To the extent Joe Biden is capable of actually formulating coherent sentences – a questionable proposition – he delivered an attack last night that Bernie Sanders has never really been forced to contend with during either of his presidential campaigns.
Hillary Clinton was not in a position in 2016 where she had to aggressively attack Bernie. Had she been, she would have almost certainly brought up the fact that he is a self-described ‘socialist’. Of course, that’s common knowledge by now. But it’s a salient point for Bernie’s rivals to press him on, especially considering the overriding concern for Democratic voters at present is ‘electability’. Democratic voters generally like Bernie, but a former vice president insinuating that he’s unelectable due to the ‘socialism’ label could give them pause.
For Bernie’s most committed support base, Biden’s attack won’t make a difference. But Bernie’s challenge is that he must expand his coalition to also encompass a large share of ‘normie Dems’ who don’t share his precise ideological orientation, and Biden might have made that marginally more difficult.
That doesn’t mean Biden himself is inherently ‘electable.’ It’s a good night for him when he only utters fewer than 10 babbling misstatements. But as the minds of Democratic voters are concentrated, the question of whether Bernie’s self-professed ‘socialism’ label has mass appeal in the electorate is going to become more prominent.
The severely overrated moderator Jorge Ramos clearly sensed this potential vulnerability when he goaded Bernie into distinguishing his socialist program from that of Venezuela – only a half-step from the lazy GOP talking point that conflates all notions of ‘socialism’ with one particularly troubled country. Oddly, Ramos forgot to mention that the US has been attempting to overthrow Venezuela’s government for the past eight months, which would seem like a relevant factor to consider. Bernie also conspicuously glided over that pertinent fact. As for Biden, he couldn’t even enunciate the name of Venezuela’s leader properly. ‘Madura?’ He hardly knew ya.
Biden’s continued dissembling on the issue of the Iraq war merited further probing, but the genius moderators opted instead to ask the candidates to opine on their vision of ‘resilience,’ which was basically an invitation for them to deliver their canned stump speech. Last week, Biden told me, ‘Yes, I did oppose the war before it began’ which is so totally false that it almost defies comprehension, and he repeated similarly disingenuous claims last night. But if you thought George Stephanopoulos would be the man to challenge the polling leader on that incredibly significant point, you were sadly mistaken.
The DNC decided it was more important for the nation to hear a non-entity like Amy Klobuchar explain how authentically Midwestern she is for the 800th time than Tulsi Gabbard’s robust foreign policy critique. Tulsi beats Klobuchar in most polls, but the DNC’s transparently arbitrary debate-inclusion criteria meant that the only military veteran on stage was Mayor Pete, whose novelty wore off sometime last spring. He’s rolling in the dough though, so we have many more months of Pete’s platitudes to look forward to. In New Hampshire, Tulsi is ahead of five candidates who have qualified for the debates, but the DNC expects everyone to sit back and accept that her exclusion makes sense by any reasonable standard.
Julian Castro’s swipe at Biden on the issue of age has already consumed the post-debate chatter. It was a bit sleazy, as Castro immediately denied that he was questioning Biden’s cognitive fitness. But everyone watching the debate, including other candidates on stage, got the message. Castro’s sneakiness probably won’t redound much to his personal benefit – he somehow managed to screw up the charge, misrepresenting what Biden actually said about his healthcare plan. But the more that seeds of doubt are planted in the public mind about Biden’s basic aptitude, the more tenuous his standing is. Most of the attacks on Biden haven’t worked, or have backfired. But the cognition issue is so glaringly apparent, that it’s inconceivable voters won’t take notice. At some point. Maybe.
A future President Beto pledges to confiscate legally-acquired guns, a plan that could be implemented peaceably only in some strange alternate universe. If Beto regards his role in the race to enrage the right-wing and appeal strictly to Trump-resisting upper-class liberals, he’s doing a bang-up job. Cory Booker thinks he’s going to enact sweeping structural change through the force of his charismatic personal passion, but Marianne Williamson would be better equipped for that task. Sadly, she was probably off meditating somewhere last night. Warren is getting marginally more evasive with each passing debate, as she courts establishment Democrats for the distinction of left/liberal compromise candidate. (Her blunt answer on Afghanistan, however, was welcome. She’s right to say that no ‘deal’ with the Taliban is required to precipitate a full American withdrawal. That’s just an excuse to justify more war, after 18 years of failure.)
Who won? Who cares. The public looks at these made-for-TV events with well-founded cynicism. The point is not to inform voters, but to entertain in service of ratings. If you found yourself genuinely entertained last night, though, you should probably seek clinical help.