None of that — a normal presidency — is possible without the selection of a viable Democratic nominee. (With Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declaring himself uninterested and former Ohio governor John Kasich declaring he doesn’t see a path for himself in a GOP primary, the chances for a competitive primary challenger are fading.)
The latest Morning Consult poll shows former vice president Joe Biden retains his huge lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — 38 percent to 19 percent overall, 40 percent to 18 percent in early primary states. Democratic voters like Biden (76 percent approval) and trust him. Unless he stumbles in the debates or makes some other horrendous error — and maybe not even then — he might not break a sweat in tallying up wins in the early primary states. That’s why Sanders is harshly attacking Biden, and why the most progressive activists are getting nervous.
If Biden is to be beaten, there is a strong case to be made that it won’t be by Sanders, whose decision simply to rerun his 2016 campaign has cost him momentum and enthusiasm. If Democrats are going to go with an older white guy, they might as well pick someone whom Trump won’t bludgeon as a socialist.
Chances are that if progressives are going to take down Biden, they will have to rally behind one of three contenders — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) or South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Warren has carved out a distinct third-place spot in polling and has adeptly distinguished herself as the candidate “with a plan for that” — “that” meaning just about every challenge facing the United States. The debates will test her ability to defend herself without sounding defensive and alleviate concerns that she won’t be able to stand up to Trump’s bullying.
Harris already has shown that she’s no pushover, but the debates will require her to sharpen her policy proposals and avoid the mushy “we should discuss that" sort of answers. Unless she displays verbal precision and offers more definitive statements on issues such as health care, she will be overshadowed by Warren and the candidate whose verbal acuity is unmatched, Buttigieg.
Buttigieg has mesmerized audiences and the media with his intellect and wit. However, quick answers delivered off-the-cuff can also prove problematic (e.g. declaring that the Senate shouldn’t have pushed out Al Franken). Not all of Buttigieg’s clever ideas — e.g., selecting Republican and Democratic Supreme Court justices and then letting them pick the remainder (!) — are going to hold up under scrutiny. (On the court, the problem is that the justices already appear too overtly partisan.) However, in a debate, he can deliver a quick précis on foreign policy, show his comfort level with technology and make a good case that the baby boomers have sufficiently screwed up government to deserve a gold watch and a shove out the door. There is arguably more upside and more downside in the debates for him than any other contender.
Two things are for certain. First, the longer the field remains huge, the better for Biden, who sails above the blur of lesser-knowns. Second, Biden very well might not beat himself, as the pundits expected; a not-Biden competitor is going to have to take it from him, and at this point it’s far from clear who’s best positioned to do that.