The most noteworthy event at Wednesday night's Democratic debate in Atlanta was something that didn't happen: Nobody did anything to change the fact that former Vice President Joe Biden is the seemingly unshakable front-runner for the nomination of his party.
It's easy to lose sight of how consistent the race has been since Biden announced his candidacy last spring. For all the momentary gyrations along the way, the polls have barely budged in the five months since the first debate. On June 26, Sen. Bernie Sanders stood at 16.9 percent in national polls; today he's at 16.7. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has risen to the top of some Iowa and New Hampshire polls in recent weeks, was at 6.6 in late June; today he's a bit higher at 8 percent. Sen. Kamala Harris was a little higher then (7 percent) than she is now (4.3). Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and most of the other candidates on stage Wednesday night have remained mired around 2 percent since they entered the race. The biggest shift over the past five months has been Elizabeth Warren's surge from 12.8 to 18 percent.
But Joe Biden? The former vice president was at 32 percent on June 26, and today he sits at ... 30.7 percent.
It gives me no great pleasure to point out that Biden remains the overwhelming favorite to win his party's nomination. Biden has never been my favorite Democrat; he certainly wasn't Wednesday night — which happened to be his 77thbirthday — when he struggled, as he always does, to complete coherent sentences. That matters to me. But does it matter to most Democratic primary voters? I see no evidence that it does — any more than it matters that pundits like myself swoon for Harris and Booker and Klobuchar, with their well-formed arguments and turns of phrase, month after month, debate after debate, while they barely manage keep their campaigns running and funded.
I also worry about Biden, in his fragility, fighting and failing to hold his own on a debate stage with Donald Trump repeatedly taunting and insulting him to his face. But what do I know? I thought Hillary Clinton bested Trump hands down all three times they faced off in the fall of 2016, for all the good that it did. Maybe in 2020 it will be enough for the Democratic nominee to be known and familiar, a trusted emissary from the level-headed sobriety of the Obama era, promising a restoration. Heck, maybe it would be enough for the nominee to be anyone other than someone who can be plausibly tarred as a socialist.
Biden had a lot of competition in the “I-am-not-a-socialist” lane in Atlanta. Since Buttigieg jumped in the polls after breaking to the center in October's debate, Booker has gotten back in touch with his inner neoliberal. Now Booker, Klobuchar, Harris, and Mayor Pete are all vying either to knock Biden out of contention and take his place as King of the Centrists — or to serve as his understudy, waiting patiently for an act of self-destruction that could come at any time.
The need to become The One Who Can Step Into Biden's Shoes, combined with Buttigieg catapulting himself into the lead in the first two states to vote, set up what many commentators expected to be a tense evening, with several candidates gunning for Mayor Pete. It never happened. Aside from one testy exchange with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard toward the end of the debate, Buttigieg kept his powder dry, and none of the others did much to touch him. It was a civil and somewhat bland night overall, with each candidate working to stand out individually while avoiding nasty confrontations.
The one exception was Booker's indignant attack on Biden for supposedly opposing the legalization of marijuana (based on recent reported comments). Never mind that Booker has made high-minded, somewhat sanctimonious appeals for intra-party comity during previous debates when tempers have run a little hot. This time Booker was a man of passion and commitment, eager to slap Biden for failing to realize the impact of illegal pot on minority communities. Unfortunately for Booker, Biden kept his cool and calmly explained that, whatever he was quoted as saying a few days ago, he supports decriminalizing marijuana and expunging drug arrests from the records of those who've been unfairly caught up in the drug war.
What does Biden really believe on the subject? I wish I knew. What I do know is that Biden's somewhat clumsy bob and weave left Booker looking like a man caught overacting in a repertory theater production.
And so it went, with every candidate playing to type. Warren talked with fire in her eyes about all the amazing things she'll do with the money she takes from rich people. Sanders sounded just as angry and disgusted with American capitalism as he always does. Buttigieg looked like a guy who'll run a very effective campaign for president 15 years from now. Harris, Klobuchar, and Booker seemed frustrated at their inability to make any headway.
And Joe Biden kept right on winning, despite himself.
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