The Morning Jolt


It’s Debate Night Again. Try to Control Your Excitement.

The audience listens during the. Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Democrats hold another debate tonight, showcasing a colossally mismanaged process that has done little to serve viewers at home, undecided primary voters, or the candidates themselves; taking bets on whether Tulsi Gabbard rips Hillary Clinton a new one this evening; why so many presidential candidates seem like hapless “nice guys” looking for a date; and why this allegedly dramatic and historical impeachment process is changing zero minds.

It’s Safe to Say Some Candidates Will Drop Out Soon, but the Rest Still Have the Same Issues

Brace yourselves, America: There’s another Democratic presidential debate tonight.

This is the seventh night that Democratic candidates have gathered for a nationally televised debate, and that stage still has ten people running for president on it. If you’ve watched them all, you’ve watched 15 hours of arguments about whether critics of Medicare for All were too timid, which candidate was most upset about the president’s latest outrage, preplanned one-liners from Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden trying to finish a sentence with the same thought that he began with moments earlier.

Candidates who didn’t qualify for tonight’s debate, I’m sorry to be the one break it to you, but it’s just not happening for you this cycle. You can keep running, but I imagine at this point these candidates must feel like ethereal ghosts — they can see everything happening around them, but no one seems to hear them, almost no one seems to see them, they cannot tangibly alter what’s going on around them, and they rarely show up in photographs or on video.

Maryland representative John Delaney, you showed a bit of common sense by urging Democrats to not take away health insurance from people who are currently happy with what they’ve got. Montana governor Steve Bullock, Democrats would be wise to listen to you about the value in treating red-state voters with respect instead of contempt. HUD Secretary Julian Castro, you almost seem to have been mistreated, to be so built up as the candidate of tomorrow in past cycles and then so largely ignored in this one. Retired admiral Joe Sestak, a better Democratic Party would at least have given you a serious look. Marianne Williamson, you were always riveting, and many of us share your worries about the soul of the country. May the Force be with you.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet . . . you were there, too.

The two new candidates — Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick — also won’t be on stage tonight. Bloomberg is probably walking around with a checkbook, ready to ask Tom Steyer who he has to pay to buy a space on the next debate stage. Steyer’s run spent about $47 million through September 30, mostly on television ads in the early states, which has been just good enough to meet the DNC’s debate thresholds in early polls.

To get on stage in December — a debate held six days before Christmas, because the Democratic National Committee is run by morons — the new guys will need to hit four percent in at least four national or early-state polls and have 200,000 unique donors. These guys shouldn’t be so convinced that if they qualify for that next debate stage, they’ll take off like a rocket. Does anybody think we’re one breakout moment away from Amy Klobuchar turning this whole race upside down? Cory Booker’s been fine in all of his debate performances, but none of them have moved the needle.

Who are these debates for, and what are they intended to do? If you’re an undecided Democratic primary voter who’s watching at home, you probably want to know what makes each candidate distinct. Viewers need to see how the candidates differ, and that inevitably means arguing — you know, a debate. The moment Booker jumps in with his usual, “why are we fighting amongst ourselves, that’s just what the Republicans want!” everyone should turn in unison and tell him to grow up. If you want the status quo, let everyone hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” If you’re one of the trailing candidates, you have to say, “I am a better choice than the frontrunner, and here’s why.”

Except . . . who is the frontrunner? I’d argue it’s still Joe Biden. A lot of rival campaigns and other Democrats are acting like Biden’s campaign has collapsed, except it hasn’t collapsed. He’s still doing okay in Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s still got a lead in Nevada, and a big lead in South Carolina.

It’s not difficult to picture to Biden hanging on and ending with the most delegates, because the rest of the field prematurely turned their attacks towards Elizabeth Warren or even Pete Buttigieg, as he appears to be leading in Iowa now. Earlier this week, this newsletter noted that the 15 to 20 percent of Democrats who are still with Bernie Sanders are probably not jumping off the bandwagon anytime soon; they stuck with him through a heart attack. Those 20 to 25 percent of Democrats currently sticking with Biden have endured lousy debate performances, a parade of his usual gaffes, minimal interviews, and campaign events, really “meh” fundraising numbers. If those folks were inclined to jump off the bandwagon, they probably would have done it by now. They’re not looking for a reason to bail. They’re convinced he’s the safest bet and they’re going to ride that horse as far as it can take them.

Could Biden have some moment where he seems so out of it that even his diehard supporters jump ship? Sure. To the extent these nights have any drama, that’s a big part of it.

