As we go to the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit,
it is becoming evident that frontrunner Joe Biden is at a critical
moment in his long quest, begun in 1986, to occupy the White
House and lead the nation.
Mr.Biden has been on the national stage for a very long time, first
elected to the U.S. senate in 1972, the youngest person to ever serve
in that body. By 1987, he had announced his first run for the
presidency, but it was short-lived when he developed a
life-threatening double aneurism. When he recovered, he returned
to the senate and became, at different times, chairman of the
important judiciary and foreign relations committees. In 2008, he
made a second presidential run, also unsuccessful, but the eventual
Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, did choose him to be his vice
presidential running mate. For eight years he was U.S. vice president,
but following a family tragedy, decided not to run for president in
2016, although he likely would have been eventual nominee Hillary
Clinton’s most formidable rival.
Her major rival, in fact, became self-styled socialist Senator Bernie
Sanders who lost, but managed to draw much of the party activist
base to the left, especially in the ensuing 2018 mid-term elections
in which the Democrats won back control of the U.S. house.
Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in an upset
that has sent shock waves through both major political parties.
President Trump has now solidified his support in the Republican
Party as he heads toward his re-election campaign, but the
Democratic Party is only united in its fervent opposition to Mr.
Trump --- otherwise it is divided between traditional liberals and
more radical “progressives.” Mr. Biden has emerged as the
standard bearer of the former --- while Mr. Sanders (who is back
for another try) has had to share the leadership of the latter with
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, as well as Mayor
Pete Buttigieg and others in the historically large field of more than
As might have been predicted, Mr. Biden was a target in the first
debate, especially by Senator Harris, and his debate performance
at best was lackluster. Nevertheless, he has maintained a lead in
most polls, albeit understandably somewhat reduced as voters
have been able to observe the other candidates, most of whom were
largely unknown nationally.
Mr. Sanders, who also has a big existing national Democratic voter
base, also has seen his numbers decline a bit. He remains a major
contender along with Senators Warren and Harris --- and Mayor
Buttigieg. A “second tier” of candidates includes Julian Castro and
Beto O’Rourke --- and perhaps Cory Booker and Tulsi Gabbard ---
with about two dozen other candidates so far trailing in the polls.
Although some in the media have suggested that the Biden and
Sanders campaigns appear to be in some decline, I continue to
point out that each of them have loyal voter bases that just might
defy some pessimistic pundit prognostications.
The challenge for Biden and Sanders --- and all of their rivals --- is
somehow to maintain voter interest for the next seven months until
actual voting takes place in the caucuses and primaries. They must
also do this with their eventual opponent currently in the White
House. Not only does Donald Trump have the “bully pulpit,” but
he has demonstrated a certain mastery of stealing media attention
(even though much of the media is hostile to him).
One Democratic strategy has been to keep alive old allegations
from 2016 (e.g. The Mueller Report), and to press for impeachment
proceedings in the U.S. house. “Old pros” such as Speaker Nancy
Pelosi and Joe Biden so far have seen these tactics as self-defeating,
inasmuch as the voting public (especially undecided voters) seems
to have moved on to 2020 issues.
Nevertheless, Joe Biden has issues to face, including his age and the
charge that he wants to return to a pre-Trump era. Should these
issues take hold, his frontrunning position could be vulnerable ---
and one or more of the other candidates could overtake him.
After a disastrous first debate with Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan
used his own age the basis of a comeback in their next 1984 debate.
Barack Obama did not have a good first debate with Mitt Romney,
but was able to recover in the next one in 2012.
Joe Biden probably will be a central focus of both evenings of the
next debate in Detroit. How he and his rivals handle this internal
drama could be important --- and should be fascinating to observe.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.