If you approach watching the typical presidential primary debate, from either party, as one who appreciates the controvertible arts and is therefore looking forward to a skilled display of argumentative reasoning and the cut-and-thrust of intellectual warfare, you will be deeply disappointed, profoundly bored, and possibly compelled to weep at the reductionism you just witnessed.
If, on the other hand, you approach it, drink and snacks in hand, as a theatrical exercise, an entertaining display of political maneuvering judged on skillful application of oratory, rather than polemical, talents – rather as a serious watcher of sit-coms might evaluate the skill with which an actor pulls off a particular gag – then you will have a far more satisfying time of it.
The first round of Democratic presidential primary debates a couple weeks back didn’t reveal much of substance, but did manage to highlight the particular rhetorical skills, or lack thereof, of several of the participants. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the clear winner of the warm-up round, presenting terrible ideas more ably than the rest. But the main event, especially for Centennial State observers, was the second night.
It was billed, accurately, as something of a showdown between former VP Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Comrade Bernie Sanders. Sanders, for his part, seemed like he was just getting tired of the whole thing, and came across more than ever like the cantankerous crazy uncle. I was reminded, in more than one way, of the succession of aging Soviet leaders in the pre-Gorbachev years.
Harris was clearly the most skilled on that stage and managed to do exactly what she needed to, which was to catch Biden flat-footed. Her resurrection of the busing issue did it marvelously.
It was a brilliant play. Whether she was right or wrong on the policy was immaterial — school desegregation was a long-overdue correction of a shameful Jim Crow-era relic, but forced integration through busing was far more controversial and unpopular, even among blacks, for a variety of reasons. Biden’s arguments against certain components of the policy at the time were entirely valid.
But few remember the policy details of that particular contention. Biden was prepared to deflect attacks related to his recent statement about being able to work with even segregationist members of Congress; he was utterly unprepared to field challenges about his stated positions on a 40-year-old policy matter. What made the play so brilliant was two-fold: since not many people are up to speed on the details, Harris owned the issue, succeeding in implicitly tying Biden to suggestions of racism. Secondly, the very fact that he could be held to account for positions he took 40 years ago effectively fed the narrative that Biden is well past his prime and should make way for a younger candidate. Brilliant.
For Coloradans a significant sideshow was the appearance of Sen. Michael Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper on the stage. Bennet’s performance was as inconsequential as his presidential campaign, and one is left suspecting that the whole thing is just a way to keep his name floating about and provide a decent fundraising base for his re-election run in 2022.
Hickenlooper, on the other hand, gives the impression that against all reason he is actually serious about running for the White House. On paper, there was, actually, a path, albeit a faint and difficult one. For starters, he was a governor; it is generally true, in my estimation, that governors make better presidents than senators, and if you listened carefully his executive experience came through. He is also running as the lone moderate in a field where the rest are increasingly trying to out-batty one another. His plan, one presumes, was to split the far-left vote and be the only sane person standing.
But his party is not taking the bait. Granted, Biden took from him some of the moderate energy, though he is doing his level best to discard it. Still, the appetite within today’s Democratic Party seems to incline toward a more extremist flavor, and Hickenlooper is being left by the wayside.
Unfortunately for him, he cannot yet see that. Many (myself included) had always assumed that the endgame was to pivot to the Senate race; that may still be his ultimate move, though firing his entire campaign staff, who dutifully and responsibly suggested he do just that, indicates that he has let his Oval Office fantasy overcome his reason. It may be at the point now where he has damaged himself too badly to credibly make the jump into the crowded pool challenging Sen. Cory Gardner. He might be better off putting himself out there as a spokesman for what remains of the sane wing of his party, because there is nobody left currently speaking for the moderate Democrats.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.