At Least We Still Have Tulsi Gabbard to Make Tonight Interesting

One of the late surprises — and from where I sit, a pleasant one — is that Tulsi Gabbard qualified for tonight’s debate. The Hawaii congresswoman is understandably livid about Hillary Clinton’s contention that she’s being groomed by either the Russians or the Republican Party and that she’s prepping for a third-party presidential campaign. None of the other candidates will want to go anywhere near this fight, but it’s quite possible that on prime-time television, Gabbard will drag out an uncomfortable truth: since her brutally disappointing defeat in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton has more or less gone nuts. She’s contended white husbands pressure their wives to vote for Republicans, white sons pressure their mothers, and white male bosses pressure their employees to vote for the GOP. She claims “voter suppression” is the single-biggest reason she lost. She’s theorized that “if President Obama had made a televised address to the nation in the fall of 2016 warning that our democracy was under attack, maybe more Americans would have woken up to the threat in time.” She’s also blamed the media, James Comey, Bernie Sanders, Russia, Jill Stein, sexism, and racism.

We can all laugh at this epic-scale blame-throwing, but there’s a consequence to Clinton’s periodic scapegoating outbursts. All around the world, authoritarians like Putin and Xi Jinping are arguing that democracies and free societies don’t really work as well as they think they do. Free societies get paralyzed by division, because squabbling factions refuse to accept the legitimacy of any election they lose. They choose to believe farfetched conspiracy theories to explain away any loss, sow anger and resentment, demonize their domestic political opponents, and reject any compromise with an obviously malevolent opposition. The Putins of the world contend that only strong leaders, with far-reaching powers and unquestioned authorities, can build stable societies.

The great irony is that Hillary Clinton has become exactly what she warned about on the campaign trail in 2016, and a lot of Democrats are not as far away from Trump’s worst habits as they like to believe. They have their own conspiracy theories, their own angry demonization of opponents, and their own contentions that the opposition’s election victories aren’t really legitimate.

The Troubled Candidacies of ‘Nice Guys’

Back in 2012, Cracked writer David Wong offered a bit of relationship advice to young men who found it difficult to find a girlfriend, despite the empirically-verified self-assessment that they are “nice guys.”

Don’t complain about how girls fall for jerks; they fall for those jerks because those jerks have other things they can offer. “But I’m a great listener!” Are you? Because you’re willing to sit quietly in exchange for the chance to be in the proximity of a pretty girl (and spend every second imagining how soft her skin must be)? Well, guess what, there’s another guy in her life who also knows how to do that, and he can play the guitar. Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick. You’re like a new movie whose title is This Movie Is in English, and its tagline is “The actors are clearly visible.”

Both the 2016 Republican presidential primary and the 2020 Democratic presidential primary offer a wide selection of candidates who are the equivalent of “nice guys.” They were perfectly fine senators, governors, members of the House. (You could make a case that some of my favorite options from four years ago were in this category — Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio.) But running for president is different, particularly in a crowded field of other perfectly fine senators, governors, members of the House.

You’ve got an ambitious plan for urban housing? Terrific, so does everybody else. (Notice Democrats aren’t nearly as focused on helping small towns and rural America.)

Every Democratic candidate is outraged by the actions of President Trump, supportive of abortion rights; deeply concerned about climate change and promising bold action to address it; determined to rebuild our alliances while simultaneously avoiding war and bringing our troops home; eager to raise taxes on the rich; ready to have the government take a much bigger role in providing health care while promising no delays, quality care, and no premiums, copays, or deductibles; deeply alarmed about white privilege; and planning to completely overhaul a criminal justice system they’ve deemed racist and prejudiced. Almost all of them want to offer taxpayer-funded health care to those in the country illegally, decriminalize crossing the border, and want to at minimum, completely reform how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates, if not abolish it entirely. All of them want to enact sweeping gun control proposals in one form or another. All of them think Trump’s tariffs are a terrible idea but that they will somehow enact a completely different form of “fair trade.” All of them lament “our crumbling roads and bridges” that were supposed to be fixed by the stimulus and the past few big transportation bills and promise a vast new infrastructure spending initiative.

All of the above makes a Democratic candidate the equivalent of a “nice guy” on the dating scene. That’s nice, what else do you have?

ADDENDA: Why I’m not riveted by the impeachment hearings, as summarized by two quotes that other morning newsletter run by Politico:

Quote one: “As of right now, every single Republican would vote against impeachment in the House, multiple senior-level GOP lawmakers and aides told us.”

Quote two: “Despite what Speaker Nancy Pelosi says publicly, every single Democrat we speak to is completely certain that they will impeach Trump. No more facts are needed, they say.”

Whatever impeachment is supposed to be, it has turned into just another partisan battle — just like our Supreme Court confirmation hearings, almost all of our legislation, most of our national security discussions, most of our efforts regarding the economy . . .


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