half, candidates on the stage.
The real leverage belongs to Biden, the centrist carrier of the Barrack Obama flag, and Warren, the ideological revolutionary. Biden’s tongue-tied, folksy, hail-fellow-well-met style is counterpoint to Warren’s articulate, take-no-prisoners intensity. Ah, if we only had a candidate who combined the virtues of both—but we don’t.
Sanders,who three years ago pioneered the politics of revolution that Warren now shares, was a member of the top trio until his heart attack this month caused many of his supporters to drift over to Warren. Their addition to her previous support has enabled Warren to emerge as a leading candidate in the field, topping even Biden in some national polls as well as in state polls in New England and the Middle West.
The half in my two and a half is Pete Buttigieg, who has managed to jump from being mayor of a small, poor industrial backwater in an overwhelmingly Republican state to an almost-serious candidate for the the nation’s highest office.
His fundraising is phenomenally successful, his crowds are good, his speeches are well crafted, his debate performance is commendable and his campaign strategy is skillful. His polling, however, remains in the cellar.
He has done so well primarily on the back of intellect. The guy is smart, nimble and well informed.
He is also full of contradictions: a gay war veteran, an activist intellectual, a progressive conservative (or conservative progressive), a midwesterner who graduated from Harvard and Oxford, a mayor of a deeply troubled city who can’t cure its its social dysfunction but distinguishes himself by confessing his inability. He manages to be self-confident without arrogance, modest without hiding his talent beneath a bushel, in the Biblical metaphor.
Despite his newfound aggressiveness in attacking Biden, Warren and, strangely, Beto O’Rourke, it is almost impossible to dislike this guy. But for him to make such a leap while still in his 30s stretches credulity. He could make a terrific vice president, however, and use the post for on-on-the-job training for the day when he does become president.
The greatest disappointment of this and previous debates is O’Rourke, the Texas wunderkind who almost vaulted in 2018 from obscurity to the U.S. Senate in profoundly red Texas. This guy, too, is smart, likable, formidably articulate and more than competent, but for reasons I don’t understand his presidential campaign foundered from the get-go. I wish he’d make another run in Texas for the Senate; he has ruled it out, but he wouldn’t be the first politician to change his mind.
Among the dozen candidates on stage, each seemed to have some interesting virtues—with one exception. Tulsi Gabbard, a young congresswoman form Hawaii, keeps referring contemptuously to the complex conflict in Syria as “this regime-change war.” In fact, she is a supporter of the brutal Assad regime, which has nearly destroyed its own country with a combination of torture, poison gas, mass murder and urban bombing.
The three-hour debate was too long with too many candidates rehearsing too many lines they had already used too often. I look forward to February when real people—the voters—get a chance to chime in. In the meantime, events beyond the control of candidates, be they heart attacks, impeachment or foreign wars, will be in the saddle.